Category Archives: Endurance training

Bang for your buck: RUN!!

Whether you want to complete a marathon or finish a fun run for charity this article will help you get there. The following tips allow you to start with a good foundation for training. In order to enjoy the experience of your event, you should be well enough prepared so that it is not a hellish struggle. In order to be prepared you need to do some training. We recommend you allow yourself a minimum of four weeks consistent training to see a noticeable benefit. You don’t need to train like an Olympian but you do need to be consistent.

Step 1: Base miles

In order to complete your distance you need to be comfortable on your feet. Only by getting out running on a regular basis will you achieve this. Not only will your ligaments and muscles strengthen but you will improve fitness. Be realistic at the start and build the volume up over time. Start with the goal of 30 minutes jogging three times a week. Even if you have to break it up with some walking, being out on your feet for longer durations will help get you comfortable. This in itself can be significant when it comes to completing your race. Gradually increase the duration over time to keep increasing your fitness levels.

Step 2: Raise your thresholds.

In order to be truly comfortable on your feet and achieve your target time, you must improve your comfort at higher running pace. By raising the ceiling of your conditioning (Threshold), relative efforts become easier. For example on week one you can run at 10km/hr for one minute before you need rest. At week five, if you can run at 15km/hr for one minute, you will last significantly longer than one minute running at 10km/hr, as it will no longer be your threshold pace. The best way to achieve this is to run for short periods of time at your limit, rest and repeat multiple times for one or two sessions each week. 4x 4min runs with 4 minute gentle rest recovery will have a rapid impact on your threshold.

Step 3: Run the distance

Experience is key. If you run your race distance once or twice as practice in build up to your race, you can learn a massive amount. Pacing, incorrect shoes, incorrect clothes and what to eat or drink before a race can all be small factors which can ruin a race. By having a trial run you will know what to expect. It will give you confidence and knowledge. So often people start too fast or wear the wrong shoes only to end their race in an avoidable disaster. Having the peace of mind to know “I can do this” will make race day a lot less daunting and may even allow you to set a great time.

Step 4: Know what motivates you

Some people like to run with a partner, others need music. Whatever works for you needs to be a part of your routine. There will be times when you don’t quite feel motivated to go out and get a run finished. Having your running buddy or iPod could be the difference. Remember consistency pays off, staying motivated to do the training is a challenge sometimes. You must use what works for you to keep you on track and give yourself the best possible chance of success.

These 4 simple steps are all it takes to get started. If you stick to these basics, things will go smoothly. Even Pro athletes use these principles at the core of their training. In time you can build on these if you choose but it is essential to get the basics right from the beginning.

HIIT, fat loss and muscle!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular training method. When used correctly it effectively improves cardiovascular conditioning, burns fat and promotes new muscle growth. In addition a relatively short HIIT session is sufficient to elicit substantial performance gains. Like any training method, understanding the basic physiological principles will make a big help to using it effectively. This article will explain a bit about this type of training and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

HIIT is popular because it is time effective. An individual can burn a lot of calories in a short space of time. As the name implies it is an intense form of exercise. Our energy systems function on a simple mechanism of energy charge. The rate of energy (Adenosine Triphosphate/ATP) utilization in the muscle cell must be matched by an energy supply system. Slow rate of energy expenditure during low intensity work is supported by oxidation. Oxidation supplies a lot of energy but at a slow rate. High intensity work is supplied by the glycolysis and phosphate systems which have a much faster supply. Supply must meet the demand. There is often a slight lag between utilization and supply. This means that even during rest intervals and post exercise energy consumption is still elevated. In simple terms our metabolism is increased and we continue to burn more calories than at normal rest conditions. For this reason even though a 20min session burns, for example 500kcals, energy expenditure is raised throughout the day. A low intensity session lasting one hour may burn 800kcal with minimal elevation in metabolisms for the rest of the day. For this reason HIIT may actually burn more calories on a daily basis. This is why it is so effective at fat burning.

