Training for runningRunning is the most natural way of moving the human body besides walking. Running is something many people (without disabilities) have tried out and tested. It is  independent of where you live, of your climate and of your economical situation and available facilities.

Because of this, the level of the running performances is probably higher  than in all other types of sports. You need little or no equipment (there are still many barefoot runners around in the world). Running performances can be measured both relatively and absolutely.

You will  immediately find out how you are doing in a race relative to your competitors, and in some types of races you are also able to compare your performance relative to absolute references like personal best, as well as club, state, national  and world records.

Running is a brutal sport because it is so easy to measure the performance. When a race starts, all competitors start at the same time. This will immediately tell you if you are fast or slow relative to the others in the race. (in cross-country skiing, on the other hand, the skiers normally start every 30 seconds)

Our running competence comes from endurance, say from 1,500m and up. We feel, however that the word endurance is not fully understood by many runners. How many times have you heard runners complain that they have too little speed? Very few, if any, long distance runners need much speed; what they need is more endurance.

Ingrid was probably the “slowest runner in the world” when we talk about speed or sprint talent. She had no chance running a 400m lap under 60 seconds. Some previous coaches had actually laughed at Ingrid’s results in her sprint and elasticity tests. Speed and elasticity have little or very limited importance in long distance running. The important element is endurance, endurance and more endurance.

The main activity for a long distance runner is to run, run and run again. All focus on speed, elasticity and strength is very often over rated. While this type of training can be done in a few minutes daily, we talk about 1-2 hours daily of the main activity: running. It is not the speed that fails when a runner is not able to make the last 100m sprint finish in a 1,500m. track and field race. It is his/her endurance that fails.

Even newer literature and references about the distribution of the aerobic and the anaerobic work requirement in running use wrong and misleading values. The reason is that the old test method,  the Oxygen Debt method, has very large inaccuracies. Newer research have provided a more accurate method, the  Accumulated Oxygen Deficit (AOD). The consequence of this is that the aerobic work content has been underrated up until now.

Energy distribution in %.

DistanceAOD. new methodOld. wrong methodDifference %
400m46 +/-4% aerobic25% aerobic21-25%
800m69 +/-4% aerobic50% aerobic19-23%
1,500m83 +/-3% aerobic65% aerobic18-21%

Sources: AOD data: “Energy system contribution during 400m to 1,500m running, by Matt R. Spencer, Paul B. Gastin and Warren R. Payne. New studies in Athletics, no. 4/1996.

Oxygen debt data: “Keep on running. The Science of Training and Performance”. Eric Newsholme, Tony Leech, Glenda Duester, -1994 -John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

The new data is quite sensational, as it emphasizes the importance of aerobic power not only for long distances, but also for middle distances like 800m and 1,500m. As you can see, the differences between the new and old percentages are large compared to the previous inaccurate data: they are approximately 20%. If you use traditional % calculations on, for example, the 800m, the difference between 69 and 50 is:

(100%/69)*50 = approx 72%, or (100%/50) * 69= approx. 138%. Depending of what number you use as reference, the methods are from 28 to 38% in difference. (i.e. about 30 to 40%)

So the message is very clear to all middle distance runners: Forget about the high risk and painful anaorobic training. As you can see,  it has less importance than earlier believed. Go out in the woods and run more, mostly long runs, plus some intervals and fartleks.

From the same source of the AOD data it was also concluded that the anaerobic capacity for a runner is equal to one quantity of energy, and this quantity is the same whether you run 400m, 800m, 1,500m or 10,000m. In the tests it was shown that the anaerobic capacity was the same in all distances, 400m, 800m and 1,500m. (calculated to a oxygen “cost” of 48ml/kg)

Longer distances than 1,500m will be more and more dominated by aerobic energy. The only anaerobic training a long distance runner needs will normally be what you get in the competitions. Our strong advise is to forget all tempo training; it very often causes more damage than gain.

Sensitivity analysis

The starting point is running a long enough distance so that the work requirement will be between 90-98% aerobic work. The rest will then be 10-2% anaerobic work. This  anaerobic work is, as mentioned, one amount of energy, equivalent to approximately 1, i.e. one minute of aerobic work..

