No Pain, No Gain is a Lie, Part 2

*This is another excerpt from my book which relies heavily on the expertise and insights of two world renowed experts in training and athletic development, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler and conditioning expert Vern Gambetta.

One of the most influential individuals on my training practice has been exercise physiologist, Stephen Seiler, and his work on Polarized Training. Polarized Training is Seiler’s philosophical approach to training that has stemmed not only from his lab based research, but how those numbers correlate with the actual training practices and performances of the athletes he studies.

Stephen Seiler is a name well known in exercise physiology and is world renowned for his expertise, particularly when it comes to the training methods of elite endurance athletes. After 25 years of research in exercise physiology and observing the training practices of elite endurance athletes, Seiler has come full circle from the ideas propagated from his youth when he competed in a number of sports including weightlifting and track and field. It wasn’t until he moved to Norway in the early 1990’s and began studying elite endurance athletes in the lab that he had a complete reversal of his ideas about his own training and what actually contributed to good performance. Along the way, he had to let go of his ideas rooted in the American way of doing things, the most pervasive of which is the concept of No pain, no gain. [1]

Seiler explains his A-ha! moment regarding training intensity in a TEDx talk in November 2019. As Seiler takes the stage, it is apparent that this tall lanky Texan with a relaxed Southern drawl is about to tell you something that’s a little bit different from the typical speeches you may hear about fitness. He beings simply with the phrase “No pain, No gain”. And then pauses for effect. The audience titters with amusement and recognition of the phrase and then he continues. He describes No Pain, No Gain as an American narrative on training, one he grew up with, but then states his belief that this approach is not only often wrong, but “destructively wrong”.[2]

Shortly after he first arrived in Norway, Seiler began to notice that the top level athletes did not seem to be training the same way he was brought up to believe was effective.  This was further reinforced on morning when he came across an article about the Norwegian coach of the National Cross Country Skiing team. This coach was a legend, responsible for multiple athletes winning Olympic gold medals. But, again, he was surprised by something the coach was quoted as saying in the article. “We do not train at medium hard intensity. It’s too much pain for too little gain”.  Needless to say, he was perplexed. [3]

This struck a chord in Seiler, prompting him to take his curiosity out of the lab so he could see how these athletes actually trained on the trails, the hills, and the frozen lakes. He began to observe what kind of training was actually being done rather than simply measuring physiological changes in the lab. And he began to correlate the two. His studies eventually went beyond just those he was working with in his lab and he began reviewing the practices and performances of Olympic athletes over the past several decades from several countries. He has studied Norwegian cross country skiers, elite Kenyan marathoners, high school and college rowers, recreational exercisers, and even racehorses. And what he has found, time and time again, is that the practices that not only deliver the best performances in the world, but also the best physiological values when measured in the lab, all follow the same pattern. [4]

In a comprehensive review paper published in 2009, Seiler revealed that over the past several decades of elite level training for Olympics and World Championships, there was a seemingly paradoxical pattern common to those who were most successful. This pattern was that for the majority of these athletes’ training sessions, approximately 80% over the course of a week, a month, or a year, was in what he refers to as “the green zone”. [5] He describes this green zone as “low intensity, low perceived exertion, relatively comfortable, talking pace.” [6] This simply means the easy miles; quality work done for a longer duration of time. For us recreational athletes and casual exercisers, this is the 50-75% of max heart rate zone. You’re going to be working, but at an intensity you can maintain for 30-60 minutes. [7]

According to Seiler’s research, only about 20% of elite athletes’ training ever went into the “yellow zone” or the “red zone”. [8] The yellow zone is what Seiler describes as “somewhat hard . . . and kind of a high perceived exertion.” [9] The “yellow zone” is where a lot of the aforementioned high intensity classes sit. This is where you are out of breath, your muscles are burning, and if you’re like me, you may be overcome by a sense of dread. Efforts in this zone cannot be sustained for very long, maybe 10-20 minutes tops. If you break it into smaller segments with rest periods, maybe you can keep going for 30-40 minutes, but its going to be very difficult whether you are working or resting. He describes the red zone as a workout characterized by a “hard, high intensity, gasping pace.” [10] This would be an all out sprint or any activity that you would not be able to sustain for more than a minute or two. You’ll probably be happy to know that training at the yellow and red levels of intensity for the bulk of your workout sessions is not actually ideal; in fact, Seiler’s work has shown us that although these kinds of workouts are effective at increasing performance, going there too often actually hinders your progress. This has been demonstrated in elite athletes and recreational exercisers alike. [11]