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

In addition, the power output which is produced during the work period of HIIT is high. Higher power output during work periods are often effective in improving your conditioning. It also helps maintain strength and power simply by utilizing larger motor units. The main issue to consider with HIIT relates to energy supply. If we cannot supply the cells with adequate energy then they become damaged. This is known as metabolic stress. A certain degree of metabolic stress or damage can be reversed. This is what promotes new muscle growth. Moderate metabolic stress during training can, at times, be quite effective for promoting hypertrophy.

If we place too much stress on the muscle cells the damage can be irreparable. The cells will begin to die. When this happens on a regular basis muscle wastage can occur. It also places the body under larger amounts of general stress which will begin to impact on our immune system. There is a large list of potential health implications that this can eventually lead to.

Preventing this scenario is relatively easy but not always something we think about. One of the determinants to energy supply is our energy store. In the case of HIIT we need adequate stores of glycogen for an adequate supply of energy. If we do HIIT in a fasted state we are putting ourselves under severe metabolic stress, as there is little energy supply to fuel it. In addition the lack of energy will dramatically reduce performance so conditioning benefits may also be lost.

The take home message is this. Fuel up for intense exercise! Low intensity exercise can be done in a fasted state as the oxidative system works effectively to provide fuel. With intense exercise such as HIIT style training, you must have some glycogen stores or glucose in the bloodstream. If you are in a totally fasted, glycogen depleted state then consume some simple sugars close to training. By doing so you can maintain high intensity and reduce cell stress. You will still achieve an elevated metabolism that promotes fat burning. You also place the cells under just enough stress to help promote hypertrophy

It is important to understand training methods as the smallest oversight can cause more harm than good. HIIT is an effective tool but if it is not adequately fuelled it loses a lot of its benefits. It is a popular successful way to train and should be used in any program. Like any training method the process is the important part. It needs to be considered and managed properly in order to see the full benefit.

Training masks; the science behind them!

People like new toys and gadgets, especially ones which can improve their performance. In recent years breathing masks and gas masks have become popular amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The idea originated from firefighters and the military who experience some extremely intense, physical situations while wearing breathing apparatus. The experience of wearing these masks in such scenarios can be quite overwhelming. In order to familiarize themselves with these situations they began to train while wearing their equipment. Obviously the more accustomed to something we are the more comfortable we are with it. Shortly, after we saw them to be used in the fitness community. They started to use similar equipment in search of more intense training methods.

In very recent years breathing masks have been produced commercially and specifically for the fitness and sports industry. Like any new training tool it comes with many benefits. This article is aimed at examining the physiological theory for the use of such masks. By understanding the physiological processes taking place we can make better use of such equipment.

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The major misconception which seems to have formed with the use of these masks is their ability to replicate high altitude. High altitude has been linked to many physiological benefits to cardiovascular conditioning. The concept of this relates to the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen (O2) molecules move from lungs to blood and the blood to muscle through a process of diffusion. The molecules travel across thin membranes from areas of high, to low pressure. If ambient oxygen pressure is low, as it is at high altitude, less molecules cross from lungs to the blood and so forth. The amount of O2 in the air remains exactly the same (20.93%) but overall air pressure (Barometric Pressure) is greatly reduced. In order to compensate, our body first increases breathing rate and take bigger breaths. This allows us to utilize a larger portion of the lung and alveoli allowing more O2 to diffuse into the bloodstream. Another reason is to excrete Carbon dioxide (CO2). By blowing off CO2 we drop the pH level of the blood and create something known as “Respiratory alkalosis”. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed by our red blood cells. This process occurs similarly at sea level.

When exposed to this over long duration (16hrs+ per day for a minimum of two days)(Chapman et al, 1998) our body increases a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone when combined with iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells, a larger amount of which allows us to transport more O2 around the blood. In addition our muscles respond to training by increasing mitochondria and capillarization of the fibres. This allows our muscles to consume more oxygen. The issue with altitude training is that our breathing rate can only increase so much and the other adaptations are relatively slow to occur. As a result the intensity of our training significantly drops. This is why many athletes choose to live at altitude and travel to sea level to train. It allows the adaptations to occur without training intensity suffering. This limitation is well documented.