The % varies because the duration of the total work is different in different long distances. Of this one minute of anaerobic capacity you will normally be able to use about 30 seconds early in your competition season. The remaining 30 seconds you will gradually be able to use more and more of as you progress in your season.

Let us say your competition lasts 30 minutes. You are in good shape and let us say you are able to use your one minute anaerobic capacity in the race. This one minute is 3.33% of 30 minutes, that is 3.33% of your energy use will be anaerobic.

Our main points are:

  • You have the choice to train and improve your 29 minutes of aerobic work, this is then (100% -3.33%) = 96.67% of the energy expenditure which is aerobic work.

  • You have the choice to train and improve the single and lonely one minute of anaerobic work, or 3.33% of the energy expenditure.

We hope you now agree that the potential of improvement is larger for the 29 minute fraction than for the single one minute. At the same time we also know that the potential of improving your anaerobic capacity is more limited and this type of training has a very high risk factor.

You should also be aware of the fact that very intense training and anaerobic tempo training can also easily “kill” some of your aerobic capacity. Why? Because of the environment this type of training creates in your working muscles; they become more acidic because of the lactic acid (or, more correctly stated, because of the H + ions in the muscles and later in the blood stream)

Did you also know that the anaerobic lactic acid engine is not very fuel efficient? This one minute we have been talking about uses 13 times more energy than the aerobic engine (i.e. one minute of anaerobic energy uses the same amount of energy as 13 minutes of aerobic work.)

Back to our sensitivity analysis. The aerobic work capacity, 96.67% of the total, is completely dominant relative to the anaerobic capacity, which is only 3.33% of the total. If we perform work with the aerobic system it has greater influence because it has a higher weight factor of 96.67%, i.e. it has greater sensitivity.

If we perform work with the anaerobic system it has very little influence, because it has a smaller weight factor, i.e. it has  low sensitivity. But there is another major factor we must not forget. The two systems are not isolated; they also influence each other. The “little” anaerobic system with a low weight factor can also interfere with the large aerobic system with its high weight factor.

This is the reason for our advice to stay away from high intensity interval or fartlek training. You have everything to gain and almost nothing to lose because this type of training constitutes a very low % of the total work, and it can easily damage the dominant aerobic systems. The aerobic systems are steady state systems with low risk factors. It is almost always the unstable and unsteady anaerobic systems that make all the mess in your “engine room”.

A small reduction or improvement in your aerobic capacity will have greater impact on your performance because of its high weight factor.

Let us say hard anaerobic training can improve your anaerobic capacity from 60 seconds to 70 seconds. You are improving your anaerobic capacity about 16%, but this means more or less nothing in our 30 minutes, or 1,800 seconds. (10 seconds are 0.65% of 1,800 seconds)

This “improvement” of anaerobic capacity can however decrease your aerobic capacity because anaerobic enzymes can “kill” some of the aerobic enzymes, with the result of a decrease in the aerobic capacity. Let us say we decrease aerobic capacity by:

2% of 29 min = 1,740 seconds * 2%  = 34.8 seconds

This table demonstrates the sensitivity and impact of the aerobic capacity relative to the anaerobic. Too much intense training can gain a few anaerobic seconds, but at the cost of killing some of the aerobic capacity which has a very high weight, or sensitivity factor. The net sum is that you lose a lot. If you however manage your training intensity correctly, you will improve rather than  lose your aerobic capacity. Here you can see how dramatic this improvement is.

% reduced aerobic capacityAerobic time loss in seconds Scenario 1 Time loss adjusted with 10 seconds anaerobic gainScenario 2
Time improvement with  aerobic gain and no anaerobic “disturbance”
Net difference  between the two scenarios
(slower running) 
1%17.4– 7.4 s slower17.4 s faster24.8 s
1.5%26.1– 16.1 s slower26.1 s faster42.2 s
2%34.8– 24.8 s slower34.8 s faster59.6 s
3%52.2– 42.2 s slower52.2 s faster94.4 s
4%69.4– 59.4 s slower69.4 s faster128.8 s
5%87– 77 s slower87 s faster164 s
6%104– 94 s slower104 s faster198 s
7%121.8-111.8 s slower121.8 s faster233.6 s
8%139.2– 129.2 s slower139.2 s faster268.4 s
9%156.6-146.6 s slower156.6 s faster303.2 s
10%174-164 s slower174 s faster338 s

You will now hopefully see how sensitive our aerobic capacity is. If hard tempo runs give you 10 seconds of improved anaerobic capacity, it will be of little help if it, for example, reduces your aerobic capacity by 5%. You will then run 10 – 87 = -77 seconds slower.

