Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Baby Its Cold Outside

Today’s post is about how to get the most out of your indoor training.   My motivation is that up here in Minnesota more people will be doing more of their exercising indoors in the winter months.   I am not sure when the shift begins but I hear from studio cycling instructors that class size starts to pick up in October and remains high until March or April.

In the pre-gym, fitness center, and indoor exercise equipment era a few brave souls went outside to run “no-matter what”.   The advent of better protective clothing in the 1980s helped, and I can remember putting titanium screws on the bottoms of old running shoes to improve footing and grip on the ice.  Equipment and clothing for outdoor exercise have gotten better but thankfully I have gotten less macho and am now happy to be indoors most days during the “deep winter” or even the “deep fall”.

In previous posts I talked about the value of interval training for all and also provided some ideas about how to get the most out of your training as you age.  In this post I want to give you some ideas about good ways to maintain your fitness indoors based on what has been described as the “Hickson Protocol”.   It comes from a 1977 paper called “Linear increase in aerobic power induced by a strenuous program of endurance exercise.” 


What is the Hickson Protocol?
The protocol consists of exercise 6 days per week for 10 weeks.   On days 1,3, and 5 the workout is six 5-minutes maximal cycling intervals separated by 2-minutes of easy cycling. On the alternate 2,4, and 6 it is 40 minutes of hard running.  The figure below shows that when untrained subjects first used the protocol they achieved vast increases in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) over the course of the 10 weeks of training.


Who wants to train this hard every day forever?
The short answer is not many people and when the original 8 subjects were offered the chance to continue beyond the original 10 weeks they all said no!   However, this study does show just what is possible with hard training.


How can I use this data to plan my winter training?
Most people reading this probably already exercise and some of you are competitive athletes and already do at least some high intensity training.   Hickson can help us here.  He did a number of similar training studies and then asked people to reduce their training frequency, duration, or intensity in various ways to see just how much (or how little) exercise was required to maintain VO2 max at a high level.  He ultimately showed that brief periods of intense training a few times per week were remarkably effective in maintaining VO2 max at a high level.


“We conclude that it is possible to maintain almost all of the performance increases with up to a two-thirds reduction of training duration. Nevertheless, the data provide initial evidence that all aspects of the endurance-trained state may not be regulated uniformly in reduced training, particularly since VO2 max and short-term endurance were maintained, but long-term endurance decreased in the 13-min group.”


Summing up.
Clearly there is more to training and competing successfully than doing intense exercise just a few times per week for a few minutes.  However, the winter is a time when many people do a little less and the Hickson studies show that if you do a bit of high intensity exercise every week it will be easier to gear up when the weather gets better and the days get longer.   The Hickson data is also helpful for planning your training when you are traveling or have limited training time.   You can clearly accomplish a lot with 30-45 minutes per day of training, and maintain things with even less.


5 Responses to “Baby Its Cold Outside”

  1. December 27th, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Indoor Exercise: Tips for the New Year! | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] brief but high intensity interval training is a great way to maintain and even improve your fitness in the winter.  For people with competitive goals it means that you will be ready for more and […]

  2. February 6th, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Indoor Exercise Tips for 2013 says:

    […] brief but high intensity interval training is a great way to maintain and even improve your fitness in the winter.  For people with competitive goals it means that you will be ready for more and […]

  3. March 19th, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Rhet says:

    Good article.
    What exactly is meant by “40 minutes of hard running” on days 2,4,and 6? Is that an interval workout that lasts 40 minutes total or is it a sustained pace run for 40 minutes?

  4. March 19th, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Michael Joyner, M.D. says:

    It could be either, the important thing is to keep your intensity up. Because steady runs are “boring” on the treadmill I gravitate toward more interval training to stay focused and mix it up.

  5. January 5th, 2014 at 10:17 am

    What I’m Reading, Sunday, January 5, 2014 | The Human Body Garage says:

    […] Baby Its Cold Outside | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. […]

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