Super set training: improve your motivation and fitness levels at the same time
Super set sessions will help you run, cycle, or swim for longer and faster.
Are you tired of doing the same workouts week after week? Are you moving through your usual menu of training sessions with less-than-optimal enthusiasm? Have your performances reached a plateau?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, it's time for you to try some 'super sets'. Super sets will increase your enthusiasm for training while simultaneously heightening specific aspects of your fitness. At first, you'll look forward to carrying out the super sets because they are so challenging - and so different from what you usually do. In the long run, you'll want to use super-set sessions with regularity because of the way they help you run, cycle, or swim longer and faster.
What are super sets? If you lift weights or go to a gym at which athletes are serious about strength training, you may be familiar with the term: A super set is simply a series of intervals or exercises which are carried out without any recovery - and with decreasing intensity. Why do we believe that super sets can be such a valuable training tool for endurance athletes? First, both authors of this article have noticed that we could run sprints at almost maximal intensity - and then recover enough in just 10 seconds or so to run another sprint. From this, we realized that it was possible to group together a large number of high-quality exercise segments without including a large quantity of recovery time.
Stripping off weight
Secondly, we have been intrigued and impressed by strength athletes' utilization of super sets in their training. For example, a strength athlete performing a super set of bench presses would start by pressing an extremely heavy weight. When he/she reaches the point of failure, two assistants strip off just enough weight from the barbell so that he/she can continue pressing. When the athlete becomes exhausted again, the helpers take more weight away - just enough so that the athlete can keep working. This pattern - muscular failure, reduced resistance, renewed pressing, muscular failure, etc. continues until the only thing left in the athlete's hands is the bar. At this point, the athlete literally has difficulty just moving his/her arms.
In the strength-training community, super sets are also known as 'strip sets', because weight is stripped off the bar over the course of the set. Some athletes also call switching from exercise to exercise for the same muscle group - with very little rest - a super set. In the latter case, a super set is like a circuit for one muscle group with minimal recovery. The basic principle underlying the super set, of course, is to keep working at one's relative maximal intensity for a prolonged period of time (we use the term 'relative maximal intensity' because accumulating fatigue will prevent working at absolute max). Since fatigue inevitably mounts after a relatively short period of time, resistance is reduced so that all-out effort can continue, even though the absolute power output is lower due to fatigue. By challenging the muscles to work as hard as they possibly can for an extended period of time, a maximal stimulus for improvement in strength is created.
To do the same thing in a running, cycling, or swimming workout, one would have to perform hard intervals in a continuous manner - without even the small but restorative 10-second rests we mentioned earlier. While this might seem excessively challenging, it makes super sets the most specific form of interval training for racing.
How to do it
As mentioned, to carry out a super set you must move from interval to interval without any rest at all. There is no mixing of work and recovery intervals - the super set contains only hard running, cycling, or swimming! As indicated, the other unique aspect of a super set is that you deliberately reduce your speed over the course of the set. This is quite unlike what you usually do: if you are like most endurance athletes, you try to maintain a specific pace during each interval within your set or overall workout, although you might try to crank out an especially fast interval at the end of the set or session.
For example, if you're a runner you are no doubt familiar with the idea of completing an interval workout which consists of three or four 1600-metre repeats, with the intensity of each interval set at 5-K race speed but with perhaps the last 400 of the final interval of the workout carried out at close to top speed. In super sets, the first interval of the set is the fastest, and one intentionally runs slower on successive intervals. This may seem like a counterproductive concept. After all, if you train to slow down within workouts, won't you also tend to decrease your pace during competitions, too?
In reality, you are not really training to slow down when you carry out a super set. You are actually creating a maximal stimulus for fitness advancement, which will make you faster, not slower. By doing the super sets, you will become as strong as an ox and as powerful as a cheetah. You will become quite competent at running negative splits, if you choose to do so, because of your efficiency at high speed and tolerance of intense training. When you carry out super sets, you are red-lining your training and challenging your boundaries. Very few other forms of training can test your limits as much as super-set training.
Here's a starter session
Let's take a close look at an introductory super-set session for runners. After carrying out a thorough warm-up, you would begin your first super set by running 200 metres at close to max speed (that's right - we said close to MAX speed). Without any recovery at all, you would then 'downshift' a little - deliberately slowing your speed - and run 400 metres at a pace which is a little slower than the 200-metre velocity to complete your first super set. In your initial stab at super-set training, you could then recover for about twice as long as it took you to complete the 200-400m super set. For example, if you needed 1:45 to finish the total 600 metres, you could jog easily for 3:30 or so, and then start your next super set.