If you conduct your training in the right way you will turn the tables from loss to gain: instead of decreasing aerobic capacity you will increase it. See how sensitive your aerobic capacity is if you improve and perform your training correctly. With no intense intense interval or fartlek (anaerobic) training, the above table will show how much faster you can run with the given % improvement.

What we just have shown seems to be hard for many runners to understand. But, this was something Ingrid understood early on, and you have already read what results this has produced.

We repeat again: Higher concentrations of lactic acid in the muscles can damage the cell walls in your muscles, while the number of anaerobic enzymes can be increased at the cost of aerobic enzymes. Therefore, hard and painful lactic acid training can easily give you a negative result. Congratulations! You have trained hard and brutally, with the result that you run much slower.

World Champion, 10.000m track, Rome, 1987

SuccessAgain, it is important to emphasize that there is no problem with a hard competition or an intense training session now and then. It is when this is the normal intensity level that there will be a chronic acidic environment in your working muscles, which will kill your aerobic capacity.

Ingrid’s training in a normal year would probably be of interest for you. She trained a total of about 8,000 km a year, most running but also some cross country skiing. Remember that this was then based on 15-20 years of training, or adaptation, to survive these amounts.

  • 67% easy long runs; aerobic

  • 20% medium paced long runs; aerobic

  • 3% fast long runs; aerobic with some anaerobic work content

  • 1% short intervals; aerobic

  • 2% long intervals; aerobic

  • 3.5% fartleks; aerobic

  • 3.5% competitions; aerobic with some anaerobic work content

As you can see, it is almost all about aerobic training. Ingrid’s intuition told her how she should make her priorities with respect to aerobic and anaerobic work. Science and tests have later proven that she was doing the right thing; her proof was in her results.

A fast long run was often used as a test run, while competitions could be from 1,500 m to the marathon. In “harder” types of training, or shorter competitions, there will normally be a small anaerobic energy content in the last part of the work. About 6.5% of her competition/training volume had this type of load. 13% of her training was what can be called “faster” than easy running, i.e. threshold training.

Threshold training has been very popular in the past few years. However, you should be aware of that you cannot do too much of your training as threshold training. This will work fine for a while and you will experience fast progress, but it will not be possible to continue this over a long period of time. As we have explained earlier, some types of the tissues in the body need more time to adapt and to develop.

If you progress in your training too quickly, you will certainly get injured. It is the mix of the harder and the easy training that is the only solution in a long-term perspective. Data from German rowers showed that 80% of their training was with a lactic acid concentration lower that 2 mmol (long, easy run load). Only 1-2% of their workload was at a competition load.

This type of training gave the best growth or progress over several years. Training with higher intensities gave faster progress, but, in the long run, this harder training often resulted in injuries and less progress. We think these results were from East Germany, and what is not reported in such reports is that all athletes most probably were doped.

When doped athletes did not “survive” harder training, there is all the reason to believe that clean athletes will not survive it any easier. As we have explained in the physical chapter, the restitution or rest period after the work load is called the anabolic phase. We hope you understand why the most common dope is called anabolic steroid.


Most of our experience comes from endurance sports, mostly from long distance running and cross country skiing. It will take too much time and space to cover all experience and details surrounding Ingrid’s running and skiing carrier, but if any of you should be interested in this, you may contact us. Here we will focus on the main aspects of long distance running and training.

We have been involved in elite sport environments for the last 20-30 years and, after all this experience and knowledge, we think we know a lot about different endurance sports. Here are some major factors of importance:

  • The understanding and importance of knowing that a workout consists of two major and equally balanced factors; the load or work phase, and the rest or restitution phase. The importance of the rest phase is underrated. Very many athletes are worried about resting a day now and then if they feel tired because they think they will lose a lot. The consequence of this is both the feeling of guilt and negative emotions about the “lost” workout as well as many worn out athletes.

