Interval vs continuous training: how do top athletes train?

Following my last article, you may have been convinced that interval training is the best form of training out there. I would say that to improve VO2 max, indeed, this is probably the best method. On the other hand, at the Olympics and in the record books, hardly anyone is interested in the holder of the highest VO2 max record. Most of us are more interested in improving our running times than our VO2 max.

VO2 max is one of the determinants of performance. Without a high VO2 max it is practically impossible to become a top athlete. On the other hand, a high VO2 max does not guarantee success in endurance sports. Other parameters come into play:endurance andrace economy.

If you want a quick summary: most types of training have been tried and everything is working relatively well. Indeed, if we consider that humans have been training for more than a century to improve their running performance, that different systems have been tried and that good runners have been trained in the different systems, we immediately understand that there is no better type of training. Probably part of a coach's success is tailoring training for each athlete based on what works best for them.

Still, I recently read one of the best scientific papers, that of PB Laursen: Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training?

Here are some interesting extracts that can be found in the paper:

  • The marked influence of high intensity training on performance and physiological factors is well known (Laursen & Jenkins, 2002), but the ability of athletes to train in this way is limited (Billat et al., 1999).
  • In trained athletes who do high volume training, adding interval training appears to be extremely effective.
  • These studies (Iaia et al., 2009 et Iaia et al., 2008) indicate that 4 weeks of low-volume, high-intensity training as a replacement for low-intensity, high-volume training can improve performance.
  • It is estimated that very high level athletes perform at 75% of their training volume at intensities much lower than the competitive intensity (Seiler & Kjerland, 2006).
  • Compared to the number of studies that demonstrate improvements with interval training, there are relatively few studies that document performance improvement with increased training volume (Costill et al., 1991). This is believed to be due to the fact that improvements in training volume occur slowly, making it difficult for researchers to observe.

In summary, science tells us that it would probably be interesting to do a lot of intervals. On the other hand, coaches and athletes of the past 100 years have shown that the body needs a mixture of volume and intensity to perform. Here are the different analysis possibilities that exist:

  • Do athletes train poorly and would improve their performance if they did more intervals?
  • Improvements due to volume happen over the longer term and are difficult to measure?
  • Are the improvements due to training volume still poorly understood from a physiological point of view?

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8 thoughts on “Intervals vs continuous training: how do top athletes train?”

  1. Still very relevant. It's also interesting to note that most high-level cross-country runners do high volume at low intensity. Run slowly to run faster ...

  2. Elite marathon runners have an incredible amount of training. Reid Coolseat ran 831 km last October and there was still one day left in the month. (See his blog)

    Over 30 days, 7 days a week, that's 7 km per day. We're really talking about volume here.

    My question is, with such volume, is it even possible to fit in interval training? And if so, how does it handle this? How does he get to rest adequately? What does his overall training plan look like?


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