This is a follow up on an surprisingly popular short post I wrote on why you should pay attention if your monostructural aerobic test times are not improving…if you didn’t see the first post, it is called “YES, YOUR FRAN TIME DROPPED. NO, YOUR CONDITIONING DID NOT IMPROVE.”
The original post was intentionally short and I kept the terms quite basic, as I was simply trying to illustrate a point. I want to elaborate a bit more now.
I’ll give some reasons to do real aerobic training, why some modalities might improve and others not, and at the end give some advice on how to specifically test your aerobic system so you can track it to see progress. Lastly, in the final part to come, I’ll write on what I’ve found to work well with my clients.
When I was using the vague term of “conditioning”, I was primarily referring to the aerobic system. While many coaches and athletes are now realizing the importance of proper aerobic training, there are still many who still think having their athletes constantly chase the clock is the way to go. The original post was really directed at them.
There are 3 energy systems that provide the muscles with fuel for movement. There are the two anaerobic, or oxygen independent systems – the alactic (or ATP-PC) and the lactic (or glycolytic) energy systems, and the aerobic system. This is covered in many other places, so if you aren’t familiar with these, I’d suggest you go here for a good overview.
All of the energy systems are in play at all times, and all are important for the sport of fitness. But, the aerobic system is very crucial AND by far the most trainable of the three. And, if your monostructural tests haven’t improved since the Bush administration, it’s a pretty good indication that your overall aerobic abilities haven’t been improving either.
Your anaerobic lactic (glycolytic) abilities are largely genetically pre-determined. Dr. Vladimir Issurin has stated that 70% of one’s glycolytic abilities are genetically set, and can only be improved up to 30% with good training. Conversely, one’s aerobic abilities are about 30% genetic and can be improved up to 70% or more with proper training. This means you have a large capacity for aerobic improvement even if you lost the genetic lottery.
We now know that even in short, presumably very anaerobically dominant activities like the 400m sprint, that the aerobic system contributes at least 50% of the energy. It’s contribution is likely far higher in the average 7-12 minute WOD. This informs us that you can make very good improvements in short, high output tests of just a few minutes by improving the aerobic system, and your recovery will be much quicker in this case as well.
Unfortunately, many of the training practices for the sport of fitness are repeatedly hammering the anaerobic system and therefore leaving the aerobic system both suppressed and undertrained.
Some coaches are now coming to see that training the lactic system is more of a dead-end: the improvement you can make is fairly small, it is extremely fatiguing, and it may leave the central nervous system dampened, which then impairs strength/speed/power gains.
Furthermore, anaerobic development directly competes with one’s aerobic abilities: the more developed your anaerobic lactic system is, the lower one’s aerobic capacity must be; they are opposing adaptations.
Not only is the rate of return on anaerobic work fairly small, it’s also the easiest to overtrain. According to Jan Olbrecht in “The Science of Winning” (a great technical book on energy systems training as related to high level swimming, but very applicable to other modalities), anaerobic lactic training is the most sensitive system to train, and that “An overdose of anaerobic work has the opposite effect of what is intended and will break down both the anaerobic capacity and the anaerobic power instead of building them up”.
Outside of Crossfit, you are hard pressed to find coaches anywhere who train the anaerobic system more than 2-3 times per week maximum, and even then, only for 3-6 weeks before taking a break. Many in the sport of fitness hit that system almost daily, often even more than once.
High lactate levels in the typical WOD or short interval type protocols mean that eventually, you’ll produce more lactate at every effort level, as this is what you are training your body to do. This type of training definitely has it’s time and place, and absolutely has to be done if you want to compete. But, a total reliance on it over time reduces your aerobic abilities and puts a ceiling on your progress. One of the ways this happens is that you may destroy or downregulate the production of new aerobic mitochondria and enzymes. This diminishes aerobic abilities.
With all of that said, what should you do if you are one of those who haven’t been seeing gains on those pesky mono tests? There can be many different ways to program to improve the aerobic system for the sport of fitness, but first you should do some testing. Here are a few simple basics:
• Assess the starting point: I like standard tests where there is a lot of data – 2000m and 5000m Rows, 5k, 3k, or 1 mile Runs for example. Also, tests like 10 min Airdyne for max cals or 60 min Row for max meters can be useful. Don’t do all of them, pick a few. Note your time, max and average heart rate, and perceived effort on any of these you do.
• Test yourself at a low heart rate such as 140bpm: warm up, then go for 30 min or more keeping your heart rate as close to 140 as possible the whole time. Note the distance and perceived effort. Test only a single modality at a time; running on a track, rowing, or the Airdyne is best.
• Check your morning resting heart rate. This is not a definitive test, but it can provide clues.
• Another assessment that is very useful is to test the athlete’s heart rate variability (HRV). Recent research has shown that those with lower HRV respond better to training volume and those with higher HRV respond better to intensity. This was also my observation a couple of years before seeing the research. There are many apps and ways to do this now.
What about cases where you ARE testing monostructural efforts, and some are improving, but others aren’t?
There could be a variety of reasons why this is happening. Three obvious ones that I will not go into deeply are specificity, efficiency of technique, and inexperienced pacing strategies.
If you have only been rowing and biking for your aerobic work, your run times may very well not improve because part of the adaptations are local and specific to the activity being done. If your technique for rowing or running is poor, then one may test very differently than the other. Finally, less exposure to a modality could also lead to pacing errors.
Ruling that out, then I’d look a little deeper.
It could be an issue of bodyweight. For example, if you are comparing your rowing test to a running test. The rower will reward heavier/more muscular individuals while running will penalize them. In this case, a larger overall improvement may be needed before gains can be seen in the other modality.
Some modalities lend themselves to poor breathing patterns more than others, and this definitely will limit performance and adaptations.
You can easily see this at work with double unders: bounce in place as if doing double unders, rest a bit, then do actual double unders. You’ll most likely see that your heart rate and effort level are way higher doing double unders. What gives? Simply twirling the rope doesn’t add that much fatigue!
For most, it’s an increase in sympathetic tone (fight or flight) and the ensuing short, apical (upper chest/neck) breathing that accompanies it, leading to a shift toward more anaerobic metabolism.
This is may be a bad habit left over from the learning phase – the stress of constantly tripping and having to re-start. The best athletes have learned to relax and breathe properly and therefore stay more aerobic.
While running isn’t nearly as bad as double unders, you can often observe the same breathing patterns at work there. While those who breathe that way will also do so on the rower or Airdyne, the posture required by those modalities tends to minimize it some.
The shorter, faster breaths will lead to a higher HR, a lower ability to get oxygen into the working muscles, more anaerobic metabolism, greater fatigue, and an earlier triggering of the respiratory metaboreflex. What happens in that case is once fatigue in the breathing muscles reaches a certain point, the blood flow to the working muscles is decreased, leading to you having to slow or pause. This is likely a survival mechanism.
Assessing and re-training breathing mechanics is something I do with all of my clients now.
I’ll go over the tests and what they might mean, and also talk about some training methods and templates I use with my clients in the final part of this series.