Ask the Experts: Why are High-Intensity Workouts Important for Endurance Athletes?

8 min read

Most of us are unable to train like a professional athlete but this does not mean your performance has to sacrifice because of it. Surely most cyclists or runners would love to be able to train 20-30 hours per week like pro tour racers or marathon greats. Most of the time, family and work commitments place time limits around how much and how often we can head out on the roads and trails. You still have goals you want to reach, and it is important to know that you still can! Even if you’re unable to log 15 hour training weeks, there is one key ingredient to incorporate into your training that will pay dividends down the road: high-intensity training workouts.

What are High-Intensity Workouts?

In short, these are workouts that will target zones above your aerobic base. These workouts can include short intervals such as 20-second bursts to longer sustained efforts targeting levels near VO2 capacities. Our bodies do not rely on one energy system alone to fuel us for endurance events. There are three different pathways that contribute to the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the process of converting food into usable energy:

  1. Phosphocreatine Breakdown
  2. Glycolysis
  3. Aerobic Respiration – Krebs Cycle

Each of these systems will kick into action at different moments throughout an event. Short bursts of speed will rely heavily upon Phosphocreatine Breakdown (Anaerobic ATP Production), sustained high-intensity efforts such as events like the 400-meter dash or a 30-second attack on the bike will utilize Glycolysis, while long endurance events will rely heavily upon aerobic respiration. It is important to remember that while many of us participate in endurance events, we still utilize all of these ATP pathways at certain moments. The better we build our anaerobic ceilings, the greater our capabilities to increase our aerobic endurance. We achieve these high ceilings by doing workouts that target these different energy systems. Take for example athletes like professional runner Shelby Houlihan who can produce 1500 meter times of 3:54 and then 5k times of 14:23. She has the ability to produce high-end speed that can translate well into longer distance events.

There is a time and a place to log big miles to build an aerobic base. Perhaps the weekends are your chance to escape for your Sunday long run, or Saturday four-hour group ride, but during the week time is of the essence and you have goals to work towards. The trainer or treadmill is where you can get an exceptional training session completed within 60-90 minutes. With advancements made across the board in technology when it comes to indoor training, athletes are able to use products with high reliability to measure and produce effective training outcomes. High-intensity workouts are great when it comes to session length, repeatability, and measuring progress. When you are able to repeat a session you can view progress on the intervals completed to determine if you are getting stronger in areas you were previously weaker. The Sufferfest also offers training sessions that allow athletes to test their progress along the way. This provides athletes an accurate snapshot of where their current fitness is, and areas of weakness to focus on.

In order to create a stimulus for change, adaptation, and improvement in performance we need to apply some level of stress in our training. If we remove intensity from the possible stressors, then we are left almost exclusively with increasing training volume. Most athletes, even professionals, have limits on the volume of training that can be performed before boredom, an increased risk for overuse injury due to the monotony of movement patterns associated with low-intensity training, and fatigue result. There are definitely varying degrees and amounts of high-intensity training that can be beneficial and useful to be included at all training phases and levels of ability that will improve the performance potential for all endurance athletes.”

Neal Henderson, Head of Wahoo Sports Science

The ability to utilize training programs that target zones well above base level training can help prepare athletes for endurance events and racing. As Neal states, “There are very few endurance events that do not require some level of high-intensity performance during the competition, therefore the most effective preparation for those events will include some level of high-intensity training. The few and rare endurance events that do not rely heavily on a high-intensity phase include ultra-endurance contests conducted on a flat surface – like running the most laps on a running track in X hours. Once you add variations like terrain, weather, and mass start/group tactics some level of high-intensity output is required to achieve peak performance.” 


Make the most of your time, try The Sufferfest Training App.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *