The Power of 3 – Building a comprehensive fitness plan

If you are a beginner runner or amateur athlete, Im pretty sure you have or at some point will wonder how to organise your training. If you download training programs from any number of fitness sites on the web, you will see things which look incredibly complex. 400m x 8 reps, 1600m x 4 reps, and so on. In this article, Im going to try to simplify training plans so you can design one for yourself and suitably substitute exercises when you find something you cannot do.

Power of 3

The holy trinity, the three wise men, the three kings, the three stooges, and the many more ‘threes’ in our world indicate that 3 is some kind of a cosmic constant. Well whether 3 is a cosmic constant or not, with respect to the human body and how it works, 3 is a pretty powerful number.
Let me explain with a simple equation which has 3 components.
Activity -> Energy -> Training
All activity requires Energy which can be built with Training. With that simple 3 variable equation, lets get into each of the components.

Three kinds of Activity

As a human being your body is designed to handle 3 kinds of activity.

  1.  Quick, fast activity – running after a chain snatcher, jumping out of the way of an out of control car
  2. Moderately intense activity – carrying a suitcase from the first floor to the car, pushing a heavy sofa to a new location in the house
  3. Long slow activity – walking through a mall, going for a jog, running a marathon

Three energy systems

  1. Phosphogen (ATP-PC) system – Think of rocket fuel or petrol. Strike a match and it explodes releasing a lot of energy in a very short time.
  2. Glycolytic system – like Kerosene, burns slower than petrol but still generates a lot of heat in a moderate amount of time.
  3. Oxidative system – like burning candle wax. A small amount of energy and heat released over a long period of time.

To be comprehensively fit, you need to train all three systems. Like all things in the human body, the energy systems improve with basic adaptation. That is, the more the body experiences something, the better it gets at dealing with it.
So if you want to train energy systems, you need to simulate activity that uses these systems over and over again.

Three types of training

  1.  Speed
  2. Speed endurance
  3. Endurance
  1. Speed

This type of training is basically short burst interval training. Multiple repetitions of 10 – 15 second activity at the highest intensity possible. The fuel used here is Adenosine Triphosphate (and Phosphocreatine) – rocket fuel.
Eg. 100-150m sprints with walking rest breaks of 3 minutes x 8 reps. Maintain a very high intensity (Between 85 and 95% of Max Heart Rate )

  1. Speed Endurance

Again, intervals, but slightly longer at a moderate intensity level. Each repetition should be in the 1 -3 minute range at moderate intensity. Glycogen becomes the predominant fuel source.
Eg. 400m repeats with walking or sitting rest breaks x 6-7 reps. Maintain moderate intensity between 70 and 80% MHR.

  1. Endurance

No intervals here. Just a long slow activity. Go for a run of 1 – 2 hours at just above brisk walk pace. You will only be using oxygen and stored fat (Triglycerides) which burn very slowly but give low intensity energy for a long period of time.
Eg. 1 hour jog at 60-70% MHR
An ideal training program has all three of the above each week. So a training programme which incorporates all of the above will be something like this

Day Workout Energy Energy System
Monday 100m x 8 ATP-PC (Rocket Fuel) Phosphogen (Anaerobic)
Tuesday Rest
Wednesday 400 x 6 Glycogen (Kerosene) Glycolytic System(Anaerobic / Aerobic)
Thursday Rest
Friday 1 hour (Long Slow distance jog/walk) Oxygen and Fat (candle wax) Oxidative (Aerobic)
Saturday Cross training / Repeat one of the 3 workouts depending on your event.
Sunday Rest / Cross Training


Scaling intensity

You can of course scale the intensity and modify the work out to suit your particular event. The key is to understand what energy system you are using and for how long you will be using it. Depending on how you train each system, it will respond by improving performance to match the intensity of the training. Obviously, there are also human limits which cannot be crossed. For instance, you cannot train to perform a ‘speed’ activity for longer than 2 – 2.5 minutes. That is, no amount of training will enable you to sprint for 30 minutes. What you do need to do is understand the sport or event that you are training for and figure what energy system it uses.

A 5k is typically 30m (average joe pace) in duration. If you were simply trying to run a 5K and improve your time, you would focus on building your aerobic capacity and work more on the long runs. If you were trying to RACE the 5K, it gets a little more complex. You need fast burst energy to be able to beat your opponent to the finish line. So sprint training is essential. Sometimes your opponent may attack you as you approach the home stretch. To successfully stave off the attack, you need a significant amount of speed endurance – you will need to increase your pace suddenly and hold it for an extended period of time.

So if you are designing a training program for your self, follow these steps:-

  1. Make sure there is adequate rest between work outs.
  2. Set the intensity level of each session based on how it is used in your sport (Squash players for instance will want to do 30 – 50 m sprints x 15, Long distance runners will do moderate intensity tempo runs of 5 – 7 km x 4 /5)
  3. Identify the energy systems predominantly used by the event / sport you are training for.
  4. Set aside one day of the week for each energy system.
  5. Set aside one additional day to train the main energy system for the second time during the week.
  6. Build muscle to perform the activity safely (Squats for runners, push ups and bench presses for throwers)

As an amateur athlete, this is all you need to do to build your training programme. And training in this way, will not only ensure you progress in a safe, injury free manner, but also enjoy your sport without hitting plateaus.