    We believe that many of the reasons for this are training programs designed by unqualified coaches who use the program as a control and management tool. Training programs should only be used as a lose framework that the athlete should be encouraged to adjust and change based on the feedback from his/her own body.

    The result of this is that in some countries there is an over strict structure in training where the program and guilt control the training, rather than intuition from the mind and body. In the most serious cases this can end up with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) and eating disorders.

  • Control or measuring of training. The tool most used to measure training is the watch or stopwatch. The funny thing is that very few people think that a watch is only able to measure one thing, and that is the time. We do, however, use the watch to measure performances and tests often relative to a given distance as a standard reference.

    Unfortunately, most athletes think that measuring their performance is the same as measuring their training. In the physical chapter we tried to explain what happens in our body when we train. The main conclusion was that we should try to find the optimal growth parameters when we train, and that these should not be based on the “harder the better” or the “more the better” philosophy.

    Be critical to the use of the stopwatch while training. It is incredible how many athletes have a true compulsion in relation to the stopwatch. Think about all the athletes that are only focused on measuring each interval, counting hours, miles and kilometers in their daily training. We hear about athletes training 6-8 hours a day. Don’t be impressed by any of this; many athletes are very creative in what they call training. This type of training measure also gives a very negative signal to younger athletes.

  • Planning and goal setting with the reference to a “now” analysis. Many athletes train without any clear goal or plan and with a tendency to perform activities more or less based on coincidence and chaos. Again, it is important to remember the law of moderation. Too much planning and a totally rigid system are not good either.

    In our observations we have also seen that many athletes do not understand the idea of progression. We can see athletes start up after the fall vacation, and already by December they have  dosages and intensities as if they were in the middle of their  competitive season.

    When they then approach late winter, or early spring, there is no more mileage or intensities to push for since  they have already reached their top in the progression several months too early. They are in top shape when it is not wanted, and with no chance to put in more progression, they will continue to lose shape during the next weeks and months.

  • Be sure to have more interests than your training and sport. You reduce general risk factors when you have additional interests like family, studies, work, hobbies and friends. It is very risky to be focused only on your own body, training and fitness 24 hours a day.

    Diversified interests help you from becoming too narrow minded (a challenge in many professions). The same laws of risk diversification are valid in your own life as in the economy; you should put your eggs in several baskets. A number of different interests and variations stabilize your day and keep your mood more stable.

  • Many athletes are not analytical in their work. Trail and error is often the most common method.

  • Some basic knowledge about what is going on in your head and body when you exercise will always be a positive competitive factor. Surprisingly, very few athletes seem to be interested in this. Even athletes and coaches with higher education in the field of sport seem to lack a general holistic understanding of what they are doing.

Our basic knowledge is in endurance sports. Even if the sports within this category are very different, the basic principles of training are the same (the exceptions are technical, tactical and motor skills) We will now take a look at these common principles of endurance training:

Chain or bottleneck analysis

A chain is as strong as its weakest link. So it is with your chain, which we can divide into the following links or systems:

  • Your head and your nervous system, or mental system

  • Your heart and lung system, the central system

  • Your blood and blood vessel system, the transport medium and the transport “paths”

  • Your working muscles, the peripheral system.

Normally, we do not divide our body into systems like we have done here, but it can be useful to do this when we talk about training and physical exercise. Most of you are familiar with the saying “to lose your head” when we are not in full mental control of a situation. This can be a situation in your daily life, or it can be a situation when you are competing in a sport event.

Mental training is often strongly underrated by most athletes in most sports. This type of training is still surrounded by a lot of myths and a negativity since most people think you have mental problems if you do this type of training. Mental problems are a total different topic. Here, we are talking about training of that “extra percent” of yourself in daily life and in sport.


Our head with its control center of the brain and the nervous system has a direct connection to our physical capabilities. Our head has enormous potentials and resources, and we believe that most of the potential improvement for the majority of athletes can be found here. More and more people have been discovering this lately, but there is still a lot of skepticism about mental training.
We have discussed training of specific mental powers at the Mental training page.


The heart and the lungs are often called the central system and are responsible for air/gas exchange, ventilation and pumping of the blood.