The second super set would proceed in the same manner, with 200 metres at close to max and then 400 metres at slightly off this pace, without any recovery in between. Recover for twice as long again, and continue until you have completed about 5 x (200-400) if you are a 20-mile per week runner, 8 x (200-400) if you are a 30-mpw competitor, or 10 x (200-400) if you run 40 miles per week or more. If you're a swimmer, you might choose (50-100) for your super-set composition; if you're a cyclist, (800-1600) would work well.
Over the course of your training year or season, you will want to shorten the recovery time between super sets enough to achieve about a 1:1 ratio of work and recovery (one second of recovery for each second of working within the super set). Always jog or 'float' (run, cycle, or swim effortlessly) during recoveries - don't walk, tread water, or stand around. Of course, one of the key ways you progress with your training - and thus move to higher and higher levels of fitness - is to bring initially small but high-quality segments of your training closer together - so that there is less rest and recovery between them. What you are looking for is a higher 'density' of quality effort, i. e., shorter periods of easy exercise in between the torrid outbursts of intense effort over the course of a workout. You also want to expand the duration of the high-quality intervals, which will actually mean that you will carry out fewer total intervals per workout. Shortening recovery time and using longer intervals makes your workouts more specific to competition. Of course, you must prepare your body to do this without injuring yourself or 'falling apart'.
In the context of super sets for runners, this often means starting the season with five (200-400) super sets and working up to 10 to 12 or so, and then over the course of the season moving toward a workout which contains perhaps just two long super sets with a format of something like 200-400-800-2600 - or even just one very long set lasting 6000 to 8000 metres.
Swimmers and cyclists
For swimmers, the initial super set could be 50-100, with a progression to 50-100-200-650 or 1500 by itself. Cyclists could profit from 800-1600, with a progression to 800-1600-3200-10K, or a very hard 24K.
Bear in mind that this progression doesn't have to be utilized with total rigidity. Early in the season, for example, you could give yourself a glimpse of what is to come later in the year by trying a long super set every three weeks or so. It's important to remember that designing super sets is not only fun - it is 'wide open'; you can be extremely creative when you plan your super sets, and that of course is part of the beauty of super-set training.
As you map out your super-set sessions, you should realize that it's not always wise to control the progression of each and every workout in exact, great detail. There are many sources of performance variation in sport, including weather conditions, muscle-glycogen levels, cumulative fatigue, psychological status, etc. If you specify a workout precisely and then don't meet those exact expectations, it is easy to become demoralized. The truth is that the most important thing about training is not whether you complete each and every interval in a predicted time - but whether you are fairly consistently moving in the right direction with your training. Of course, you'll want to have 'check points' within your season - times at which you really take a close look at your pacing and overall performance, but the rest of your workouts in-between these check points should simply fall into a certain range, each one tending to build on previous sessions. Don't get too worried if there is variation in your workout quality, including the quality of your super sets; it is natural!
Advanced super sets
So far, we have seen how a beginning super-set workout would proceed. Here's an example of a more advanced super-set workout, one you would do later in your season or competitive year. If you're a runner, you would open up the session with a thorough warm-up and then a very fast 200 - perhaps just two to three seconds slower than your best-possible pace over 200 metres.
You would then follow this up with a very hard 400, attempting to run as well as you can and at a steady pace after your opening 200-metre assault. It's hard to put exact numbers on your 200 and 400 speeds, but in general we can say that the pace for the 400 will be eight to 10 seconds per 400 slower than the close-to-max pace you use for the opening 200. For example, if you run the 200 in 31 seconds (a projected pace of 62 seconds per 400), you might then tick off the 400 in around 70-72 seconds.
After steaming through the 400 in this more advanced workout, you would - again without even the hint of a break - set sail on an 800 at a tough pace which might be around five seconds per 400 slower than your 400. For example, if you ran the 400 in 72, your 800 would be completed in 77 + 77 seconds, or about 2:34. Note that these are 'ballpark' changes in pacing at which to shoot; actual slow-downs will vary from runner to runner. The most important thing is to run as well as you possibly can during each segment of the super set.
You would then complete the first super set of this more advanced workout by - without any rest - throwing yourself into a 1600 carried out at a pace which might be about five seconds per 400 slower than the just-completed 800 (i. e., in 82-82-82-82, or 5:28 in our example). You would then jog or float for about eight or nine minutes - about as long as you took to complete the first super set - and then embark on your second super set, the completion of which could mark the end of the workout (or more accurately the beginning of the cool-down period which will close out the session). Some advanced runners may be able to complete three such super sets. To summarize, this advanced super set is (2 or 3) X (200-400-800-1600). Cyclists and swimmers could use the distances recommended above.
