Shortly after Matt Ancona started running to lose weight, his competitive nature kicked in. He ran a marathon, then a triathlon, and within three years he had completed an Ironman triathlon. Hoping to get faster, he sometimes trained for 20 to 25 hours a week, pushing himself to outdo his pace or mileage.
"It wasn't uncommon to ride my bike for six hours and run for an hour afterwards," said Ancona, 32, a management consultant at Accenture in Chicago.
But more wasn't necessarily better.
Between a busy work schedule and planning a wedding, Ancona was strapped for time. He suffered nagging injuries, such as pulled muscles, strained IT bands and problems with his calves and ankles. Burned out by the time a race day rolled around, he wouldn't perform his best.
That began to change 21/2 years ago, when Ancona started working with Dr. Philip Skiba, program director for sports medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., and CEO of PhysFarm Training Systems, a coaching company that uses research and technology to help athletes excel.
"You can spend less total time training, which is important for people who have real lives and real jobs," Skiba said.
Skiba's research revolves largely around the concept of "critical power," which is the threshold of exercise intensity beyond which people start to fatigue very quickly. The idea is to train at, just below or briefly above the threshold — so you're performing at the maximum power you can without setting off the bodily reactions that force you to stop or slow down — in order to increase your body's tolerance of that intensity and slowly push the boundary higher.
The formula Skiba uses to calculate an athlete's critical power is complex and requires long-term monitoring of the athlete's progress. But even recreational athletes can benefit from his philosophy: You can perform better and prevent injury by training shorter but smarter.
At the heart of this type of training is variety, mixing long and easy training sessions with shorter high-intensity sessions to build both power and endurance. Skiba, himself an amateur runner, said that using the techniques got his own 5k run time down from 35 minutes to 22 minutes.
"Instead of thinking in miles, think in points," Skiba said, wherein a point equals how many minutes you've run multiplied by your heart rate. "You can run lots of minutes at a low heart rate or fewer minutes at a higher heart rate, and you present your body with the same average."
So, for example, the longest training run for a marathon need not be any longer than 18 miles, Skiba said, but during that same week, run a set of hard 1-mile repeats at threshold pace.
Cutting back on time spent training not only helps fit it into people's busy lifestyles, but also prevents injury, as more mileage leads to more fatigue and opportunity for getting hurt, Skiba said. Pushing hard at intervals also has a bigger impact on the body than simply adding mileage, building the machinery inside the muscles that allows them to generate power, speed and energy, he said.
To estimate your critical power without complicated math or a coach, Skiba suggests running a 10k with good, hard effort; your average pace is your threshold. When you go on long, easy runs, run at about 75 percent of your threshold speed, such that you can still hold a conversation. When you run hard, say for 1-mile repeats, go at the threshold pace. For one workout a week, push 10 percent to 20 percent harder than the threshold for 1- to 3-minute intervals, giving yourself 2 minutes of recovery time in between.
The exact recipe isn't important, Skiba said; what matters is that you incorporate both long and short workouts, start easy and build up slowly, never more than 5 percent or 10 percent more a week.
What the progression looks like depends on the end goal. For example, someone training for a 10k should slowly increase the hard, shorter repeats, while someone training for a marathon should slowly stretch out the length of their runs.
Recovery is as important as training. Training three days a week is really good, four days is a little better, but at five days, you don't see much more of a benefit, Skiba said.
On race day itself, the trick is knowing where your threshold is and that if you reach it, you will last just 20 to 30 minutes longer before having to stop or slow considerably, he said.
Words of caution
While threshold and interval training are good methods for enhancing performance, burning calories, keeping things fun and increasing overall scope of fitness, said Michael Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, he cautions recreational athletes against overdoing it. For noncompetitive athletes, it may not be worth it to worry about meeting the exact threshold or risk injury by driving too hard, said Bergeron, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.
Bergeron also cautions against viewing efficient training as a fitness cure-all. Doing hard intervals for 30 minutes in the morning will do little to combat the deleterious effects of an inactive or sedentary lifestyle the rest of the day, he said.
Runners mustn't forget to address full-body conditioning, including cardio, flexibility, range of motion and weight training to protect connective tissue, said William Kraemer, professor in the University of Connecticut's Department of Kinesiology. As evidenced in the runners of the 1960s and '70s — who today face myriad orthopedic challenges — doing the same thing every day breaks a body down, he said.
Kraemer also encourages a reality check: Not every body is made to run a marathon. And while training shorter and smarter can have good results, he cautions against treating it as a shortcut.
"We live in a world where everyone wants to get in shape in a week," Kraemer said.
For Ancona, whose dedication has led him to win several triathlons and be named male athlete of the month in last year's Chicago Athlete magazine, the new training regimen has made a big difference in his life and performance.
He has cut his training time down to 10 to 15 hours weekly and hasn't suffered any injuries. He also has shaved 41 minutes off his Ironman distance race time, from about 9 hours, 50 minutes in 2010 to 9 hours, 9 minutes last year.
Ancona's training schedule looks something like this: He bikes three days a week, runs four days a week and swims three days a week, alternating long and easy training days with short, hard interval days, and does nothing on Mondays. Every six to eight weeks Skiba re-evaluates him, aiming to push the threshold up.
Even without such calculations, recreational runners can reap similar benefits by following a targeted plan and making sure not to overdo it.
"The biggest thing (Skiba) does is hold me back in training, so that I can perform better in races," Ancona said.