Saturday, January 7, 2012

Benefits of Long Slow Distance (LSD) Exercise

This post looks at the following:
  • What is LSD exercise?
  • How do you do it properly?
  • What are the benefits of LSD exercise (done properly)?
  • Why do groups such as Crossfit rubbish LSD, and why are they wrong to do so?
  • A call to promote simple, relaxing, and healthy exercise.

What is LSD exercise?
As the name suggests, LSD is training sessions where you exercise for a longer time, your intensity is low/slow, and you tend to cover a lot of distance, e.g. running 10km at a heart rate of 145 beats per minute(bpm).  The opposite to LSD training is heading out for a session of sprints or performing weight training.

Neither low or high intensity training is necessarily bad, but high intensity training is more likely to lead to over-training and then injury.  Both forms of training, performed in the right mix, and at the right times, can be highly beneficial to your level of fitness.

The main distinction of LSD training is that it is primarily aerobic in nature, stimulating the aerobic energy system and aerobic muscle development.  Higher intensity training such as Crossfit works the anaerobic energy systems much more, and only to a limited extent does it improve the aerobic system.

How to do LSD training properly
If you follow energy systems and the fully scientific approach, e.g. from Polar here, you will likely find your max heart rate and then train within the range of about 70 to 80 percent of this figure.  For a 30 year old, the max is approximately 190 bpm (thought this can vary widely).  70 to 80 percent of 190 bpm is 133 to 152 bpm.

This means that, for you to do LSD training properly, you will wear a heart rate monitor and train with your heart rate kept within that range.  What if you don't have a monitor?  Some suggest maintaining a pace that you can hold comfortably while breathing through your nose and to stay within this range.

I use Dr. Phil Maffetone's method, which roughly speaking takes your age from 180 and then stays within a range of 10 bpm below this figure, e.g. for a 30 year old: 180 - 30 = 150 and then maintain a range of 140 to 150.  There are modifications to this range based on fitness and health levels.  The Maffetone method often results in a significantly lower heart rate range which some find difficult to keep to because their body wants to move them faster.

Because muscle imbalance can be corrected with light aerobic stimulus, and because you can end up worsening your muscle imbalances much more easily with higher intensity aerobic training.  I think Maffetone's method works best.

Benefits of proper LSD training
While it can take a fair bit of time, the benefits of training LSD are huge.  Later I'll mention why Crossfit can't compete with LSD training where it matters, and what Crossfitters can easily do to save their training.

The benefits:
  • Better fat burning because of optimal mitochondrial development
  • Better recovery because of optimal capillarisation (development of capillaries and therefore increased blood flow to muscles helping bring nutrients)
  • Better performance, again because of the two points above (better blood flow means better oxygen delivery)
  • Lower injury rates since light aerobic training can help restore muscle balance and efficiently develops your aerobic muscles which are your structural/stabilising muscles for joints
It should be mentioned that LSD training, if it is the only training that you ever do, will not be enough to help you perform at a competitive level.  But for the average person, LSD is a great way to increase both health and fitness without the drawback of low energy levels during a lengthy recovery period, which is typical of high intensity training.

Why do groups like Crossfit not follow LSD methods?
On the Crossfit Endurance FAQ page, you can find a list of pros and cons for LSD training.  For them, they choose to follow a higher intensity training because there are more cons (in their view) of LSD training, and more benefits of anaerobic training.  While their list is true, it is only true under certain conditions, and is only relevant if you are aiming to perform at a high to elite level (which if we're honest, is not most of us).

Primarily, crossfit methods are wrong because they overlook the two greatest benefits of aerobic training with LSD, namely increased capillarisation and mitochondrial growth.  Without these, you are setting yourself up for injury if you want to maintain a high training frequency.  I look at crossfit and can't help but feel that most of it is designed around controlled over-training in which it is almost impossible to avoid injury.

The good news, as many people are beginning to realise, is that you can have the best of both worlds simply be seasonalising your training carefully.  Ben O'Grady is one I've discovered and enjoy reading and recommend his articles.  Maffetone has been seasonalising much longer, often recommending a 3 month aerobic base building (off) season and even a mini base building season for a month or so in the middle of a long competitive season.

For crossfitters, gymnasts, parkour practitioners, and any other athletes with high intensity expectations, I thoroughly recommend fitting in 3 months minimum per year of exclusive (no anaerobic training whatsoever) aerobic training.

Everyone should be training this way
Finally, I want to point out that the benefits I've discussed (fat burning, recovery, injury prevention), along with a thoroughly easy and enjoyable training method, are not only great for athletes.  Even the average person, who merely wants the health and energy to enjoy life properly, will benefit enormously from LSD training.

I know that I want to be active when my children are old enough to train at the things that I love, and LSD training is essential to this.  I would love to see people all over the world embracing something which really is an essential part of the foundation to a better life.

To any crossfitters who might be a bit peeved at me, I say keep your crossfit but at least spend a few months each year preparing for your personal crossfit season.  And if injury occurs, back off and spend a few months repairing your body with long, slow, distance, aerobic training.

All the best!