Don't hamper yourself
Note that it is difficult to peg the paces of the various super-set intervals to specific race paces. For one thing, the acquisition of fitness is so rapid when you carry out these workouts that pegging your running to a particular race pace during a specific interval may be too confining - you may be able to run considerably faster than race pace without overtraining or getting injured.
For another, the speeds you can sustain during the various intervals within a super set will improve at different rates. Oftentimes, the longer-slower intervals toward the end of the super set improve faster than the earlier-faster-shorter intervals. Max running velocity can be a stubborn variable - difficult to upgrade without all the right training - so sometimes your 200 and 400 times will remain fairly constant while your 1600 (or 2000) times at the tail end of the set will improve precipitously, while your race times are also getting better. Thus, it's hard to establish an exact relationship between race paces and each super-set interval pace; it's usually better to simply run as well as you possibly can during each super-set interval.
Basically, you should run the first interval of a super set at almost-max velocity and then see how well you can hold on. The first interval is really the only constant in the overall session; you'll run it about two to three seconds slower than your best 200 time, if you start with a 200, or four to six seconds slower than your finest 400, if you begin with 400 metres.
The super-set session is highly diagnostic: it can chart your progress as an endurance athlete and also rip you open and expose your weaknesses - whether they be in speed or endurance. To use super-set sessions as a diagnostic tool, you'll need to keep very accurate times; without that, you won't be able to determine how much you are improving in subsequent sessions (i. e., how much your speed and endurance are improving). A watch which keeps multiple splits is a near necessity; you should note after each workout the exact pace you were able to hold for each interval.
An array of benefits
The fitness benefits accruing from super-set workouts are rather astonishing. The initial 200 and 400 (or corresponding distances for swimmers and cyclists) generate a substantive amount of lactate, which would have to be at least partially cleared by the muscles and heart over the remainder of the super set. Thus, a super-set session is excellent for lactate-threshold improvement (it augments lactate clearance, which is one of the two cornerstones of your actual lactate-threshold running speed).
The initial 200 and 400 (and even 800) would also spike intramuscular acidity because of their fairly heavy reliance on oxygen-independent glycolysis (what old-timers call 'anaerobic metabolism'). The high concentration of hydrogen ions appearing during the 200 and 400 will spur muscle cells to enhance their hydrogen-elimination and buffering capacities, which over the long term will increase your tolerance of very high-intensity running (you will experience less fatigue when you run very fast). In addition, the improved buffering and hydrogen-clearing capabilities will allow you to recover more effectively in races in which you have started too fast - or will even allow you to occasionally utilize a Kenyan-style, fast-start strategy which can physically and mentally demoralize your opponents.
But that's not all! Super sets also enhance your efficiency at race-type paces (remember that for each 1-per cent improvement in your economy of movement, your race performances will improve by one-half to 1 per cent). And an additional, sometimes-forgotten benefit of super-set workouts is that they are 'difficult to bag'. Even on days when you are feeling less than optimally motivated mentally or somewhat lethargic physically, the initial 200 and 400 will 'kick-start' your motivation, jarring you loose from the tenacious grip of lethargy and counter-productive thinking. It's just hard to 'leave school early' with this workout even when you're not into it mentally.
It helps that the super-fast intervals at the beginning of a super set tend to make the high-quality race paces toward the end of the set feel like jogging. You will learn to 'float' (move relatively effortlessly) at faster and faster speeds. And instead of saying to yourself 'Oh no - not another 1600 at 5-K pace,' as you would during a traditional (4 x 1600) interval session, you will articulate something like 'Man, this 1600 feels easy after those top-end 200s and 400s.' Of course, going into an important race with a memory that race pace feels manageable and easy to control is definitely a good thing; it can boost your confidence immeasurably!
Here are key points to remember about super-set workouts:
- Start out at close-to-full speed, and then 'down-shift' during subsequent intervals within the set, just as you would down-shift a standard transmission in a car when approaching a stop sign.
- Even though you are moving at successively slower speeds as you change from interval to interval within the super set, you are still trying to move along at your relative best-possible speed for each interval. Since each interval is longer than the one(s) before and since you have built up fatigue from the previous interval(s), it's natural that each interval will be slower than the prior segment of the workout, but you should still try to move as well as you possibly can, given your level of existing fatigue, while staying relaxed and using good form. The pacing recommendations provided above, i. e. slowing down by 10 seconds per 400 metres from the 200 to the 400 and by five seconds per 400 from the 400 to the 800 and the 800 to the 1600, are simply guidelines for runners; you may be able to abridge this typical rate of slowing, and the changes for swimmers and cyclists are unlikely to be different.
- Within each specific interval, do not vary your pace; try to maintain as constant a speed as possible. You will often find, however, that you will be able to pick up your speed again over the last 400 metres or so of the final interval within the super set. This is a great sign, by the way; it means that you have probably cleared a fair amount of blood lactate and also eliminated a mess of hydrogen ions from your muscle cells.
