How High Intensity Training Improves Endurance Sports Performance

Rowing, swimming, cycling, running, and oHow High Intensity Training Improves Endurance Sports Performancether endurance athletes focus on only training one energy system, the aerobic system. Unfortunately, research from Graesser (1986) suggests anaerobic energy contributes 20 – 30% for a 2,000 – m row (an endurance exercise, taking ~6 minutes). Recently, high intensity training (HIT) has gained popularity in training, as research suggests high intensity exercise also benefits endurance sports performance. This leads everyone into the dreaded quality vs. quantity debate, but remember the type of quantity and type of quality is the true questions and something the still undecided in the research. Overall, what the research suggests is that substituting some aerobic or traditional training with maximal or even supramaximal (yes, faster than you can maintain) can improve endurance sports performance. Don’t believe it? Well, a recent study by Stevens (2015) compared the effects of a traditional endurance training program with an endurance and supramaximal training program on 2,000-m rowing performance in elite University oarsmen after 4 weeks. The supramaximal exercise consisted of 4 – 6 repetitions of :60 all-out erg sprints with a 2.5 – 4 minute recovery period. Overall, both of these training groups improved, but the supramaximal exercise group demonstrated greater improvement (by ~1 second).

HIT Boot Camp

As the figure above shows, some athletes improved with traditional training [EBTAlone], while others succeed with the inclusion of supramaximal training [EBTSIT]. The most promising notion of including high intensity training for athletes it that despite a 40% reduction in continuous aerobic exercise (720 minutes in EBTSIT vs. 1,200 in EBTAlone) the EBTSIT group maintained their previous high standard of aerobic fitness. This finding supports other studies that have demonstrated the efficacy of supramaximal training for stimulating aerobic training and potentially benefiting aerobic sports performance. Once again, these results may not be for everyone, nonetheless, if some people can benefit from less training, why not? This period of less training can be used in other avenues, strength training, recovery, or simply sleep! Also, fewer repetitions on the body should reduce the injury risk, as training volume is the largest contributor of orthopedic injuries in endurance sports.

How High Intensity Training Improves Endurance Sports Performance

Overall, the improvement in sports performance is likely due from the overall enhancement in peak power output. The reasoning behind the improved peak power output is not well known, but it is believed to occur from an increase activity of key glycolytic enzymes, including hexokinase and phosphofructokinase [both of which create energy via ATP]. This is not surprising because endurance-trained individuals have been reported to have similar muscle glycolytic enzyme activity as untrained individuals, perhaps because their endurance-based training does not provide a sufficient anaerobic stimulus. As mentioned, before this study, the rowers involved in both the EBTSIT and EBTAlone groups engaged in a large volume of endurance-based exercise (∼80% of total training time), with much less time spent working above blood lactate threshold (∼20% of total training time). Although the participants in this study were already well trained at the beginning of this study, even modest improvements in physiological capacity could have significant consequences during rowing competition because the sports performances are won or lost by only fractions of a second. Therefore, improving glycoysis (and all the energy systems) can likely improve sports performance in endurance events. Make sure your training programs enhance all elements of your racing…


  1. Stevens AW, Olver TT, Lemon PW. Incorporating sprint training with endurance training improves anaerobic capacity and 2,000-m Erg performance in trained oarsmen. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):22-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000593.

Written by John Mullen, DPT, CSCS

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