Longer Isn't Always Better - In Training, That Is
Sometimes you hit a plateau in your training. It happens to all of us and for many reasons. Some people are eventually able to overcome their plateaus, whereas others give up and never push further. A plateau is easy to spot when it comes to strength. The numbers stop going up, and try as you might, there’s nothing you can do about it. However, people often overlook the fitness markers that are not as easy to measure.
Fitness variables like VO2 max and sympathetic and parasympathetic cardiac control are not typically measured by the average athlete or coach. Sometimes VO2 max is estimated, but rarely is it directly measured. This is because most people don't have the equipment to take these measurements. Even resting heart rate, a measurement everyone can test, often goes unmeasured. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers explored if and when we hit a plateau in these less measurable variables.
For this study, researchers examined South African soldiers. There were a few good reasons the soldiers made good candidates. First, the South African military wanted this test done. The military extended their basic training program to twenty weeks, a month longer than the British Army fitness program, and twice as long as the U.S. Army basic training program. The military made the extension to achieve superior fitness in their soldiers, but didn't know if it would actually do any good.
The other good reason to use soldiers entering into basic training is that they are a fairly similar bunch in terms of age, health, and fitness at the outset. They also undergo a strict regimen of exercise, diet, and schedule that is easy to control and similar to laboratory conditions (and, in some ways, better).
The soldiers followed a fairly standard basic training program including skill work and fitness training, much like an athlete would. They were tested for various fitness markers at the start of the study, at twelve weeks, and finally at twenty weeks.
Looking primarily for changes to VO2 max, the researchers discovered that improvements to that marker had plateaued by week twelve. For the next eight weeks, the change was almost non-existent. Heart rate, on the other hand, did continue to drop throughout the program, indicating both improving health and fitness and an absence of overtraining. The autonomic balance of heart rate control also continued to increase over time, which is a substantial indicator of long-term health.
This study has a few implications for athletes. A twenty-week block of similar training doesn’t seem to perform any better than a twelve-week block when it comes to VO2 max, so a longer training camp for competition might not always yield better results. However, despite the fact that certain fitness markers may plateau after twelve weeks, other health markers may continue to improve through week twenty. If your goal is cardiorespiratory performance, it might be time to change things up after three months of the same type of training.
1. Catharina C. Grant, et.al., “The difference between exercise induced autonomic and fitness changes measured after 12 weeks and 20 weeks of medium to high intensity military training.,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a1fe46
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