- Super sets can be precursors to faster overall interval training. For example, as your fitness improves, you can increase the lengths of the first interval - or first two intervals - within your super set without changing the pace at which you run them. As this lengthening continues, you will eventually be able to run a large chunk of the super set at the pace you originally were forced to confine to the first interval or two.
- If done correctly, a super-set workout should drain almost every last bit of 'juice' out of you, which should provide the maximum stimulus to improve. With traditional intervals, you are always holding back and pacing yourself, but with super sets it is more of the 'Just hold on baby' mentality, especially about midway through a set. Even if you can't hold a really high-quality pace after the first interval but you can just keep going, then you are at a distinct advantage, and your confidence will improve. If you hang in there, you will usually find that you can keep moving to new levels over time. The physical and psychological challenges are enormous, but the potential gains in running capacity and mental toughness and confidence are equally great.
General progression principles for super-set training are as follows (remember to be flexible):
- A. Early in your season or year, start with a modest volume of super-set training (i. e., use a small number of short super-set intervals), and focus on running in a very high-quality way. Beginning with 5 x (200-400) will be about right for many runners.
- B. Once you can complete the above with good speed and form, add more total volume. You may move up to (10 to 12) x (200-400) or even more if you are a very strong elite runner (the swimmer would upgrade to 10 x 50-100, the cyclist to 10 x 800-1600).
- C. You can then begin to increase the density of the intervals, at first with a decrease in overall volume. For example, you might move to 200-400-800 without break and then eventually to 200-400-800-1600, without recovery (increased density), if you're a runner. In the latter case, you might just perform two of these super sets per workout (decreased total volume).
- D. Even when you are still in the progression from steps A to B, feel free to sprinkle in some longer super sets every few weeks for variety. Be creative; don't be a progression prisoner.
...and suggested formats
Here are some possible formats for super sets for runners (make the suggested changes in distance if you are a swimmer or cyclist):
- 200 and then 400 metres
- 100, 200, and then 400 metres
- 200, 400, and then 800 to 1000 metres
- 200, 400, 800, and then 1600, 2000, or 2600 metres
- 400, 1200, and then 3200 metres
As you move toward the end of an overall training cycle, i. e., as an important race or series of races draws near, carry out the super sets either every week or once every two weeks. Super sets push your body to the limit of nearly complete exhaustion and thus often require two days of recovery once they are completed. They can be nicely alternated with Veronique Billat's vVO2max sessions described in previous issues of Peak Performance (November and December, 1994), i. e., by performing super sets one week and vVO2max efforts the next. In some cases, a super-set and a Billat workout can each be completed in the same seven-day cycle, but bear in mind that the training load for the rest of the week would need to be fairly light. For example, a long super set is 200-400-800-2600. If you run this super set twice in a workout, it adds up to five miles of very high-quality running with an extreme density. Add in Veronique's routine and you have two to three more miles of supreme effort - or almost eight miles of race-type running within the week.
There is a modified version of a super-set workout which can also be utilized in a very productive way. For example, you might carry out repeat 1600s, each of which actually contains two super-set intervals. The combined volume of these two intervals remains the same (in this case, 1600 metres), but the lengths of the two segments change. If the first interval is at a pace of five seconds per 400 faster than 5-K race pace (Pace A) and the second interval within the 1600-metre modified super set is at 5-K pace (Pace B), the relative lengths of the intervals could begin at 20-per cent A, 80-per cent B (i. e., 320 metres of A and then - without a break - 1280 metres of B), and then progress over time to 30-70 per cent, 50-50, 75-25, until finally the entire interval is completed at the faster pace.
Remember that your mission is to run, cycle, or swim as fast as possible for as long as possible. Super sets help you do that like no other training session. While critics might regard super sets as too challenging - too much like racing and too risky in terms of overtraining, it is only by creating stiff challenges for yourself that you will reach your highest-possible level of performance. When one of the authors of this article (SS) was a youngster in seventh grade, he consistently challenged himself. He would try to run with the state champion, who happened to be on the school team, even though their ability levels were almost worlds apart. In seventh grade, he PBed for three miles with a time of only 24:00, but in eighth grade he moved up to 19:30 for the same distance and as a freshman in high school he was running 17:20. If he had followed a traditional system and run prescribed current race paces for all his workouts, he would certainly have not improved as much. He had the beginner's mind and spirit - a courage and willingness to take on challenges that must be cultivated and protected. If we want to soar to new heights, we need to utilize a training programme which requires soaring. Super sets are a key part of that kind of training.
Shane Smoleny and Owen Anderson
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