Endurance athletes and coaches usually say that they perform long workouts for three key reasons: to build strength, boost endurance and add volume to the overall training load, presumably leading to significant gains in physiological fitness. VO2max, for example, is generally considered to increase directly and predictably in response to increased training mileage.
Unfortunately, these popular assumptions are slightly misleading. Taking the notion that long sessions build strength, for example, it is important to remember that strength is always speed-specific; that is, if you utilize slow movements in your effort to improve your strength, your strength will be improved during slow movements but not fast ones – and vice versa.
Of course, long workouts are almost always carried out at moderate-to-low intensities and so, while they do build strength, it is not the kind of strength needed at competitive intensities, which tend to be high. For endurance runners, for example, even a prolonged event like the marathon is usually completed at an intensity of 85% VO2max-or-so – well above a typical long-run intensity of 70-75% VO2max. Long sessions primarily build the strength needed to complete more long sessions, not the strength needed during competition.
A similar argument can be constructed against the belief that long efforts favor endurance. The problem is that endurance is also intensity-specific, and thus the building of endurance at prolonged-effort intensities does not ensure endurance at competitive intensities.
Do long workouts work any better in relation to their third presumed benefit – of enhancing fitness via the volume effect? It would be nice to give prolonged efforts a glowing review in this area, but my most truthful and accurate answer would have to be: it depends. The problem is that the relationship between fitness and training volume is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns; specifically, as volume increases to higher levels, the gains in fitness become smaller and smaller. Eventually, in fact, fitness does not respond at all to advances in volume. Thus, adding a two-hour workout to an existing eight-hour week wouldn’t do much for VO2max. Worse still, long workouts do little for lactate threshold, since they are conducted at below-lactate-threshold intensity, and they probably improve economy primarily at the relatively low intensities chosen for the long workouts. In addition, they are poor producers of power, and they offer true specific preparation only for ultra-type events.
However, long workouts can work well if you are currently training well below your normal work load or a beginner to your sport. If you can add more to such a program without adding TOO much fatigue, you can probably upgrade your velocity at VO2max. Note, though, that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that a two-hour workout is better than two separate one-hour sessions; in fact, one might argue that breaking a two-hour workout into one-hour chunks would actually be better, since it would permit higher average training intensities. To summarize, we can say that prolonged workouts are not actually necessary for optimizing VO2max; the process can occur without the need to have a ‘biggie’ in your workout bag. Perhaps the greatest benefit of long efforts is that they do steel the mind for exhausting exercise, and such preparation can be very useful in competitive situations. If during a long run you can keep on going at a reasonable pace when your mind and muscles are screaming ‘no’, your confidence in your toughness and ability will be enhanced, and you will be more likely to keep on going at the ends of tough races. This is done in the Specific Phase.

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Comment by Eric Orton on June 22, 2009 at 4:33pm
Hey David - Thanks for posting your experience. Your training and race experience is so common, which is why I thought it was important to explain this long run/bike training myth.
I coach a mtn biker for Team Kenda who is targeting Leadville 100, placing second last year. She will not do any rides longer than 5 hours. I have her spend all spring building strength by doing short, hard workout intervals and 2 hour races. This would be the equivalent of racing 10ks in prep for your marathon build-up.
So when it is time for her to increase her long rides, she is very strong and ready and these rides are done much of the time at race pace. No long and slow.

It is even more important to do this with the run because now you are spending time on your feet, opposed to the less impactful bike. It is much better to train for strength early on, so you can then cover more miles in less time on your longer runs and keep them very specific to your race goal pace. Your Endurance phase should always prep you to train as specifically as you can 8 weeks prior to the race, which means lots of race pace efforts of shorter distances - E.
Comment by David Szymanski on June 22, 2009 at 2:28pm
Your post couldn’t have come at a better time, Eric. I had an experience over the weekend that drove home the points you made.

A little background - hopefully not a long preamble. Though never an elite performer or competitor, in my teens and twenties I would usually place in my age group, racing at 5:30-6:00/mile pace over 5-15K. Nothing fancy. No goal races, no training strategy, except that all my spotty training runs and rides were pretty hard. From age 28-36, I did a whole lot of nothing and was surprised at how much fitness I had lost. Not only that, my cholesterol and BP were through the roof. Resolving to live to see my kids graduate from kindergarten, I trained for a 5K. Got injured … then got scared of getting injured and started training very conservatively. Five years later … no injuries, but no speed either.

This past year, I started training for a 50-mile MTB race. Finished it this last weekend. Although they didn't need to send the search dogs out after me, I was near the back of the back. During the race, your post hit home. During training workouts, I had been staying in zones 1-2 for 4-5 hour rides, with a little zone 3-4 (less than 20 minutes) work. I was trying to build staying power. Here's what happened in the race:

Total time: 8+ hours

Zone 3: 2:01:43
Zone 4: 2:07:18

My training was all wrong. On my most ambitious "speed" days, I spent maybe 30 minutes in zones 3-5. Yet, the race required me to spend 4+ hours at this intensity. My body was able to do it, but I had developed no speed and/or power at these intensities.

The only advantages of the long, slow rides was that I was able to pace myself (4:05 for the first lap, 4:12 for the second). And, my legs were strong enough to avoid too much soreness during the race or after. I also stayed smiling.

If I had not had some modest speed earlier in life, I would assume that that's all I had in me (I think many people have the ability to go much faster than they imagine they can).

I did purchase your 8-week package and am hoping to try to re-create myself as a runner this summer. My goals are to do a 100-mile MTB race and 100-mile trail race by age 45. Starting slowly ...

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