Breathing masks do not alter the partial pressure of O2. They simply restrict airflow. They do not specifically filter O2 from the air. We compensate for this restriction by breathing more forcefully creating positive pressure to overcome the resistance. This is similar to techniques adopted by individuals suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma and COPD. Pursed Lip Breathing is an excellent example of a breathing technique used to compensate for resistance. It is also something we automatically do when wearing a gum shield or mouthguard. We do not experience any increase in EPO as pressure gradients are maintained. The processes taking place at altitude are different from the ones taking place when using these masks .

In order to compensate for resistance we must breath with more force, both when we inhale and exhale. We use the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. These muscles are like any other; they become stronger when a stress stimulus is applied. When using these masks we are in theory strength training our breathing muscles. This can allow us to utilize a larger portion of our lungs, making our breaths more efficient and deeper. It also allows us to develop our breathing muscles, which will make breathing easier in normal conditions. This is of great benefit to an athlete’s conditioning as the effort in breathing will be greatly reduced.

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In addition to physical adaptations we can also experience some mental benefits. In scenarios where breathing is restricted we get a sense of breathlessness. This often causes panic. In a competitive environment panic can be a debilitating experience. Like firefighters and military servicemen, becoming accustomed to that feeling can have a great benefit. Learning to be comfortable and to relax allows our breathing to settle. Having the experience to know how to breath efficiently in such a scenario can allow an athlete to maintain composure. I believe this to be a very significant benefit to the use of such masks.

Like any new tool or training method it is very important to understand the processes taking place and the adaptations that come with them. Unfortunately there is relatively little research available on the use of breathing masks. I believe them to be an effective tool when used for the right goal. With any training an athlete wants the best results. Examining the physiological process taking place we can often learn to make best use of the tool. While science cannot always give the exact answer it usually puts us on the right track.

Weight training and endurance athletes!

Traditionally endurance athletes tend to avoid doing a lot of weight training. The reason being that they don’t want big blocky muscles which they will have to carry around during a race. This perception is starting to dissipate with modern endurance athletes, as they realize the benefits of weight training. I will discuss a number of these benefits and how they can improve endurance performance.

  1. Increased Strength

The first and most obvious benefit to weight training is improved strength. This strength comes from a number of physiological adaptations. Muscle fibres develop so they can produce a stronger and faster contraction. In addition the recruitment of muscle fibres is improved. Neural patterns become better trained allowing for more efficient contractions during movements. Ligaments also become strengthened which also increases the amount of force we are capable of applying.

This strength increase means that relative workloads become easier for an athlete. It requires less relative effort to maintain a certain pace or power output. They will find it easier to sustain a certain workload and will be capable of working more than they could previously. They also have the higher maximal power output which may be useful during sprint type scenarios.

  1. Injury prevention

Weight training strengthens ligaments and tendons. This means the ligaments and tendons can tolerate greater amounts of force. This will significantly reduce the risk of injury as they are much more resilient to damage, which may occur during intense exercise. High loads through the joints are common for all athletes during athletic movements. Making the ligaments stronger would be a good way to prevent any damage occurring.

When we spend large amount of time training a particular skill or movement the muscle involved becomes more developed. Often their opposing muscle group lacks this development leading to imbalances. This not only affects movement patterns but can also heighten the risk of injury. Weight training can be an ideal time to correct these imbalances.

  1. Core Strength

I refer to core strength on its own purely because I want to emphasize its importance. Having a strong trunk and core allows us to transmit force through our body much more efficiently. A tired runner or cyclist tends to wobble back and forth in their upper body. This is an indicator that their core has fatigued as they cannot maintain efficient posture. This is a waste of energy and a waste of effort. A strong core allows for more efficient and direct movement. This can help an athlete conserve energy without sacrificing pace. Weight training is a superb way to strengthen the core and help coordinate the body.

  1. Hormonal support

Weight training promotes certain hormones which can be beneficial to all athletes. It can help promote lean body mass and reduce fat mass. This means that you carry less “dead weight” in favor of muscle which can contribute to your performance. As an athlete you will become more energy efficient.