Blood and blood vessels

The blood and the blood vessels are  the transportation medium and the distribution channels of oxygen (including liquid food), and for waste products products, CO2 and water vapor.


The working muscles in the peripheral system, primary in the legs and arms, transform chemical energy into  physical power and movement.

The objective of a chain analysis, or bottleneck analysis, is to find the weak link in the total or holistic system. It is no good having very well developed endurance in your working muscles, say like a four-lane highway, if your “head” is like a narrow, walk path.

If you have found the bottleneck in your system, then it would be natural to focus your training in developing that weak link. Very often we see a totally different approach. Athletes focus and concentrate on what they feel they are good at. This is typical of human nature; we like to do things we are good at.

Central system. Heart and lungs

Our heart and lungs are the most concrete conceptions most of us associate with physical exercise and fitness. However, the lungs are very seldom bottlenecks in the total system analysis (chain/bottleneck analysis) among healthy people. The trainability or adaptation of the lungs is also rather limited.

Endurance training done the right way will strengthen the heart. We talk about qualities like stroke displacement or volume which increase with endurance training, stroke power which also increases with training,  and working pulse and maximum pulse both of which decrease somewhat when you train.

The product of stoke volume pulse is the volume per minute (the pumping capacity of the heart) which will gradually increase with the right endurance training. The maximum pumping capacity is called Max VO2 (maximum volume oxygen capacity) This capacity is easy to train early on if you are untrained, and with the right training you can easily increase it by 15-20% within 3-4 months. After this very fast and efficient adaptation however, its growth will slow down dramatically.

Even marginal improvements now need months and years to develop. Total improvement potential for the heart is 40-60% in volume per minute, compared to an untrained situation. As you can see, the last 15-40% of the heart improvement needs many years to develop. In the short time, intervals and fartleks are the most efficient training methods. But, to continue the improvement of performance in the long term, it is the mix of the more easy type of training -long runs- with the harder types (competitions, intervals and fartleks) that is the only solution.

Some types of tissue in the body adapt fast and easily, while other types of tissues need more time and training volume to develop and adapt. There are no short cuts. These two types of training have to go hand in hand. If it is of any comfort, the type of training that needs a long time to develop is also the type of training that takes a long time to lose. And vice-versa, the easily trained capacities/tissues are easily lost if you get sick or injured.

Blood and blood vessels

The blood and blood vessels develop under right kind of endurance training. Blood volume increases, and the blood is more able to supply your body with oxygen. Over the long term, blood volume can increase by 1-2 liters. The blood’s capacity to carry oxygen is very important for your endurance fitness. The hemoglobin in the blood is responsible for oxygen transportation.

The concentration of hemoglobin in the blood has a direct relation to oxygen uptake. Normal hemoglobin (Hb) concentration for women is between 115-160 g/l (78%-108%), for men the normal concentration is between 125-170 g/l (85%-115%). As you can see the variation can be large within what is called normal (a concentration of 148 g/l was formally called 100% blood).

The blood consists of two major components: blood plasma and blood corpuscles. The blood plasma is a yellowish clear liquid containing the blood cells. Blood cells make up 40-45% of the total amount of the blood. This percent is called the hematocrit level (Hct).

The normal Hct level for women is 36,1-44,3, and for men is 40,7- 50,3% Hct. The largest part of the blood cells contains the red blood corpuscles (erythrocytes). The red color is because of the hemoglobin (Hb). An increased concentration of Hb will give a linear increase in oxygen uptake, up to a concentration of about 170-180 g/l Hb for men and somewhat lower for women.

At higher concentration of hemoglobin, the blood becomes so thick and viscous that it loses its capacity to flow. This is very dangerous because it can easily lead to blood clots. EPO, (erythropoietin), a natural hormone, artificially increases the Hb level in the blood, and thus increases its oxygen carrying capacity. This is why we have all the cheating with EPO in endurance sports. EPO can now be produced artificially by the pharmaceutical industry.

Another method used to increase the Hb level in the blood is high altitude training, either naturally in the mountains or in so-called high altitude houses.

