In a thirteen week academic semester, there’s a reading break somewhere in the middle. Is it a break to read or a break from reading? Is the intention to catch up on missed assignments or a chance to forget academia and go wild on spring break?
Is a two-week bike trip in the middle of a rigorous triathlon training plan a break from training or a break to train?
The trip was high-volume biking. Nine or ten hours of biking every day. But it was relaxing. The climbing was never particularly strenuous and rarely did I push my heart rate about its lactate threshold. Carrying enough food and choosing the safest rivers to drink from were the only obligations. The long days consisted of pedalling, cooing at the lambs that gazed curiously at the bike, and gobbling candy and cashews. So was 14 days of high-volume, low-intensity cardio useful?
Volume is weekly accumulated training hours. Intensity is time at or above lactate threshold. There is an ideal balance between volume and intensity, and the balance has to do with where in the training program each occurs. In this blog post, Joe Friel refers to two studies that indicate that high volume training does little to improve speed. He refers to a group of swimmers and a group of runners, both of whom increase their weekly training hours over four weeks. Over the course of another four weeks, they decrease the volume, but increase the intensity (i.e. fast intervals). The high-intensity month produced measured improvements whereas the high volume weeks did not.
Friel explains that high-volume training builds capillaries and encourages cell mitochondria to expand and multiply. Additionally, the long training hours promote enzymes to convert fat to energy. The result: endurance. But not speed. These benefits – increased capillary density for the delivery of oxygen and fuel to the muscles, increased mitochondrial density for the production of energy from fat, and enhanced activity of aerobic, fat-metabolizing enzymes are very useful for injury prevention, athletic efficiency and longevity in the sport. But the only way to get faster is to go faster. Doing endless hours of low intensity training will not make me faster, but it will allow me to sustain long training hours and long races.
So now that I’m home and trying to get back into structured training, I’m pondering whether the break was helpful. I didn’t get measurably faster nor did my lactate threshold increase (I test it every four weeks using this test), but nor did my speed or lactate threshold decrease. Everything stayed pretty much the same. So maybe that’s the point. Take a break from training, but choose an activity that won’t erode the training benefits that I’ve worked so diligently to gain. Just like I used reading break as a chance to read a few non-academic books – an activity that neither helped nor hindered my grades – a training break is a time to keep the previous efforts in check but not lose any of the speed and skills I’ve laboured for.