Monday, February 1, 2016

Training Your Weakness: Speed and Power

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

In my last article I looked at typical triathlete development patterns. I suggested that endurance takes a long time to be maximized and that, while it is being trained, the typical athlete will tend to fare relatively better at shorter events than his peers who have a more developed aerobic base. But what if you’re an atypical athlete?

While it’s certainly true that we’re all individuals and that some athletes exhibit a natural strength towards the endurance end of the curve, in the case of age-group triathlon, when this pattern presents, it’s more often a case of “top end weakness” than “bottom end strength.” Put another way, rather than a case of a natural abundance of slow twitch fibers or long-term muscle fiber transformation from fast to fast oxidative (and perhaps fast oxidative to slow), it’s more a case of the detraining or atrophy of fast twitch fibers that naturally occurs with sedentary aging.

Ironman does a great job of attracting those folks who have had a long lag between their “athletic days” and their fitness “rebirth” separated by a good chunk of couch time. The physiological effect of this couch time for the older athlete is that fast twitch fibers markedly atrophy. This is exacerbated by the drop in anabolic hormones that comes when the individual exits their 20s.

As an age group athlete with ironman aspirations, you may be saying at this point, “So what? I’m not interested in running a fast 800 any time soon so my fast twitch fibers can hit the road!” But this ignores the fact that the fast twitch fibers of today are the oxidative fibers of tomorrow and that a lack of top end reserve will ultimately limit your long duration performance. If you look at the front of any top class endurance field you’ll see a common trend of athletes progressing from at least good short performance before attaining excellent long performance. There is a physiological basis for this.

To be able to sustain a very high VO2 over long durations (such as in the case of elite ironman) requires a relatively high VO2max. There are limits to the percent of VO2max that an athlete can sustain for any given duration. Admittedly, for elite athletes, these numbers are quite high -- in the range of 90% VO2max for an hour or more than 70% VO2max over the ironman distance. However, if VO2max is currently topped out at 60ml/kg/min, it makes little sense devoting all of your training time towards maximizing the percentage of this that you can sustain. Small increases in this top end will raise the ceiling and give you substantially more room to work with, raising your potential.

Taking it a step up -- to have this relatively high VO2max requires decent anaerobic capacity. Many very highly trained aerobic athletes are no longer able to achieve the oxygen uptake plateau that characterizes VO2max. Because they are so aerobically fit, they lack the anaerobic capacity to reach the levels of muscular power required to maximally tax oxygen delivery to the muscles. They are forever resigned to “VO2peaks” rather than attaining a true “VO2max.” In other words, for these athletes, despite increasing submaximal fitness, VO2max has de-trained.

Finally, to have a decent anaerobic capacity requires at least some level of basic speed. Some athletes will simply lack the power and mobility to achieve VO2max paces when running on the flat.

While your days of running a sub-2-minute 800 might be behind you, if you either missed out on an athletic period as a kid, or if it’s been a while, you may find that your training response to the aerobic work will improve by spicing up your long distance training with a little bit of training designed to restore some of the strength and power of your fast twitch fibers.

Lactate testing can be revealing in terms of assessing this aerobic/anaerobic balance. If you are a developing athlete and you are unable to reach a peak lactate of 10mmol/L then you will likely benefit from mixing in some fast twitch training.

With this type of training, a little goes a long way. Even when this ability is lacking, the emphasis should be on intensity and frequency rather than volume.

Examples of appropriate training units for an age group athlete include:

  • Swim
    • 10x25 fast + 25 easy swim back on :60 -- Best effort while holding optimal stroke length
    • 4x75 fast + 25 easy continuous with 75s at 400 pace
  • Bike
    • 10x60-second hill repeats at 1.4xFTP with coast recovery
    • 20x30 as 30 seconds on at 1.4xFTP / 30 seconds off at 0.7xFTP
  • Run
    • 10x (200 fast + 200 light jog) -- 200s strong but not all out, 90 strides-per-minute cap
    • Broken 1000 as 400/300/200/100 (10 seconds rest after each) at goal 1500 pace
  • Strength/Power
    • 4x6 reps of large muscle group exercise at 12RM with 60 seconds rest
    • 6x 30 seconds on / 30 seconds off -- push up, squat thrust, 2x pull up -- fast but controlled with max reps

The first example in each category is designed to elicit a peripheral stimulus, the second more of a central stimulus. AG athletes with a fast twitch weakness will likely see improvement with as few as three or four of these units (total) per week.

A memory that sticks out from my exercise physiology classes was a story that was recounted by one of my favorite professors relating to a study on anaerobic power levels among sedentary geriatric subjects. As you might expect, anaerobic power wasn’t very high among this population, but what you might not expect, and what many of them did not expect, is that when a majority of subjects attempted the vertical jump portion of the test battery, they were unable to leave the ground!

While the above is obviously an extreme example, the same principle applies to the athlete who spends years devoted to aerobic base training without ever checking in on their anaerobic system. In the same way that acute high volume training can compromise an athlete’s ability to attain VO2max, chronic high volume training can have a similar effect. When the athlete finally tests out their top end, he or she may be surprised to find a drop in maximal heart rate, a drop in maximal lactate levels and a plateau or even regression of maximal power.

At the level of top performance, with the requisite volume the athlete must undertake, this pattern is somewhat unavoidable. However, there is no reason to accelerate it with a premature over-emphasis on aerobic volume while the athlete is still developing.

Train smart.

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