The most important thing for any athlete to remember is to favour movements over muscles when weight training. Their goal is performance orientated and their program should be different to that of a bodybuilder. If they train compound multi-joint movements with an emphasis on form and the goal of getting stronger, they will see a benefit.

Most endurance athletes fear weight training for fear of getting too big. In reality this is quite unlikely. Our capacity for hypertrophy is largely determined by genetics. We tend to identify our body type shortly after puberty. Heavy, more muscular individuals are unlikely to ever succeed in a sport that favors slender, lean bodies like endurance running or cycling. While we can influence our size, it is usually quite apparent we are naturally suited to some sports more than others. We enjoy sports that we can compete at. If we are the wrong shape or size we tend to avoid that sport because we don’t do so well at it. A high level endurance athlete is unlikely to gain the amount of muscle mass that would hinder his performance. They can still however, see significant strength improvement without muscle gain. They should not fear weight training as it is likely not to become a problem unless they are struggling with an unfavourable body type to begin with.

In summary, athletes of all types will benefit significantly from weight/strength training. They should always approach it from a movement perspective and not try to isolate muscles unless prescribed for prehab or rehab purposes. Endurance athletes are now realizing that an appropriate strength program should not be feared. It can and should be implemented to their program as they are likely to see quite noticeable improvements in the areas discussed.

Conditioning for the competitive Crossfitter!

Crossfit can seem like a daunting undertaking for many coaches. It’s not so different to other sports. It should be viewed similarly to team sports where there are multiple components required to perform. One thing I think needs to be addressed is the intensity of a WOD (Workout of the Day). Many believe that if you aren’t redlining or pushing the limits then it’s not tough enough or productive. While skill and strength work may be done at lower intensity I feel Metcons are a source of concern. They tend to neglect lower intensity steady state work. Several big names in crossfit performed poorly in the endurance style events. 2011, 2012 and 2014 had events which brought some of top competitors to their knees.

Many wondered why the “Fittest Athletes on Earth” struggled on “Weekend Warrior” style activities. Some blamed the lack of skillset, others the heat and the competition intensity. Physiologically I think there is quite an obvious answer. These athletes are over reliant on glycolytic metabolism. When you train at high intensity repeatedly you adapt to that environment. Glycolysis is the dominant energy system and it will increase in terms of capacity when training.

Oxidative metabolism can be improved when training at high intensity but only through a few mechanisms. Many processes involved in oxidation can only be improved with volume and duration. This is neglected by short high intensity type training. I believe this is a major missing link.

Our glycogen stores are relatively small and can be exhausted quite quickly. The greater our glycolytic capacity, the quicker we deplete glycogen. We cannot sustain activity of this type for long. We need an aerobic base to support our performance. Fat oxidization is a much more sustainable source of energy. The greater the oxidative capacity the higher the sustainable workload. One way to look at this is thinking of our aerobic base as our cruising speed. Our anaerobic and ATP-CP systems are our afterburner.

The following graphic shows three athletes. Athlete A has a strong base (Oxidative system), an above average anaerobic capacity (Glycolytic system) and an above average ATP-CP capacity from his HIT training. Athlete B has an above average aerobic system but relies heavily on his anaerobic capacity. His ATP-CP stores are again average. Athlete C is our average weekend warrior for comparison. Untitled While athlete A and B are quite close in their overall work capacity, Athlete A has a better sustainable work capacity. His aerobic base allows him to maintain a high work rate. Athlete B almost matches Athlete A overall, but will never be as competitive when activity is of long duration. He may be able to complete short intense workouts with similar or better performances than Athlete A, but can only maintain high intensity for a short period.

It is essential for an athlete’s conditioning that some period of his training regime include LSD style work. This ensures that he has a strong aerobic foundation to build upon. Longer duration, volume style training promotes structural changes which have great benefit to the cardiovascular system.