FIS (the International Ski Organization) introduced blood tests to control the Hb level of the cross country skiers. If male skiers have higher levels than 175 g/l Hb or female skiers higher than 160 g/l Hb, they were not allowed to start in the race that day. This procedure was called a “medical test”. Other sports use a hematocrit level of 50% as a maximum, which is about the same as the Hb levels used by FIS.

New developed technology used for the first time in the Sidney Olympics is able to test if an athlete has been cheating with artificial EPO. Already, before the start of the Olympics, many athletes were withdrawn from the games, especially from China. Testing of EPO is not a medical test any longer as it had been with cross country skiers and bicyclists; it is now a doping test.

Endurance training produces more blood vessels in the trained muscles. In an untrained person each muscle cell has one capillary vessel, while an endurance trained person can have 3-4 capillaries into the same muscle cell. Scientists believe that it is the type of long easy runs that develop the capillary network in the muscle cells.

The muscles

AnatomyThe muscles produce the final movement and energy in the long and complex energy chain. The muscles transform chemical energy into power and movement. Among men, 40-45 % of the total body weight is skeleton muscle, while in women it is 35-40 %. The highest concentration of muscles is in our legs which contain more than 50% of all muscles.  We have many types of muscle, the most common are:

  • Type I, slow twitch; high endurance

  • Type IIa, fast twitch; moderate endurance

  • Type IIb, fast twitch; little endurance

The most common situation is to have about 50% of the Type I muscle fibres and about 50 % of the Type II muscle fibres. Your mother and father are responsible for your distribution of the fibre types; they are inherited. Athletes with good endurance can have over 80% of Type I muscle fibres, while sprinters can have 65-70% of Type II muscle fibres.

Science has not agreed upon whether you can change you distribution of Type I and Type II muscle fibres, but it seems to be a fact that it is possible to transform Type IIb over to Type IIa muscle fibres with endurance training. Endurance training increases the ability to release energy in the working muscle; we get more endurance and/or stronger.

Metabolism occurs in the mitochondria in the muscle cell, and the mitochondria increase in number with the right kind of endurance training. Enzymes are present in the muscles; they are made of protein. Aerobic enzymes increase in number and concentration with endurance training. These enzymes make muscle metabolism more efficient.

The human body has 4 different energy systems that it can use in different situations. Each energy system is made for special situations. This is covered more fully in the More about the physical building blocks chapter.

The “Systems” and how they work and co-operate

How then do these systems work together? The most important key word in endurance training is “oxygen”. All of us know we need air to breathe, but it is only the oxygen in the air that we use. Air contains about 21% oxygen at sea level. The partial pressure of oxygen is then of 0.21 atmospheric pressure or 0.21 bar.

This is how the “systems” are connected.

Our head (the brain and the nervous system) is the control and monitoring center of all activity in our body. For example, at rest, our lungs are told to breath at a rate just fast enough to satisfy the need of oxygen to all cells in the body. This means we can breathe without “knowing” we are breathing; there is no stress in the system.

The oxygen is pulled out of the air and put into the blood in the lungs. At the same time, the used blood carries wastes from the body. This waste consists of carbon dioxide and water (vapor) just like the car exhaust does. The hemoglobin in the blood carries the oxygen around in the blood vessel system while the blood is being pumped by the heart.

At rest, the control system has told the heart to beat with, for example, 62 beats per minute to satisfy the general need of oxygen and food. In the tiniest blood vessels, the capillaries, the blood provides the working muscle with just the right amount of oxygen it needs to function and live. The more active the muscle cell is, the more oxygen it asks for. Metabolism goes on in the mitochondria in the muscle cell. Oxygen is like a fresh commodity, there is very little or no possibility to store it.

We can, however, “borrow” some oxygen; we say we get into oxygen debt. This is more fully explained in the More about the physical building blocks chapter under the energy systems section.

We can use the law of continuity in regards to oxygen: the amount of oxygen that enters the blood is the amount of oxygen used by the body. Now, let us explain some expressions used about oxygen:

VO2 max

VO2 max is simply the maximum amount of oxygen you are able to supply to your body. As you may already understand, it is one of the major factors we develop when we do endurance training. However, in your daily training VO2 max is not easy to  refer to; it is more of a laboratory or test value. An example of this is the fact that the test is done on a treadmill with control of your pulse, breathing gas and lactic acid tests in your finger.

