There are a few different opinions I have as a coach that always seem to upset a few people in the strength and conditioning profession. Namely:
- I think Olympic lifting is poor investment of training time and effort relative to the strength, speed and power benefits that can be derived from mastering them.
- Strength, whilst very important is not as important as people make it out to be. Rather than just strength numbers in the gym for the sake of it, I would rather see my athletes perform better at their sport even if that means being a little weaker. The best athletes are not necessarily the strongest athletes, and vice versa.
Today’s post is about a third unpopular opinion I have: I don’t like Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS) training. MAS has become increasingly more popular in recent years as a means of conditioning field sport athletes like rugby players. For that reason I get a lot of questions from coaches who want to know if I use it and what I think of it.
For the record: I think MAS works OK. I understand why coaches with limited time, resources and staff use a MAS system. There is no question it makes rugby athletes “fitter”, but I am unconvinced it is an optimal strategy for the rugby athletes I work with, and I don’t think I will be switching any time soon. So without further ado here are my 9 reasons why I don’t like MAS. Please read to the bottom before commencing the hate mail!
1. It doesn’t fit philosophically
I have yet to hear a better description of the goal of an energy system development programme for field based sports than that proposed by Mladen Jovanovic:
The goal of an energy system development programme should be highest intensity efforts possible, repeated with the greatest frequency possible
I think you will struggle to find much philosophical disagreement amongst coaches regarding the above. It is common sense that you can’t train athletes like marathon runners- they will just get destroyed the first time they have to perform a high intensity effort against an opponent. Likewise you can’t just train to be a powerhouse- you’ll look great in minute 1, then be useless for the other 79.
Contrasted to Mladen’s statement, my impression of MAS is that we are training athletes to increase the duration of submaximal efforts. We definitely aren’t developing the maximal outputs of the athlete (the intensity of the effort)- the velocities of MAS do not come close to sprint velocities.
Nor do I think we are necessarily the ability to resynthesise the systems responsible for those efforts. Lactate threshold is a pretty strong correlate of PCr resynthesis and retention of power output during repeated maximal efforts, and to develop this system we mostly need to be training at or around LT and below. MAS intervals will quickly push rugby athletes well above that.
2. It doesn’t fit anecdotally
The evidence documenting the importance of the aerobic system to repeated high intensity efforts is fairly robust. The higher your LT, the bigger your aerobic capacity, the better your ability to maintain high power outputs for longer. Yes, you can dip into the glycolytic pathway to take up the slack of the other two systems if you like, but once you do you are on borrowed time. And the recovery cost of doing so is much greater, both inter-effort and inter-session.
Considering just the aerobic side of the equation, and the variables I discussed above, if we look anecdotally at the training of the most successful endurance athletes on the planet there is a big difference between how they train, and the characteristics of MAS training. High level endurance athletes dedicate the overwhelming volume of their training to low intensities (and yes, they train with a good amount of volume at times). Plus only a moderate volume is dedicated to high intensity efforts.
MAS on the other hand is characterised by relatively low volume performed for a short time, most of it dedicated to medium and high intensity work. I find it hard to believe we can expect optimal development of any physical quality by dedicating just minutes to it each week. Obviously some will counter my argument by saying we cannot compare the energy system training of elite athletes to field sport athletes, but my reply is that we are quite content to do so when it comes to Olympic weightlifting!
3. It’s more efficient to develop maximal outputs
As I’ve stated before, relative to an athlete’s maximum, MAS running is a sub maximal effort. Even at 120-130% of maximal aerobic speed, athletes will not reach the velocities needed to develop maximal sprinting velocity (probably the 90-95%+ zone of maximal speed) according to Charlie Francis and other high level sprint coaches. In a nutshell: train MAS and you only improve MAS.
However in my experience if we can raise the maximal sprinting speed of the athlete, not only does speed itself increase (the intensity of the effort), but we increase the frequency with which athletes are able to repeat efforts of a given velocity (the frequency and sustainability of the effort). To me this offers a far greater return on investment of training time and fatigue.
I believe this is the reason that outside of scrum halves, wingers and full backs will typically exhibit the highest MAS scores during a test like the 30:15 IFT, even though they actually perform the fewest number of sustained efforts throughout the game. Because they have such a big maximal speed relative to the demands of the test, they fatigue more slowly.
4. It comes at the expense of other high intensity means
As I’ve shared before on this blog, I prefer to operate high-low organisation of training for my rugby guys. This means days of higher CNS stress training elements alternated with days of lower CNS stress elements. If it all works well, the body is given sufficient time to recover between high intensity days, but quality work can still be done on the low days by focussing on activities that do not interrupt that recovery.
Philosophically I am already wary of medium intensity work (as coach once told me “Medium only works in clothing”), but if one is going to include it in the programme it has to be prescribed on high intensity days due to it’s interference with recovery on low days. Let’s also assume that any serious athlete is already performing on high days the volume of work that results in maximum adaptation.
Thus if we include medium intensity work in the context of a high-low programme, it must come in at the expense of existing high intensity work, which (as I’ve alluded to above) I do not believe offers the greatest investment on the return.
5. Why do more of what we already do?
Let’s stop and think for a second about why we have have jobs as strength and conditioning coaches; because at some point we realised that just playing the sport and practising is insufficient stimulus to keep the body adapting and improving. At some point you have to start doing different stuff to develop the physiological qualities that underpin match performance. Typically this means doing two things: train with more intensity, or train with less intensity.
In my opinion it is from this realisation that we have developed training models like funnel periodisation, polarised periodisation and the high-low model. We’ve realised that training at sub- and supra-event intensities offer more rewarding avenues for performance enhancement once the mere stimulation of practice or matchplay ceases to be productive.
On the spectrum of exercise/training intensity we have at our disposal, rugby practices and training fall pretty much in the middle: by no means easy, but not maximal either (most players still miss vmax by 5kmh or more even during matches). Likewise MAS intervals fall in this middle zone: neither easy nor maximal.
My question: if MAS and practice/matchplay occupy roughly the same intensity zones, and we’ve established that practice/matchplay is insufficient for physiological development, how is more of the same going to improve performance in an optimal manner. My belief is that an approach which focusses on the intensities outside of practice/matchplay, maximises physiological adaptation, then realises these adaptations at game specific intensities will be a far more productive approach to energy system development.
Check the rugby strength coach blog next week for more blasphemy, where I will be covering parts 6 to 9 of this list. If you have any thoughts about this post, leave me a comment and let’s start a discussion.