First things first, always keep in mind that with nearly everything on this particular topic, someone is trying to sell you something (and yes, that does include me). There is a pretty large argument amongst the community in relation to the best type of activity to loose fat. This is primarily in concern to cardio, or forms of cardio like interval training. One protocol in particular gets thrown around quite a bit, the tabata protocol. So whats the truth, who’s right, who’s wrong. Well the truth is usually in the middle of the two extremes. Interesting, the definition of truth…My favorite definition, and one that explains it quite well, is that truth is full disclosure of reality. Which means that the extremes are not the truth, normally. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that people that don’t fully disclose reality are actively lying. They just probably don’t realize that they are only partially correct. So, right, lets get to it…
The Truth: Both extremes are right about some of the information they give. The first rule that you have to remember about training is the law of accommodation. That means that if you any one thing long enough, you will cease to get better from it. This means that a variety of activities will actually best help you get to your goal. But again keep in mind the law of specificity, which means that the best way to get better at something is to do that one thing a lot, and not mix it with things that would cause a different adaptation. These two things are a constant balancing act. So the best answer, while keeping it simple (which it is not), is that you work on one thing on one day, and a different thing a different day. There are somethings that will complement each other and those can be worked on the same day. But again, everyone likes to create these really simple plans to sell you. But simple, only works for a little while. For example, interval training is awesome, but it is only awesome by itself for 6 weeks. Then…accommodation. Now there are different ways to do interval training that will help you stretch that out, but still you will eventually plateau. Why? Well, that’s just how your body works. It gets better until it gets numb. So the trick is never letting it get numb.
But Jeremy, the Tabata protocol….Yeah, it is great. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, short sweet (or should I say Sweat), and very effective at aiding in fat loss and improving VO2max…for about 6 weeks. Then what? Sure you burn A LOT more fat in the 72 hour recovery phase than you do from the meager 6-24 hour recovery phase from a long run. But the reality is that the plateau for things that cause “aggressive adaptation” comes just as fast if not faster than it does from other more moderate types of activity. Now, don’t let it seem that I am just picking on the interval side. The constant rate training supporters are amongst some of the most stubborn groups that I have ever had the privilege to educate. Show me a guy that does nothing but moderate intensity cardio and I will show you a guy plagued with low muscle mass, high intensity deficits (i.e. max speed close to what he trains at…slow), and muscular imbalances. But so and so marathan runner…looks either like an emaciated toothpick or a pregnant guy. Long distance running, when done solely as the training system (if it should be called that), results first and for most in a reduction in anything that makes long distance running inefficient…weight…type 2 muscle first because it is incredibly metabolically wasteful for distance training, then fat. But yet fat is the primary source of energy right…yep. So it should burn tons of fat right…yep. ??? If I told you that you needed incredible amounts of orange juice to survive the next year and that there would be an orange juice shortage (low fat diet), what would you do? That’s right, you’d sell everything that you could and stock up on orange juice, and if you’re smart even plant a mature orange tree. do you think that you are any smarter than your body? Nope, dumber actually (no offense, your body is way smarter than you, I don’t care how smart you are). Here’s what your body decides to do. First, all this metabolically expensive muscle has got to go. Great, now I am starting to run out of fat but I know I am going to need it again tomorrow. Ok, whats the best way to make some more of this fat stuff, sugar. Hey Brain, Eat a whole lot of carbs! We need some fat! That is the reason why the back of the marathon pack looks pregnant. As you can imagine, you have to train to run 24 miles, period. So if distance training made you lean, then all marathoners would be lean. I know, logic right, amazing. So how come the guys and gals at the front are so lean? Guess what they do the get to the front? Speed training, also known as interval training. That increases their VO2max (aerobic power) substantially and helps them lean down.
So the reality is that lifting, intervals of various sorts, and some distance training are all valuable in different ways. To some extent, if done correctly, they compliment each other. The two most important are lifting and interval training because they help you put on muscle and lean down, but some distance training is essential. Typically I suggest one day a week of low intensity distance training. For me, this is typically a 45-90 minute brisk walk with my lovely wife and dogs, or a 5-10 mile bike ride. It has some benefits for improving vascular density within the muscles and oxygen delivery. This dramatically improves recovery rate and helps prevent over training. It also helps me recover faster between intervals which allows me to rest less and get more intervals in during my workout. I do one moderate intensity day, which is usually a short bike ride (3-5 miles fast) or a 20 minute run. It may also be a day on the climbing wall, depending on my training phase and when my next climbing trip is. This day is actually somewhere between a “distance” workout and intervals. And I do 2 or more days of interval training. Those days change quite a bit, which is by design. The interval training helps improve my VO2 max and burn loads of fat, in addition to helping make my other two works better by improving my power throughout the workouts. So my intensity for those workouts go up, which means that they work better. The Tabata Protocol really is a great protocol, it takes 3.5 minutes and is very effective. But there are only so many ways that you can change 20 seconds all out with a 10 second rest period. If you want it fast, and don’t care if you plateau, Tabata all the way. But if you want to continue to adapt of a period of years, you have to do other types of training. The trick is to balance it correctly with your other forms of training. That is where experience comes into play.