Monday, February 1, 2016

Basic Limiters: Work Capacity

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

“It should be noted that cooperation between the cardiovascular & motor systems is important for improving work capacity, not only in endurance sports, but in all sports."
-Yuri Verkoshansky (Russian strength training and plyometrics guru)

As the third installment in this series on Basic Limiters (part 1, part 2), I want to explore one of the most important and yet misunderstood abilities that is the prime focus of an athlete’s Base Period.

Athletes vary markedly in the approach they take to early season training, ranging from doing super long endurance building sessions to hitting the trainer for some "bleed through the eyeballs" intensity fests. Both are inappropriate for this time of year and miss the point of general preparation.

So what is the point of general preparation?

Simply, to generally prepare the athlete for the work ahead.

All athletes from Olympic lifters whose event lasts under a second to champion ultra marathoners are brought together by a common thread: workload. If you want to reach the top of your game, whatever that game may be, it will take hours. Most are familiar with Balyi’s 10,000 hour rule of athletic development. Similarly, Tudor Bompa in his book Periodization suggests the following current annual load totals for athletes in very different sports..

  • Fencing - 1,150 hours per year
  • Canoeing - 1,552 hours per year
  • Swimming - 1,070 hours per year
  • Boxing - 1,280 hours per year

To further illustrate the point, take the case of Olympic lifting: The small country of Bulgaria began to dominate weightlifting when legendary coach and lifter Ivan Abadjiev began to train the country’s elite lifters seven to nine times a day during their general preparation period for an annual volume of over 1,600 hours. Again, this is for an event that has a duration less than one second!

It is clear that these days, all athletes from all sports must spend a lot of time devoted to their craft.

More than pure hours, however, it takes work -- and I don’t mean work in some figurative "you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get to it" kind of way, I mean real mechanical and thermogenic work!

Studies on caloric intake and expenditure on a wide array of athletes, from those whose event lasts one second to those whose event lasts multiple days consistently conclude that all elite athletes have a high metabolic demand during their training. From elite weightlifters to elite marathoners, there is a common need to be able to generate and replace about 3000 kcal of additional energy per day above sedentary requirements. This is illustrated in the data from Stone (1994) shown below.

Sure they expend this energy in different ways, with different modes and different patterns of energy distribution depending on their sport but the common thread is that all athletes need a whole lot of energy to get the training done each day. Put into terms that we understand, we’re talking about the metabolic equivalent of a four-hour ride at 200W for everyone from judokas to shot putters every day!

Training to tolerate a large workload comes down to three big factors:

  • Having large energy stores
  • Fueling work economically
  • Recovering energy quickly

Energy Stores
Creating large energy stores is a function of regular exercise that significantly depletes the body’s glycogen depot; in other words, exercise that is fundamentally glycogen limited. An athlete doing repeat 800s on the track will tend to be limited more by accumulating acidosis between repeats than by running out of glycogen. If they do start to run low on glycogen, it will most certainly be primarily in the high intensity fast glycolytic fibers, with the significantly more malleable slowtwitch fibers remaining relatively untouched. This is not optimal.

On the flipside, extended duration efforts in the aerobic zones challenge the energy demands of both slow and fast twitch fibers and are therefore an ideal stimulus for targeting this adaptation.

The "size principle" of muscle recruitment tells us that all events -- even the very short explosive ones -- will bring in the slow twitch fibers first. Athletes who have a better developed "bed" of slowtwitch fibers will use less glycogen, and create more aerobic energy at any given effort. This will make the athlete more economical across the spectrum. This is especially important in competition terms for events that have a strong aerobic component -- events of about 90 second or greater duration (greater than 50% aerobic). However, it is also important for the shorter power events because:

  • The ability to not slow down at the end of a race is often decisive.
  • The event of training (for all sports) has a significantly greater aerobic contribution than the competition itself.

Athletes with a strong aerobic (work capacity) base recover energy significantly more quickly between efforts and sessions. They have a better developed “super-highway” of capillaries within the muscle to take lactic acid and metabolic waste out and to take the good stuff (oxygen, glucose, FFAs) in. They have improved insulin sensitivity and glucose transporter response that ensures that more of the energy taken in reaches the muscles.

Furthermore, they have a better metabolic profile and use less glycogen in non-training related pursuits -- getting out of bed, climbing the stairs, walking to the mailbox -- it all adds up!

A fourth factor in tolerating large workloads in many sports (running included), is that the athlete needs tough musculotendinous structures that are resistant to damage as muscle damage can significantly slow metabolic recovery and tendon damage can significantly hamper the training progression! To this end, regular strength training with some eccentric demand becomes important.

In summing up the needs of general preparation, we could say that general metabolic and structural load should take priority over specific event demands. This doesn’t mean that specific demands are ignored, just that they are considered within the context of improving general work capacity.

We can further illustrate the difference between general and specific preparation by making the point that work capacity is not the same thing as endurance. Endurance is an event specific quality -- where we train muscle fibers that are specific to the demands of the event to be fatigue resistant. The next step for an endurance athlete after a general base has been laid is to move up a level and turn those muscle fibers that are better-suited to producing power into fatigue resistant endurance fibers. The next step for an Olympic lifter is to “live off” that base that has been laid to do as much specific pure power training as possible to train those biggest, highest threshold fibers to produce as much anaerobic power as possible -- two very different goals that represent the proverbial fork in the road of specific preparation. Olympic lifters have horrible endurance, as evidenced by a power curve that drops off very quickly as duration increases, despite (at least for portions of the season) having an incredible capacity for work!

In fact, without that initial work base, the Olympic lifter simply won’t have the reserve to do enough specific lifts to be competitive. As the energy expenditure stats denote, this goes for just about any athlete.

Practical recommendations for the triathlete (and any athlete for that matter):

  • Prioritize chronic load over mammoth sessions -- keep sessions short enough to be anabolic and put frequency first.
  • Restrict the bulk of training to those capacities that recover quickly, such as:
    • Short duration, long rest (alactic) speed, strength and power training
    • Aerobic training focused on the fast recovering slow and FOG fibers with a heavy energy contribution from fat stores
  • Hit all muscle fibers/paces in a balanced way within your week (but do it aerobically -- that is, sufficiently short duration and sufficiently long rest)
  • Challenge energy limits over varied durations and in different ways
  • Add a frequent strength demand to your week.
  • Eat

All in all, avoid excessively long or hard “tear you down” sessions that are catabolic and avoid the slower recovering anaerobic HR zones when trying to maximize work capacity.

The following General Prep workout from swim coach Mike Bottom for NCAA 100m freestyle champ Bart Kizierowski (from the book the Swim Coaching Bible) is a great example of how to incorporate the above in a single workout that epitomizes the goals of the GP period…

  1. Run 400m in less than 1 minute
  2. Do 10 pull ups
  3. Jog six times up and down basketball court dunking the ball at each end
  4. Do 24 plyo jumps onto a 3-foot platform
  5. Jog to the pool, dive in and sprint kick 25m underwater
  6. 275m Easy backstroke recovery pulling on the lane line
  7. Grab a kickboard and sprint kick 50m in less than 31 seconds
  8. Swim 250m

Repeat four times (!) for a total main set of 45 minutes.

In my final article on those hidden basic limiters, I’ll offer some thoughts on the one that is most often ignored by busy triathletes to their peril -- the season-ending limiter -- mobility.

Train Smart

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