Endurance Training Methods for Masters Athletes

Mug-shot-223x300Oh to find the holy grail of endurance training methodology! How hard should I train? How often should I train? How long should I train for? How should I put all these training components together to allow me to maximise my race performance in a specific event?

I scan the research literature most days in my role as a sport and exercise scientist within a University. A recent paper in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, presented a great review of some papers on training for endurance athletes and team players. A read of the paper got me thinking! Is there a right way to train or does it remain a totally individual ‘thing’?

Intensity or Volume?

Research over the last 15-20 years has conclusively shown that the greater the intensity and volume of endurance training, the greater the physiological adaptations and performance gains. However, we all know that the major risk of training too hard for too long is overtraining and/or injury (see Chapters 12 and 13 of our book The Masters Athlete). A 2008 research paper compared a high-volume, low-intensity swim training program (30 % increase in total volume as compared to their usual training) with a low-volume, high-intensity training program (high intensity training was upped by about 50 % and total training volume was decreased by 40 %) in 15-17 year-old competitive swimmers normally  covering about 30-35 km per week. After 4 weeks of training, the researchers found that 100 and 400 m times were similar between the two training groups. The researchers concluded that high training volumes have no advantage over high-intensity training done with a smaller volume of training.

In a study more relevant to team players or middle-distance runners, a 2007 study reported that reducing training volume by 20% while at the same time adding explosive-type exercises in a group of young (16-18 year olds) distance runners, enhanced anaerobic performance without impairing aerobic capacity or performance. The explosive training sessions lasted 30 – 60 minutes and consisted of various running sprints (5 – 10) × (30 – 150 meters) and jumping exercises (alternative jumps, calf jumps, squat jumps, hurdle jumps) or gym-based exercises (with low weights) such as half squats, knee extensions, knee flexions, calf raises, abdominal curls, back extensions (2 – 3 sets/exercise and 6 – 10 repetitions/set). While the researchers found no change in aerobic capacity, anaerobic threshold or running economy, they did find a significant improvement in the anaerobic tests which consisted of 8-9 x 150-meter runs with a 100-second recovery between the runs and a 30m sprint test.  These findings again suggest that many physiological adaptations can be attained with lower-volume training that includes some very high intensity training. There is no research to suggest the same finding would not apply to veteran athletes unless the older athletes had a chronic disease that prevented them from doing high intensity training.

What about injuries or overtraining?

In competitive masters athletes, a common mistake is training too much leading to a decrease in performance and staleness.  One of my former postgraduates, Dr Aaron Coutts and some of his team, have researched potential markers of staleness in both experienced, competitive triathletes and semi-professional football players in two separate studies. They concluded that perhaps the most effective predictor of staleness or overtraining was a questionnaire assessing how the athletes actually felt rather than any scientifically-based blood, urine or heart rate variable. This research suggests the most important way of preventing overtraining in endurance athletes is to listen to your body (see Chapter 4 of the book The Masters Athlete).


These recent research findings can aid the master’s coach or athlete in delineating the components of an effective endurance training program in terms of training volume and intensity. However, it appears that the holy grail of endurance or team training, an optimal training paradigm, remains elusive and we must rely on either our own ability to listen to our bodies or that judgement of a good masters coach to know what works for each individual masters athlete.

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