In part one of this series, we talked about the need for an athlete to recover. In my experience (and I’m sure yours), it’s the typical mentality of a CrossFitter to think more is better. More times than not, if you ask a CrossFitter how they are going about getting better, they’ll say they ‘’just do more.’’
Stressing your body through training, over and over, will accumulate stress if your recovery isn’t adequate. This can lead to overtraining. This is where short-term decreases in performance originate.
When you have CrossFitted long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll hit the dreaded plateau. This is typically when the “I’ll just do more’’ mentality comes into play. Instead, what a CrossFitter needs to do when they hit this plateau is periodize their program in a way that allows them to still make improvements in the areas that they need while having a long term plan to ‘’peak’’ their performance when something like the games comes around.
What CrossFitters need to periodize is the order of energy systems and modalities that they are training at certain times of the year. Think about energy systems as what provide the body with energy to do any activity. Run, swim, bike, lift weights, all of these things depend on the proper working of the body’s energy systems.
There are three energy systems in the body: the aerobic system, which uses oxygen and fats to produce energy, the glycolytic or lactic system, which uses glucose (or carbs) to produce energy and the ATP-PC or alactic system, which uses phosphocreatine to produce energy.
At any point in the day, all three of these energy systems are contributing energy for you to stay alive. Depending on the duration and intensity of an activity, the body will use some proportion of these energy systems to provide the body with energy to perform the activity.
The aerobic system can be thought of as a slower energy system. It primarily powers longer, slower activities such as a long run, bike or swim. The aerobic energy system is also the dominant energy producer during rest, making it a big part of recovery.
The lactate system produces energy faster than the aerobic system, albeit for a shorter amount of time. It uses glucose (sometimes oxygen) to produce the energy. Since there is a finite amount of this substrate along with a big buildup of metabolic byproducts, the glycolytic system will be the primary power producer for the body for anywhere from 10 seconds to roughly 2 minutes depending on the time and duration of the activity.
The alactic system produces energy extremely quickly. It’s the primary energy producer for the body for about 10-15 seconds. This is the energy system that powers your one rep maxes and any extremely intense, short duration activity.
By diving head first into what CrossFit training typically consists of (high intensity, longer duration activity), you’re training primarily the lactate energy system. This is great for a beginner that has done very little physical activity before, but we’re talking about the athletes that have gone through the ‘’beginner’’ phase and need a tweak in their programming in order to keep improving their characteristics as well as peak for their competition of focus.
The lactic system uses fewer steps to produce energy when compared to the aerobic system.
Knowing this, there is less room for the lactic system to improve in performance as opposed to the aerobic system.
So, if we don’t start training the lactate system, then what do we do?
The first step we take with an athlete is to train their aerobic capacity, cardiac output and either maximum strength or maximum power. The need for maximum strength/power in a sport like
CrossFit is obvious where there are a lot of weights being thrown around. The faster you can move the weights and the lower percentage of your maximum the weights are, the better off you will be. So many people seem to lose sight of this in the CrossFit world.
Getting an athlete stronger usually isn’t the area where our programming receives any flack when we have a CrossFitter come to us. When we usually have differing viewpoints is the type of training we ask them to do when improving their aerobic capacity and cardiac output.
The reason we choose to train the aerobic system first is because it is the energy system that helps everything else reach it’s full potential.
We have already discussed the importance of recovery and the fact that the aerobic system plays a major role in it. In order to recover quickly and get back to training, we need to develop the aerobic system first so the majority of the training year doesn’t need to be spent at home trying to recover.
Adaptations of the aerobic energy system include:
Increased capillarization of muscles-Capillaries are the tiniest blood vessels that reach all parts of your body. Without them, there would be no way to get nutrients to all parts of your muscles. By training the aerobic system, it signals the body to create more capillaries in the working muscles in order to supply the muscles with enough blood and oxygen to recover and increase performance.
Increased size of the left ventricle of the heart-The heart has four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. The left ventricle is the largest of the four and is the one responsible for sending blood all throughout the body. The picture below shows the left and right ventricle of the heart
Look at the picture above. The heart on the left can be thought of a as a normal, unconditioned heart. The left and right ventricles are a normal size for an untrained person.
The heart in the middle is a heart that has been trained with very high intensity conditioning, most likely utilizing the lactate energy system. As you can see, the muscle mass of the heart has increased. In this case, we call this concentric hypertrophy. This is because, despite the muscle mass increasing, there is very little change in the volume of the left ventricle.
Now look at the heart on the right. This is a heart that has been aerobically trained. The left ventricle is much bigger, also called eccentric hypertrophy.
When training within prescribed heart rates, we allow this to happen. Inside a specific heart rate zone, we allow the left ventricle to fully fill with blood before it contracts and sends blood to the body. Over time, this left ventricle actually ‘’stretches out’’ and becomes larger. The larger the left ventricle, the more blood it will pump with each beat. This means more blood, more oxygen and more nutrients are getting to your muscles when you’re training and recovering.
