August 22, 2014

Outliers and Us

Thing about which I'm thinking today: There's a general assumption in the weightlifting community that even very serious hobbyists ought not follow the training plans of the drugged up genetic elite, being that they're neither of those things. (Assuming they are neither. Steroids change everything.) It goes further even than that, stating that much of what we know about training theory is severely skewed, having been too heavily influenced by a statistically insignificant pool of outliers.

(For a couple specific examples: The classic 6 day body part split and uber protein diets really require superhuman testosterone levels to work well. Mortals need less stimulation, more frequently, and can't make use of nearly 2 g/lb protein.)

For many fairly obvious reasons, this lesson could extend to endurance training. Don't think I've heard it echoed, however. In fact, I'd suggest we go the opposite route. Rather than disregard what they do, it seems we tend to look to the elites (athletes and coaches) for guidance and ideas.

If we assume that elite athletes have a decided genetic advantage (they do) and that many are getting chemical help (probably more true than we'd like to think), are we all idiots for more or less aping their training methods?

Yes, we basically always do less volume overall, and less volume of intensity. But the basic structure isn't that different. And it isn't really uncommon to see, say, a 2:40 marathoner training more or less like a 2:15 runner, despite being worlds apart.

Would the 2:40 guy be better off running 40 miles a week, with very specific hard workouts, and little overall volume? (The scientific literature would say yes.) Or maybe it should go the other way, with tons of easy miles. (The sub elite marathon times of the 1970's would suggest this.) Maybe he's got it perfect. Maybe it depends, and is wholly individual. Maybe everything works just about equally well, and none of this really matters.

I really have no idea.


  1. One of the big things that immediately comes to my mind is the fact that oftentimes, we "mere mortals" still integrate the 20 mile run into marathon training. Yet a workout that may be 15-20% of an elite's overall volume and take them 2 hours is often 30-50% of a recreational runner's overall mileage and may take them 3 hours (and several days to recover from). Biiig difference in training stimuli. I think this may actually be why Luke Humphrey's program is seeing success...more proportional long run means faster recovery and more quality workouts (and a very, very scaled down version of the cumulative fatigue model that the Hansons, and many other elite runners use).

    I've been lifting a bit lately, and have repeatedly come across recommendations that beginner lifters (such as myself, with a lifting training age of ~1 year) should use a full-body routine 3x/week, since early on, you benefit from the frequency, and move on to a 4 or 5-day split (upper/lower, push/pull, or something similar) once you're lifting enough weight that you can no longer recover fast enough to hit each body part 3x/week. However, it does make me wonder, why not a 6-day split for beginners? That would still stimulate each group 3x/week, and if you split up the muscle groups carefully (say, legs and back on the same day, so back doesn't get hit two days in a row due to deads or something), each group would get similar recovery. IIRC, Lydiard experimented on himself before giving anything to his athletes, and perhaps I'm headed for severe overtraining with this particular workout, but at least for now, I've been making gains on it (though it's always possible that I'd be making faster gains on a traditional 3-day full-body program, and it's possible that it's like running and beginners see improvement on pretty much anything you throw at them).

    1. I agree about the long run, and even think the same logic can be applied to track work/tempos. Elites run everything faster, thus attempting to duplicate their volume, at a similar effort, is probably not a good idea. 20 x 400, an 8 mile tempo, a 20 mile long run, they get each of those done much quicker than I would. For that reason, when I was targeting a 50 miler last year, I simply tried to log as many 90-120 minute runs as possible, rather than hit any 30+ mile training runs. (Though I did run a marathon 4 weeks out, which served a similar purpose.) It's beyond cliche, but consistency, I believe, is the most important factor.

      As for the lifting, that's always been an area of interest for me, since I was very much into that for years before I focused primarily on running. (So thanks for giving me a chance to talk about it.) I should have been more specific, when I said 6 day split, I meant only the "one body part a day" sort of thing. You need to VERY advanced in order to require such stimulation as can only be provided once a week. And even then, I don't think anyone needs an "arms day". I do think a 5-6 day split can be effective for most, however, provided they've got some athletic "base". (I'd guess - but don't know - that your running fitness has you prepared to recover from frequent efforts.) Layne Norton's 5 day split is a great example, and probably what I'd gravitate towards, were I to change my focus back. He, like you suggest, varies the stimuli across those 5 days, while still avoiding the isolation trap. 3 times a week, I have to confess, was never enough fun for me. The gym was my favorite place to be, so I wasn't interested in training less. (Similarly, a low volume running plan sounds dreadfully boring to me.) My best success was on a basic upper/lower 4 day split, very much like Lyle McDonald's "generic bulking" routine. I ran on the off days, just to do something. That got out of hand.

      As for the academic literature, it suggests hitting everything 2-3 times a week (2, once the gains slow). Any reasonable program can accommodate that, from 2 days a week to 6 days. (And again, Layne and Lyle both know the science FAR better than I - and combine it with tons of coaching experience - so their programs provide good examples of this.)

    2. I think you've nailed it with consistency being the most important factor. Certainly an aspect that suffers with disproportionate workouts. Or perhaps it's a matter of workouts that your body is unprepared for. I could do a Michigan (track 1600, 1.5 mile tempo, track 1200, 1.5 mile tempo, track 800, 1.5 mile tempo, track 400), do 14 easy the next day, and be ready for another speed workout two days later. On the other hand, I won't even tell you how long it took me to recover from a slow jog up Pikes Peak. I'd assume your body would likely have the opposite reaction, given your background? I could be wrong though, of course.

      Ah, yes, the one body part per day routine. I've seen those, but considering I am not able to lift enough weight yet to even be super sore 24 hours later, I figured that you had to be either extremely advanced or riding the bicycle to progress on a program like that. I actually followed Layne's PHAT for ~6 months, and started the 6-day thing more recently to change it up. On a side note, I feel like I read that Layne himself squats 3x/week, and considering he's natural, a scientist, and freakin' huge (perhaps I'm naive to believe he's natural, but considering he is a huge proponent of natty bodybuilding, I'm choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt), I'd think there must be something to it. I do have to wonder though, whether it's something like a heavy day low-rep day, a moderate day, and a speed day (which wouldn't be all that different than his PHAT program), or if it's even split up like that at all.

    3. The bigger difference is I'd salivate at the prospect of running up (well, hiking really hard, if we're being honest) Pikes, whereas I'd just skip that track workout, and do back-to-back 14 milers instead. Which, while kinda joking, kind not, does speak to an inherent challenge with the self-coached hobbyist: You either need to find sufficient motivation to do the things you don't like; or find something you like, and grow your fitness somewhat organically in that direction, perhaps just living with the "blind spots" that result.

      Lifting, or any other fitness pursuit, is similar, in that if we assume all reasonable plans work reasonably well, you're better off committing to the one that most inspires you.

      For me, thrice a week heavy squatting would be pushing the edge of my motivation, though as you say, there are certainly ways to make it more sustainable. The Madcow 5 x 5 is a famous example of a "graduate" plan for those who can no longer handle the constant weight adding of something like Starting Strength. It fluctuates the weight in basically the pattern you lay out. Joe DeFranco's Westside plans usually do one heavy day and one explosive day, to similar effect.

      Again, running and lifting are similar here, in that you have to balance the frequency with volume and intensity. Which is a simple enough concept, that of course is endlessly complex in implementation.