EPC Tips - Aerobic Conditioning

Jan. 15, 2015

Last week EPC coach Cody Waite discussed the 6 Components of Endurance Sport Success.

"If you missed it, I encourage you to read it to get an idea of what we’re referring to as the ‘6 Components’ and where we will be going with this concept," sais Waite.

This week Waite expands more on the first component: Aerobic Conditioning.

When most athletes think of endurance sports training, aerobic conditioning is typically where the mind goes. Building up the endurance to go the distance is a primary objective for those athletes newer to endurance sports and/or those training for ultra-distance endurance events. But training to go long is not the only piece of the aerobic conditioning puzzle to complete your metabolic masterpiece.

Aerobic conditioning can be thought of as two distinct elements: endurance and speed.

I like to think of these two elements in these defining ways: endurance is the ability to maintain pace while speed is the ability to create pace. To be successful in endurance sports you need to maximize both endurance and speed through creative training strategies that address both segments in effective quantities. The shorter your goal event, the greater an emphasis on speed will be required, while the longer your goal event, the greater an emphasis on endurance will be required. However, regardless of the distance of events you are training for, you need to train both elements to maximize your aerobic conditioning and endurance racing success.

Picture aerobic conditioning as a sliding scale. On one end you have the shortest duration, highest intensity output, the ‘alactate’ burst of maximum speed; on the other end you have the ‘all day’ maximum endurance effort. In between these two extremes you have the classic physiological energy systems of anaerobic power (30-seconds to 2-minute max output), Vo2 max (3-minute to 7-minute output), lactate threshold (30-minute to 60-minute output), aerobic threshold (1-hour to 3-hour output) and aerobic endurance (extended output). Training all six of these ‘zones’ of intensity is critical for all endurance athletes, regardless of the event for which they’re training. Balancing the amount of each level of intensity and at what point in their training year it is emphasized is what makes up an endurance athlete’s aerobic conditioning training program.

Aerobic conditioning is highly trainable, although it can take many years to fully maximize in human physiology.

Every human is born with an innate capacity to process oxygen, known as maximum oxygen uptake or, simply, Vo2 max. The more oxygen an athlete can take in and supply to their working muscles, the faster and/or longer they can go. Vo2max is trainable to a certain extent, but everyone has their genetic ceiling of maximum uptake. One of the primary goals with aerobic conditioning is to maximize the sustainable percentage of their Vo2max they can reach in training and racing. Improving one’s ability to perform at the highest sustainable percentage of their Vo2max can be achieved by training any of the above mentioned energy systems, but is most effective by training all of the energy systems through an effective training program.

Training longer durations at lower intensities has many identified benefits such as increased mitochondria and capillary density to improve oxygen delivery, maximizing the use of slow twitch muscle fibers, improved fuel utilization and carbohydrate storage, and an increase in the volume of blood your heart can move with each beat. Long, slow distance training has been a staple of endurance sport training for years. For athletes that are coming to endurance sports from a ‘speed based’ background, are relatively young, healthy, have the time, and have lofty goals of racing performance, high volume training can help them succeed. Although as valuable as the benefits of low-intensity training are, you must have the time to put into this method as it requires increasingly higher and higher volumes to create the stimulus needed for improved fitness. Most amateur athletes with a job and family to balance with their training schedule usually can only find time for limited amounts of high volume training, leading us to consider how else can we improve our aerobic conditioning?

Training the short, powerful, high intensity energy systems happens to also have many identified benefits, and these can often be achieved with much lower training volumes. Benefits of high intensity training include increased oxygen utilization, improved lactate tolerance/utilization, maximizing the recruitment of both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, increased hormone production, reduced insulin dependency, and improved mechanical/movement efficiency. The benefits of high intensity training cannot be ignored, nor should the high intensity training in your training program. High intensity training definitely has its place in the endurance sport training program, with the amount and timing of it being a key part of the metabolic puzzle.

Every individual has their own genetically given strengths; some athletes are more powerful and faster over short distances, while others are built for the long haul and can maintain moderate outputs for extended periods of time. To maximize your endurance sports performance you must identify your strengths and weaknesses and then create a training program that will improve your weaknesses while maximizing your strengths. Put simply, by improving your short-term high intensity energy systems you can go faster for longer, and by improving your long-term low intensity energy systems you can extend your speed over longer periods. These opposing ends of the physiological energy system scale should come together at some point inline with your targeted race-day intensity level you plan to predominantly utilize during your goal events.

Regardless of your strengths and weaknesses, your objective should be to create your own aerobic training program to give you the right amount of training stress to minimize fatigue and maximize performance.

The goal within your training program should be to apply just the right amount of low intensity and high intensity training to create the perfect amount of stimulus for your body to adapt to. Too much stimulus (often the case with endurance athletes) and you get tired, sick or injured; not enough stimulus and you fail to continue improving and don’t reach your fullest potential. You also have to keep in mind when designing your training schedule that  your ‘training stress’ is just one part of the equation. You must also consider your ‘life stress’ when determining your overall training load. Those with busy lives, stressful jobs, and families typically cannot maintain as high a training load as say someone with minimal commitments, financial stress, and family obligations. Stress is stress, regardless if it is physical or mental stress. It affects how you think, feel, perform and recover. Mixing the right amount of training stress (intensity and volume) and life stress (job, family, finances) into an individual’s training program is the secret to maximizing aerobic fitness and is unique to every athlete.

Written by Cody Waite, professional XTERRA athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Endurance Performance Coaching. Check out EPC’s Personal Coaching, XTERRA Group Coaching, and Custom Training Plan options.

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