On top of these adaptations that are achieved by training the aerobic system that primarily have to do with recovery, we also have adaptations that have to do primarily with performance:
Increase in aerobic enzymes-Enzymes speed up the chemical reactions in the body. By increasing the number of aerobic enzymes in the body through training the aerobic system, we can increase energy output of the aerobic system, which aids in performance.
Relocation of mitochondria near fat stores-The aerobic system uses stored fat for energy. The mitochondria are the power houses of the aerobic system. They combine fat and oxygen to produce useable energy for the body. Through aerobic training, the mitochondria and fats are stored nearer each other for quicker and more powerful energy output.
Even though I refer to each of these adaptations as either helping performance of helping recovery, everything helps both in one way or another. More blood pumping out of the heart will help recovery as well as training performance.
On the other side of the coin, increasing the amount of aerobic enzymes in the body will help the efficiency of the aerobic energy system. All of these adaptations are vital to and help the whole training process.
While these are adaptations that any athlete should want, the way that CrossFitters usually train
directly interferes with these adaptations.
When training all out for extended periods of time, as CrossFit athletes usually do, the primary source of energy is coming from the lactic energy system. This energy system converts glucose (carbohydrates) into usable energy for the body. This is the energy system that primarily fuels your training if you are really pushing yourself any longer than 15 to 20 seconds.
When training the lactic energy system, there are two primary effects that happen that essentially cancel out the adaptations of the aerobic system training. Both of these are reasons that we do not start off a long term training process by training the lactic system.
The first, which we already discussed, is that the left ventricle of the heart becomes smaller. Think about the mechanism that helps the left ventricle to become bigger in size. The heart is allowed to fully fill with blood before it beats and over time it stretches out to become bigger and pump more blood.
With long duration, high intensity training (using the lactate system), you’re essentially doing the opposite. The heart is beating so fast just to try to get every little bit of blood out to the body it can, it can’t fill up to anywhere near full. With all of these extremely hard contractions, over time the heart becomes concentrically hypertrophied, making the left ventricle smaller.
Another way that training the lactic energy system interferes with aerobic system adaptations is that it actually kills off the mitochondria in the muscle. Remember that these are the powerhouses of the aerobic system. They are the ones that use fat and oxygen and convert them into useable energy for the body. Of course, training the lactic system won’t kill off every mitochondria in our body, leaving our aerobic system useless, but it definitely decreases them! With a smaller number of mitochondria in the muscle, we are decreasing the ability of the aerobic system to produce energy for our activity!
Lactate Energy System Training Isn’t All That Bad!
While there are negative effects of training the lactate system, we need to remember that it is vital to have a highly developed lactate system for a CrossFit athlete. It helps them perform high intensity work over a long duration of time. That being said, we just need to train it in the right time of the year and the right order of progression in terms of energy system development.
Lactate energy system training will come about later in the long term plan.
The more energy the aerobic system can produce, the less our bodies have to rely on the anaerobic (lactate and alactic) energy systems for energy production. This way, when it comes time to really push the limits of extremely fast energy production, the aerobic system (which has the highest potential for improvement) will be producing energy as fast as it possibly can and energy coming from the lactate and alactic systems will help you keep an extremely fast pace for an extremely long amount of time.
It is inevitable that the lactic system will have these detrimental effects on the aerobic system and it’s performance. Because of this, we need to build up a large base of aerobic capacity before we move on to train the other energy systems. By starting with a large aerobic base, we will have more than enough capacity to sacrifice some of it when it comes time to train the lactic system.
When looking at the long-term training process for a CrossFitter, we need to take into account where the athlete is lacking, the energy systems that they need to improve and in what order and the skills that they need to develop to be successful. From this, we progress through a program that allows the athlete to peak for their competition of focus, whether that is the Open or the Games.
Whether you are just starting out in CrossFit or are in a totally unrelated sport and just reading this for the information, the correct development of energy systems in a sequential order is extremely important. It allows the athlete to recover effectively and maximize performance.
Haphazardly throwing exercises, sets and reps together to form a workout is not the best way to make a badass athlete. Just because that is what you will be doing in the competition doesn’t mean that you need to do that same thing every day.
In terms of CrossFit, effective training and a long term plan, you will eventually have workouts that are similar to your typical CrossFit WOD. That being said, it won’t come until later when you need to peak for your best performances.
While I mostly referenced what I usually do when training CrossFit athletes in this article, the same process still applies no matter your sport. A CrossFit athlete doesn’t use the same proportions of energy systems as a weightlifter. Same goes when comparing a CrossFit athlete and a long distance runner. By analyzing the athlete’s sport and planning out a long term plan for their training, you set the athlete up to keep training for a long time and develop the characteristics they need, in the order they need them, to maximize performance when they need it.