Does Sub-Maximal Training Lead to Submaximal Results?

Training for endurance sports is generally a question of efficiency. Efficiency of good performance though is a product of replicating competition and it’s demands. Competition in itself is performed at maximal or close to maximal intensity. This leads to a question about excessive training volume, lower intensity sessions and how a training programme is structured. “Should all training be maximal or close to competition pace?” So do swimming, cycling and running as well as gym training have to be challenged at a maximal of close to maximal level to administer improvements and can excessive amounts of training hamper their progress?

Swimming out of all of the disciplines is a sport traditionally born out of efficiency of movement. Streamlining and body position can make a difference of seconds and that can mean a matter of places at the top level. Race pace for sprint swimmers is as much a question of efficiency as physical capability, simply stated you cannot have shear power with no efficiency. That said form will breakdown for two reasons laziness (or poor coaching) and fatigue. Fatigue in nature is a product of inefficiency and broadly speaking is a result of the level of conditioning not being sufficient to maintain a suitable technique. Indeed the fatigue factor is relevant also to cycling and running where inefficiency in technique leads to further fatigue as ideal body position cannot be maintained.

Running in itself is governed by form. Poor running style though has the element of impact with the floor to be concerned about- something that swimming and cycling do not have. Structurally this is harder for the body to deal with as there is greater stress on the joints and connective tissue. This brings in to the equation the role of core stability, reactive strength and the ability to maintain form with good structural strength. Many new runners find the demands of running plays havoc with their joints- specifically the lower back and the knees. Both these areas have a limited amount of movement in them and predominantly need to be trained for stability. The ankles and the hips need stability though they also need a suitable amount of mobility. Without sufficient mobility or movement in the joint forces may not be transferred in an efficient way leading to overuse- specifically in the areas that have limited mobility. This highlights that excessive training volume in the form of too many miles or time spent on the road can have a detrimental effect on the body. Simply said if you are training for competition sub-maximal training should not be too long in volume. Favouring shorter runs more often is possibly a more efficient way of organising volume even as you build up the amount of training over a period of time. Recovery runs also should not be excessive in volume if your goal is to run quicker.

Cycling in turn is slightly different again. Cycling does not have the elastic plyometric bounce and impact that running has as you shift from leg to leg. Maximal training in this case can replicate competition at race pace or slightly above and below. While there is a need for training volume cycling and swimming are less destructive on the joints as you look to build efficiency of the energy systems.

As with most training excessive volume is what causes overuse injuries, I tend to term these “junk” miles and consider that you need to be training to gain ahead of just training. In all forms of training there is a need to cultivate efficiency of technique and energy systems efficiency. Technique breaks down under intensity and is where you also see injury. The key is being to maintain a sufficiently high intensity so you have carry over to performance, be it a tempo or interval session. Too much recovery work or also what some may call “base building” may end up blunting higher intensity sessions as cumulative fatigue holds back intensity, especially in running. Commonly, winter training is guilty of this as it sacrifices intensity for sheer volume. Cyclists commonly base build through the winter though is a phase of training that can be greatly helped by spikes of intensity at regular points. This means that race pace is being challenged and therefore you are training yourself to move faster. Swimming training volume is an area of debate- longer sessions should be technique refinement led and pace should not be ignored if faster times are sought.

With all three disciplines it highlights the point that slower sessions should be performed but they should be technique led, for beginners two sessions a week is ample but for the more advanced with good technique and structural strength then once a week is enough for energy systems eficency- train with intensity as when it comes to race day not knowing how quick is quick means that your overall result may suffer.

Published by ianmellis

Ian Mellis MSc. CSCS is the co-founder of Results FAST ( in Ware, Hertfordshire. Specialising in athletic development, physique improvement and injury rehabilitation he provides personal training, strength and conditioning and nutrition coaching for motivated exercisers and those looking to make a long term change to their health, fitness and performance.

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