Athletes of any sport should never neglect their aerobic work. It may seem boring and time consuming, but it is necessary. Recent media has given LSD style training a bad name, and cast a shadow over it. While HIT style work may be very effective overall it does not cover everything. Over utilizing it or neglecting other areas will undoubtedly create weaknesses in an athlete’s physiology. In a sport like Crossfit, these small holes in an athlete’s capabilities may cost them dearly in competition.

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4 Ways to improve lactate clearance!

The accumulation of lactate is deemed to be a major determinant of performance during competition. Lactate is a byproduct of glycolysis. The accumulation of lactate in the muscle is linked with a significant degradation in contractile function and power production. Having the ability to prevent accumulation has a significant impact on the ability of an athlete to sustain performance. The onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) is deemed to be the point at which its production exceeds its clearance. In order to delay this point an athlete must train to improve his ability to clear lactate during exercise. Here are four effective strategies to improve lactate clearance.

1) Long slow distance training (LSD)

Also referred to as “Steady-State” training LSD has great benefits for lactate clearance. Even though LSD is performed at low intensity it greatly improves the aerobic system. Having a strong aerobic base usually comes with good proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. Recent studies have shown these fibers to be very efficient at consuming lactate as fuel through a shuttle system which transports it from the blood into these muscle cells. LSD training in conjunction with Lactate producing activity can teach the body to consume lactate in this way, helping to prevent accumulation during higher intensity competition.

2) Threshold training

Threshold training is performed at and around the point of accumulation. This is arguably the most effective zone to train at as it is the “Threshold” at which the body can balance accumulation with clearance. Improving workload at this zone will transfer directly into sporting performance. It is considered to be the sweet spot in terms of sustainable workload. Performing volume at this zone will result in effective lactate management in the body. It up-regulates enzymes which promote the metabolisation of lactate and clearance. The body will also learn to buffer lactate more effectively using intercellular bicarbonate. These sessions can range between 3 and 10 minutes in duration at or around OBLA.

3) Tempo runs

These are somewhat of a combination of the previous methods. During a longer session an athlete will perform a series of high paced intervals spread throughout a longer interval held at a lower, sustainable pace. During these intervals blood lactate concentrations will increase. When the athlete drops eases of intensity, the body will now be able to clear lactate to manageable levels. This promotes how the athlete recovers from lactate accumulation while still exercising. This can be useful in competition where there are varied intensities throughout a race or short rest periods between bouts.

4) Sprint intervals

Short sprints result in a very rapid production of lactate as large type 2 fibers become very active. The body does not have sufficient time to respond and so accumulation occurs just as rapidly. By using short rest periods you only give the body a very short period in which to re-establish homeostasis and so it is forced to up-regulate clearance mechanisms. Training of this type not only improves clearance but also the athletes tolerance to lactate. Sessions of this type can vary in duration for both work and rest. The ratio of work to rest can be manipulated to achieve different results in terms of physiological response.

The after effects of excessive lactate accumulation during a race. Source :www.windsorstar.com

The after effects of excessive lactate accumulation during a race. Source :www.windsorstar.com

In general any activity that elevates the concentration of lactate in the blood will elicit a physiological response. Like any stress appropriate recovery is necessarily. A multi-directional approach must be taken to ensure that an athlete has an adequate exposure to lactate without over taxing the bodies recovery capacity. This can be a difficult balance and must take into consideration a number of factors including the age and background of the individual. If done correctly any individual will benefit greatly from giving focused time and training to helping improve how they handle lactate in their body.

Building the engine!

Our cardiovascular system is basically an engine. The bigger it is the more power we can produce. Like any powerful engine its performance is based on its efficiency and size. When we look at our body in terms of conditioning we should think of it like an engine. We must first build it and then fine tune it to be efficient for what we want it to do.

When we look at training we can look at it the same way. First we need to assemble the basic parts, this is the base miles in the offseason. This is what promotes the structural changes in our physiology. Our heart becomes larger and more powerful, capillarization occurs improving blood supply to the muscle fibers and in addition numbers of mitochondria increase within the cells. This process is gradual and is stimulated by large volumes of aerobic training. It is a relatively slow process but has a long lasting effect. Because longer duration is required the intensity must be relatively low in order to accumulate adequate volume without overtraining. This will gives us the foundation for our conditioning. Increasing aerobic capacity also has a vast amount health benefits associated, such as reduced blood pressure and a strong and efficient heart.