This pattern that Seiler observed he would go onto develop into a concept known as Polarized Training. Polarized training is simply the division of training between low and high intensities with the bulk of training, roughly 80%, being done in the low intensity zones. This is the complete opposite of what you will find in most commercial gym classes and training programs for recreational exercisers. Polarized training is good for performance not only because it works, but because it reduces the risk of injury and burnout and maximizes recovery. Some higher intensity work is essential for boosting performance, but too much, and you are tapping into reserves that you need for the higher quality, but lower intensity work. That is the work that makes the most improvements over time. In a podcast with strength and conditioning coach, Vern Gambetta, Seiler explains how this model applies to recreational exercisers, ie just regular folks working out:

”We’ve seen this when we bring in recreational athletes. They’re notorious, the 40 year olds that are busy and try to get the most out of their training. Every workout has a tendency to be at the red line for 45 minutes. But the reality is, is they stagnate quickly.” [12]

He goes on to explain that when these recreational athletes allowed their training to be manipulated to include more low intensity days, their measured lab numbers, specifically of lactate, became much more favorable. Simply put, when you are not in good aerobic condition, it takes a lot less effort to stress your body. A rising lactate level is an indicator of that stress and indicates a lower fitness level. These individuals had high initial lactate levels at rest before his intervention, but after replacing some high intensity days with lower intensity, longer duration days, they had much lower lactate levels at rest. Essentially, this switch from high intensity workouts to lower intensity workouts made these individuals more fit. [13]

Polarized Training is an effective concept for beginners and professionals alike, but it is important to take into account what exactly low intensity and high intensity training mean. There are still ways to do both of those very wrong and in a way that won’t benefit the individual. Continuing on in his talk with Vern Gambetta, both of them address these issues as well. According to Gambetta, low intensity, or green zone training has to be performed the way Coach Bill Sweetenham, an elite swimming coach, describes as “skilled aerobics”. In other words, there must be an emphasis on technique, on breathing, on some aspect of your performance that is going to continue to make you better. Likewise, high intensity workouts can help improve performance, but only when done with purpose; for elite athletes, this means training at a high intensity to enhance their ability to maintain good mechanics and form at higher intensities. The theme for both of these is that the purpose of both kinds of training is to improve performance, in other words, its practicing skills and doing work. [14]
Seiler says it most simply:

“By and large, the biggest part of what makes great athletes great, is the daily grind. You know, they do the basic things really well. They’re out there rain or shine, they’re doing the work. And so I think that’s still a lesson to be learned for us recreational athletes that . . . it’s still about the basics. There are no shortcuts. And so if we can find a bit more time and we can enhance the quality of that session. Then that’s a step in the right direction.” [15]

Gambetta, Vern, and Stephen Seiler. “GAINcast Episode 104: Polarized Training (with Stephen Seiler),” n.d.

Ghosh, Asok Kumar. “Anaerobic Threshold: Its Concept and Role in Endurance Sport.” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS 11, no. 1 (January 2004): 24–36.

Seiler, Stephen. “How ‘Normal People’ Can Train like the Worlds Best Endurance Athletes | Stephen Seiler | TEDxArendal.” TEDx Talk, November 2019.

Seiler, Stephen, and Espen Tonnessen. “Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training.” Sports Science 13 (2009): 32–53.

[1] Seiler, “How ‘Normal People’ Can Train like the Worlds Best Endurance Athletes | Stephen Seiler | TEDxArendal.”

[2] Seiler.

[3] Seiler.

[4] Gambetta and Seiler, “GAINcast Episode 104: Polarized Training (with Stephen Seiler).”

[5] Seiler and Tonnessen, “Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training.”

[6] Seiler, “How ‘Normal People’ Can Train like the Worlds Best Endurance Athletes | Stephen Seiler | TEDxArendal.”

[7] Seiler and Tonnessen, “Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training.”

[8] Seiler and Tonnessen.

[9] Seiler, “How ‘Normal People’ Can Train like the Worlds Best Endurance Athletes | Stephen Seiler | TEDxArendal.”

[10] Seiler.

[11] Seiler and Tonnessen, “Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training”; Gambetta and Seiler, “GAINcast Episode 104: Polarized Training (with Stephen Seiler).”

[12] Gambetta and Seiler, “GAINcast Episode 104: Polarized Training (with Stephen Seiler).”

[13] Gambetta and Seiler; Ghosh, “Anaerobic Threshold: Its Concept and Role in Endurance Sport.”

[14] Gambetta and Seiler, “GAINcast Episode 104: Polarized Training (with Stephen Seiler).”

[15] Gambetta and Seiler.

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