Train to Failure or Train to Success? Part II


In Part I of this post I gave evidence that training beyond our limits or “training to failure” may not be the best

This guy could never fail.

strategy for enhancing athletic performance (or just every day performance for that matter.)  Training smarter but not necessarily harder is a concept worth considering.  The correct amount of training at the correct intensity is key, not just more more moreharder harder harder!! Observations and instruction to exercise at an appropriate intensity are found in both the endurance running world and the strength and power realm.

Tim Noakes’ Lore of Running is a superb text for anyone who’s a serious runner or run coach.  At the other end of the physical performance world is Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People!. This is also an excellent book on very heavy strength training, primarily the deadlift and side press.  Both books encourage top physical performance through very hard work.  Both authors though consistently tell readers that most workouts should essentially be moderate in intensity.  Running workouts should not be races.  Weightlifting sessions should not be hell-bent-for-leather torture fests.  Rather both activities should leave the participant feeling energized.

Scottish ultramarathoner Bruce Fordyce is quoted in Lore of Running:

“My training advice is going to be different… because I place my emphasis on rest and recovery.  I do believe in hard training, but there is only so much hard training that the body can take. , and the timing and duration of any hard training phase is very important.  During the hard training phase, never be afraid to take a day off.  If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest; if you are at all sluggish, rest; in fact, if in doubt, rest.”

Further advice from other running coaches cited by Nokes includes:

  • New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard: “You can’t train hard and race hard at the same time.”
  • American coach Jack Daniels:
    • “Don’t leave your race on the training track.”
    • “Alternate hard and easy days, in fact only two to three hard days per week.”
  • American exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler:
    • “Build the program around two high-intensity interval sessions per week.”
    • “Most of the non-interval training should be at fairly low intensities.”
    • “If you are not training easily enough on the easy days, you will not be able to train hard enough on the hard days.”

So we have words from the endurance running world on the importance of focusing your hard efforts to a few specific workouts.  As well you should balance these high-effort bouts with truly easy recovery work.  How about the other end of the spectrum?  How do we train for maximal strength without failing?

“If after your exercise, your bath and your rub-down, you feel fit to battle for a kingdom, then your schedule is right.”
– Earle Liederman, Secrets of Strength, 1925

Power to the People! presents the idea of training with very heavy weights–not to the point of fatigue.   The idea being that it’s tension of the muscles via lifting very heavy weights for a very few reps (five or fewer) that leads to greater strength, not the fatigue of the muscles that occurs when using many reps.  Tsatsouline states:

The most intelligent way to develop strength is to lift much heavier weights than than most weekend warriors play with but to terminate your sets before your muscles fail.”

Further,  he cites Russian strength expert Robert Roman:

“…besides, as the result of fatigue [from many reps], the last reps of a set are performed against a decreased excitation of the nervous system.  This impedes the formation of the complex conditioned reflex loops needed for further strength development.”

So in practical terms, what are we talking about?  The experts are suggesting that most of our workouts should be of the submaximal variety.  Don’t make every run a race.  Make your races races.  If your running workout consists of 20 sprints then at the end you should feel like you could run 22 sprints.  If it’s a long-run day then you should finish knowing you could run one more mile.   Feel good at the end!

When lifting, terminate your sets before total exhaustion sets in.  End the set and/or the workout knowing you could lift a few more reps.  Feel that you’ve conquered the workout, not that the workout conquered you.

Am I advocating easy workouts?  NO!!  What I’m suggesting is that your hard efforts should be very focused and specific.  Don’t dillute your hard work by trying to go hard all the time.  (If you do, you’ll probably just be going “medium-hard.”)  Further, your hard work must end in success and not in sloppy failure.  Otherwise you will only have set the stage for more sloppy work.  Work very hard when it’s called for and balance the effort with easier efforts, relaxation and restoration.  Then come back to the next hard workout ready for success and new achievements.

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