Once we build up a foundation we must then tune it. Now anaerobic style training comes into play. Anaerobic training up-regulates enzymes which promote glycolysis, the energy system utilised during high intensity. It also improves the ATP-CP energy system used during sprint type activity. The effects happen over a much shorter period of time and remain effective for a short period if training is not maintained.

HIIT has become popular because it yields results much quicker than LSD training. The issue is that the physiological changes that come from it are really only the icing on the cake. Without a strong base prior to HIT an athlete is neglecting a big part of their physiology. This is noticeable in a lot of team sports. An athlete may perform quite well at high intensity but struggle to utilise fat for fuel, causing him to tire late in a game. They also tend to recover relatively slower as their oxidative system does not have the capacity to remove lactate as effectively.

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Athlete catching breath between play. Source:http://www.rugby365.com

If an athlete wishes to have good conditioning for their sport they must build a big engine to begin with and then tune it to be suitable to their activity. Whether they use threshold work or sprint intervals to do so will depend on the nature of the sport. The point I emphasise is that a strong aerobic base should never be neglected. Regardless if the sport is an endurance sport or not a strong aerobic system will be of great benefit to most athletes as it is still a major part of their physiology.

Live High Train Low

Altitude has well established benefits for an athlete. Increased red blood cell production through increased erythropoietin (EPO) levels, results in a better ability of the blood to carry and deliver oxygen. Oxygen supply is one of the critical factors determining oxidative capacity and VO2max. At increasing altitude the partial pressure of oxygen decreases. This means that oxygen defusing from the lungs to the blood is reduced. Sensors in the body detect this reduction of oxygen dissolved in the blood. A series of physiological responses then act compensate. The magnitude and “shelf life” of these responses is dependant on the duration of exposure to a high altitude (hypoxic) environment. Most athletes therefore believe that the longer they stay at altitude the more beneficial it will be for them in terms of performance. A greater oxidative capacity is a major contributing factor in aerobic endurance and performance. While there is no doubt that altitude improves an athletes physiology and oxidative capacity, it may not always benefit athletic performance.

At altitude the poor supply of oxygen will make relative efforts more intense depending on the height above sea level. The higher an athlete goes the harder exercise at relative efforts will become. In some ways this is a benefit, as the athlete can improve both mentally and physiologically. With time it can also become a disadvantage. The athlete becomes accustomed to working at lower power outputs and pace in comparison to sea level. When they return to sea level they can struggle to maintain high pace even though they are physiologically capable. Technique and exercise efficiency can be greatly diminished by the time spent at altitude. For this reason an athlete will need to find a compromise between the physiological improvements and maintenance of technique. The live high, train low model is one such strategy which has shown success in overcoming this. An athlete will spend non training hours living in a hypoxic environment and will then return to sea level for training. They can also do this artificially by creating a hypoxic environment such as an “altitude house” or by sleeping in an “oxygen tent”. In either case the athlete is in an artificially controlled environment. They now can ensure sufficient duration in hypoxia to elicit a physiological response. They do not experience the issue with training intensity as they can complete their training at a sea level environment. When this method is adopted for a number of days or weeks the athlete can experience a significant overall improvement to aerobic performance. One exception to this theory is when an athlete is preparing for a competition that is at a high altitude venue. In this case the athlete must become acclimated to their competition environment. The loss in sea level performance is acceptable as the athlete must now focus his efforts around a performance in a new environment.

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Oxygen tent. Source http://www.snipview.com/q/Altitude%20tent

Depending on the goals and schedule of the athlete, altitude training can be a major benefit. Like with most training concepts there is a time and a place. Multiple factors must be considered in order to create an effective training strategy. We a constantly learning from science and real world experience. New technology such as oxygen tents can now allow us to make much better use of our knowledge of physiology and performance. Coaches and athletes should make a strong effort to stay informed about rapidly improving techniques.