You start at an easy speed, and then the speed is gradually increased until exhaustion. Oxygen consumption and pulse are continually controlled and measured, while lactic acid is measured 3-4 times. Oxygen consumption increases linearly with increase in speed. Up to the anaerobic threshold the aerobic processes are primarily at work, while above the threshold anaerobic processes are  also included with the aerobic ones.

When you reach  VO2 max load, you will only be able to work a few seconds at this level before you have to stop. At this maximum load, the oxygen consumption will not increase even if the pace should be increased. (if the athlete were able to increase the pace)

VO2 max can be measured in absolute values: O2 consumption per minute. It can also be measured specifically: O2 consumption divided by the athlete’s body weight (milliliter oxygen per kg/per minute). But, be aware that the value divided by the body weight can be a bit misleading since the body does not consist of only muscles.

This number can also lead to weight loss pressure on the athlete since they know that their VO2 max will be higher if their weight is less. However, we believe that the value of a VO2 max test is more limited, and we think that a sub-maximal test of the lactic acid profile is more valuable for practical training purposes.

Anaerobic threshold or lactic acid threshold

The anaerobic threshold is the maximum workload where the law of continuity is in balance with respect to oxygen, i.e. there is a balance between supply and demand. This is the maximum workload where you are not “borrowing” or using “oxygen” from anaerobic processes.

Practical speaking, this is the workload you are able to stay at for about 15-30 minutes. It is very useful to know what your pulse is at your anaerobic threshold, but be aware of the the fact that the knowledge of pulse rates is not so accurate in that there is only one pulse. It is more of a pulse range with a threshold pulse (found in a test) of about +/-2 pulse beats.

The reasons there is not one threshold pulse are inaccuracies in the test apparatus and procedures, variations in your daily fitness level, etc. Test values are also historic values, that is, they can easily be inaccurate if they are too old. Hopefully, you improve, but you can also lose your level of fitness. If you improve, your threshold pulse will be higher, if you lose shape your threshold pulse will be lower.

Let us take a look at different workload situations for different activities.

Example: A musician playing a grand piano

The musician can play the whole day; he/she is not out of breath at all, and there is not much visual perspiration. The reason is that the musician only activates a few muscles in the hands and arms, the rest of the body is more or less passive. The active muscles are very busy, but in total they only weigh several hundred grams or, at most, a few kilos.

The central system, with its heart and lungs, is not challenged satisfying the oxygen need to these few muscles. The working muscles actually “swim” in oxygen; they can get as much oxygen as they want. The limitation in this case is actually more the capacity of each specific  peripheral working muscle.

To play a grand piano does not challenge the central system enough to give the musician good general physical fitness. However, it does give some few muscles in the hands and arms very good fitness and endurance.

Example: A tennis player

A tennis player uses most of the body in a tennis game, but the physical activity has a rather low frequency and there are may interruptions and rest periods. The player infrequently loses his/her breath, and there is very seldom a feeling of the intense pain of exhaustion.

The central system is challenged at times, but not for very long periods, by demands of very high intensity. Normally, the central system is able to supply the needed oxygen to the peripheral working muscles, and at peak loads the anaerobic energy systems support the aerobic system.

Neither the central system nor the peripheral system are challenged very much and, because of this work pattern, tennis players do not have very high endurance values (VO2 max) relative to a good runner.

Example. A runner, swimmer or a cross country skier

We will now discuss activities that activate more or less the whole body and most of the muscle mass. We are not taking about a few hundred grams or a few kilos of working muscles, but rather of 30-40 % of the total body weight. (with a weight of 60 kg and 35% muscles this means 21 kg of muscles).

These 21 kg of muscles scream for oxygen when you increase your intensity. Even with relative moderate intensities, this type of sport will lead to a high pulse and rapid breathing. You will then experience that it is very hard for the central system to satisfy all these kilos of active muscles with enough oxygen. The central system is clearly the bottleneck. We have learned that through training the heart can be improved by 40-60% in pumping capacity relative to an untrained reference, while peripheral muscles can be trained to increase their oxygen consumption by 300-1000%.

