Training Intensity – Macro, Meso and Micro Scales

One of the things coaches and experts in the field of sports training seem to be talking about these days is the fact that most of us tend to take the hard workouts too easy and even more so, the easy workouts too hard.In effect we end up doing almost all of our workouts at a medium intensity and never really elicit as effective a training response as we could.

What we should be doing is making sure that our easy training sessions are REALLY easy so that we are in good form for our hard, pivotal sessions each week and can train extremely hard when the time comes. Being fresh for the high intensity sessions allows us to push ourselves further than we would if we were a little fatigued and therefore provides more of a training response which ultimately leads to better performance.

In a way, this varying of intensity should be seen on various scales within your training schedule as well.

Macro – Over a period of months, intensity should change throughout the year as you follow a periodised training plan.

Meso – Each week there should be easy recovery sessions and hard, high intensity sessions.

Micro – On a smaller time scale, within each session you are likely to be doing some harder, high intesity intervals interspersed with recovery periods.

Macro-Scale Intensity Changes

These are a little more subtle than simple going easy in the off-season and hard during the race season, but that is still what we should do. Following the last race of the season many top level athletes will simply kick back for a while. Their training will become less structured and they’ll do other sports just for fun. It gives their body a rest, allows them to do other things and just as importantly gives them a mental break as well.

Even us amateurs should do the same as it’s good to have some rest and recuperation and the winter is the usual time for this. We don’t stop completely of course and there are plenty of other activities we can be doing, but the structure and hard core training should take a back seat.

A don’t forget those around you during this time. They’ve been supporting you and putting up with your hectic training scehdules all year round. It’s now payback time so spend some time with them and let them know you appreciate their sacrifices for your sport. It’ll soon be approaching race season again and you’ll soon be ramping up the intensity so make the most of some downtime while you can.

Admittedly a proper periodised training plan is a little more complicated than just going easy in the off season and hard in race season, but the same holds true – for many of us taking it easy is the difficult bit, but we need to do it so that we can really capitalise on the ‘proper training’ later in the year.

Meso-Scale Intensity Changes

The meso-scale intensity changes are the ones that people often neglect, or at least, we tend not to make them pronounced enough. For many of us our swims, bike rides and runs are all pretty much at a similar intensity. Take a look back through your training logs and you’ll see what I mean. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but really there should be a few properly hard, high intensity sessions interspersed with some really easy recovery sessions.

The trouble is we all only have a certain number of hours in the week in which we can train so when we get out there swimming, biking and running we feel as though we should be putting in some effort. A slow, easy jog just doesn’t feel right so we end up running along at our usual pace, stressing our bodies in the usual way – We think to ourselves:

“this is supposed to be training, surely I should be sweating and out of breath, surely I should at least feel as though I’ve done something”

Well, no, the easy sessions are meant for recovery and doing them too hard means that you aren’t as fresh as you could be for your next high intensity session and therefore can’t go as hard as you should. A medium intensity recovery session leads to a medium intensity hard session and in the end all of your training sessions end up being either slightly easier or slightly harder medium intensity sessions.

If all you ever put in are medium level efforts then what you get out of it will be mediocre too.

It doesn’t matter whether you train 7 hours a week or 25 hours a week, only a small percentage of the training should be at a high intensity.

The high intensity sessions are actually easy, we just push as hard as we can. trouble is we are rarely rested enough to push as hard as we could. Ironically doing a really low intensity session is never easy as the temptation to go just a little bit harder is always there, we have to constantly reign ourselves in and hold back. Just remember doing so will mean the higher intensity sessions will count for more.

Micro-Scale Intensity Changes

This is the easiest scale in which to get the intensity changes into our training program as they are changes within any given workout. Essentially they are intervals and almost everyone does them. There are countless ways to do them, from fartlek runs without any real structure, through hill reps to highly structured intervals on a track or turbo trainer. They can be long intervals or short intervals and doing them makes training more interesting and fun.

The rules are the same though, the easy recovery periods should be really easy so that you can go suitably hard during the high intensity interval. Most people are now fairly good at this, although the temptation to keep the pace up during a recovery period is still there.

Be Patient, Hold Back

Yes, the training response that leads to better performance comes about following the high intensity periods whether that be on a macro, meso or micro scale, but the the real key is those easy sessions as all too often we go harder than we should. We need to be patient, we need to hold back so that we can make the most of the high intensity sessions when the time for them comes.

So, STOP chasing that person ahead of you, STOP watching the clock, STOP attempting a Strava segment just because its there and STOP simply rushing so that you can get home for dinner. It’s time to chill and take it easy so that you can make the most of your next session.

[Yes, I’m talking to me!]

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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