Swimming, cross country skiing and running are sports that really challenge the central system (heart and lungs). At the same time, these sports also challenge the peripheral system (working muscles). But, these muscles, in themselves, are seldom the bottleneck in the total system. The problem is that these muscles can no longer “swim” in enough oxygen.

When we train, it is useful to distinguish among training stimulation that is good for the central system, for the peripheral muscles or for both of them together. We will cover this later.

Training of the central system

  • The lungs – takes up oxygen into the blood and the waste out of the blood

  • The heart – pumps the blood

This system is also called the oxygen transportation system or the cardiovascular system.

Interval and fartlek training stimulate the central system very well, while the rest period in these types of training makes it possible to work at high intensity for some time; you don’t get too exhausted. Running activates large muscle groups since we have more than half of all muscle weight in our legs.

Running puts a high demand on the central system, primarily on the heart. Interval and fartlek traning develop the stoke volume of the heart, and increase the blood volume. If you are untrained, during the first 3-4 months there will be a very fast increase in your VO2 max; later this increase will slow down.

In a daily training situation it is not very practical to relate your training to VO2 max. It is therefore, used only as a theoretical reference. Your threshold pulse is more useful as a daily training reference, but both references are dependant on regular testing.

Workloads of up to VO2 max are not recommended either for the central system or the working muscles. Workloads over the VO2 max can easily decrease your fitness. The reason is that the amount of time you can stay at this level is very limited, and the accumulated lactic acid can harm and disturb the environment in your working muscles.

Workloads around your threshold pulse are very good for your heart. As previously mentioned, however, this adaptation takes a long time, often years. Workload exposure at your threshold pulse rate can be 4-8 min if your competition lasts more than 4 min while, as a rule of thumb, total workload time should be between 24-32 minutes.

VO2 max can be increased even during the first week for an untrained person, possibly because of increased blood volume which gives a better stroke volume. This increase will continue for 3-4 months, but then will level out. Your threshold in the peripheral muscles will not have this growth trend.

Muscle threshold improves more slowly; it does not have the same early improvement an leveling out as the VO2 max. The short time VO2 max improvement can be 15-20 %. With this improvement you may find that the aerobic capacity in your muscles does not increase very much; it lags behind in the first phase.

There seems to be a general agreement that the central system normally is the bottleneck for an endurance athlete. However some athletes with the highest VO2 max can have another bottleneck. They can have their limiting factor in the lungs, where the contact time available for the air exchange can be reduced. The result of this is that oxygen saturation is not possible before the blood is pumped away.

Training of the peripheral system or the working muscles

All the muscles in your legs and arms, as well as all the other voluntary controlled muscles, are called skeletal muscles. The objective is to develop the oxygen capacity of these muscles to highest possible values so that their endurance will be greater. The anaerobic threshold is specific for each muscle. The higher the threshold, the more the muscle can work without accumulating lactic acid.

The training stimulant for the muscles is different than for the heart. Long runs develop muscle endurance. There is an increase in number of the “powerhouses” in the muscles, the mitochondrions. There is an increase in number of capillaries, the smallest blood vessel leading into the muscle cell. Lastly, there is an increase in aerobic enzymes in the muscles. Enzymes function like catalysts in the muscles, they improve chemical processes without being consumed themselves.

Data from German rowers conclude that 80% of their training is with lactic acid values below 2 mmol. (easy long run intensity) Only 1 % of their training was at competition intensity, i.e. full speed. This type of training gave a steady, long growth curve over many years as compared to more high intensity training which, while promoting a fast improvement, leveled out after a relatively short time and resulted in many injuries and much over-training.

Workload around 75-85 % of the VO2 max seems to be good for the muscles. This is normally somewhat below the anaerobic threshold.

An average man has 30-35 kg of skeletal muscles. Together, these muscles have a much higher oxygen capacity than the heart has.

The training potential of a muscle varies from 300 to 1,000%  depending on the sources used as a reference point from the untrained condition. As you can see, the muscles have enormous training potentials. As we have mentioned, the same numbers for the heart are between 40-60%; here the potential is much more limited.

But again, the final sport result is dependant of a whole complex of factors working as a team. This is the reason for our holistic concept. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link!

Authors: Ingrid and Arve Kristiansen


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