Before we start part 3, I want to make a point. Making a monster athlete takes a lot of work.
Obviously an athlete needs to put in the work, but the coach needs to as well. It takes more preparation, monitoring and work than just writing out the program for the week. Doing a bunch of different exercises and intensities at once is the way you should get started, because at a relatively untrained level you’re going to be able to improve everything at once. But when you hit that plateau, this approach simply doesn’t work.
In part 3 of this series we are going to discuss how we typically give a CrossFit athlete their “base”, or their foundation to optimal performance.
Part 2 Review
Think back to part 2 where we learned about how the body produces energy. We discussed the three systems in which the body produces energy. These three systems constantly produce energy in some proportion and work together so that the body has energy for any type of activity.
The three energy systems are the alactic, lactic (or lactate) and aerobic energy systems. In short, all of these energy systems end up producing Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, which is the molecule that the body uses for energy.
Note: Phosphagen=Alactic, Glycolytic=Lactic and Oxidative=Aerobic Energy System
The alactic system produces energy very quickly for about 10-15 seconds. The lactic system produces energy for up to about 2 minutes. The aerobic system produces energy for an infinite amount of time, assuming there is enough substrate to produce Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP.
Depending on the type, intensity and duration of these activities, our body is going to utilize each energy system in different proportions to provide the body energy at the rate that it needs for the activity it is doing.
The Best Bang For Your Buck
When we are looking at building up an athlete’s base as was discussed in part 2, we need to improve the athlete’s aerobic capacity and cardiac output. In terms of a long-term program, improving this aerobic base will help an athlete recover better between sets and training sessions, allowing the athlete to adequately recover without pushing their body into overtraining.
Increasing aerobic capacity can be thought of as an athlete’s general ability to do work. As you can probably tell, by improving aerobic capacity, we are going to be improving the aerobic energy system. Since this energy system is the energy system that provides energy at a slow rate for a long period of time, long distance running, cycling and swimming typically come to mind. These might be methods that we utilize, but they are far from the only methods that we can use to improve our aerobic base.
We need to improve the athlete’s aerobic capacity so that:
The aerobic energy system can handle the recovery of the body between sets and between workouts;
The aerobic energy system can handle the demands of a longer workout or competition (one workout from the Great Lakes Invitational comes to mind-2,000m Row, 1 mile run, 2,000m row);
The aerobic energy system can contribute a larger proportion of total energy production when performing shorter, more intense workouts.
When looking at recovery, if we chase the adaptations that were discussed in part 2, primarily adaptations that increase blood flow to the muscles, we can decrease recovery time, allowing for either more frequent or more intense training sessions. This type of adaptation is called increasing an athlete’s cardiac output. This essentially means that we increase the amount of blood the athlete’s heart can pump each beat.
In terms of a workout that is primarily fueled by the aerobic energy system, we need to have the pure aerobic capacity to keep up with the demands of a workout like the one listed above.
Somewhat tying into number two, if an athlete doesn’t have an adequate aerobic base to fuel their body for a whole workout like the one mentioned above, the body will need to either produce the energy elsewhere. The body will find the energy from the other two energy systems. As we know, these other two energy systems have a finite amount of substrate and will only last so long until the athlete runs out of fuel and has to significantly reduce their pace in the workout.
Along those same lines, if we are going through a workout that might only last 7 to 10 minutes, we know that the primary energy system that will be used will be the lactic energy system, depending on the level of the athlete and assuming that the athlete is pushing themselves as hard as they can.
If we look at the graph below, we can see what a graph might look like during this high-intensity, ten minute workout.
This graph shows the proportions of energy systems that the body uses at any one point in time.
Again, the duration and intensity of the activity are going to determine what proportions of each energy system are going to be used.
Let’s say that this athlete that goes through this theoretical ten minute, high-intensity workout has a very underdeveloped aerobic system. His aerobic system might only be able to supply 10% of the energy required to go at the pace he might be asking his body to go. So where does the other 90% come from? Primarily from the lactate energy system.
But remember, the lactate system has a finite amount of substrate, so having it provide 90% of the energy for a ten minute workout is unrealistic. To make it through the whole workout, the athlete is going to have to go at a very slow pace in order to not use up all of his glycogen stores. This slower pace will be more on par with the (slow) rate of energy production of the aerobic system in it's current state.
Let’s say we spend a while training this same athlete’s aerobic capacity and improve it significantly, then have the same athlete go through that same ten-minute workout at the same pace as the first time he did it. The graph illustrating the proportions of energy system utilization might now look something like this.
While this is only a rough sketch of what is happening and not exact proportions, you can see what happens when that same athlete, who has a highly developed aerobic energy system, performs that same ten-minute workout at the same pace. You can see that the aerobic energy system contributes a much higher percentage of energy towards the workout.
The athlete in the first graph pushed themselves to the limit. The same athlete in the second graph isn’t pushing the limits. Because his/her aerobic energy system is so developed, it can produce the energy needed to go at the same pace as before with much less effort. Since this athlete’s body won’t be depleting it’s glycogen stores nearly as much, their body won’t be as stressed from the workout and will consequently be able to recover much more quickly.
Now let’s say we put this athlete against his/her old self (with the lower aerobic capacity). The athlete with the higher aerobic capacity will smoke the old self! Since the athlete with the new-found aerobic capacity can keep the same pace as before, all the while using primarily the SLOWER energy system, he/she is only going to be able to produce THAT MUCH more energy to go even faster when they push the limits by tapping into their lactate energy system (which produces energy much faster than the aerobic system).
When the athlete with a higher aerobic capacity really pushes the limits and goes for their best time, rather than using his aerobic system as a prime energy producer, the graph will now look more like what it did before (with the graph of the athlete with lower aerobic capacity). The proportions of energy system energy production will be similar, but the athlete’s power output will be much, much higher due to the aerobic system contributing more energy to the activity.
This is what we want in a CrossFit athlete.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Boring
The methods in training aerobic capacity are fairly simple, they just require a bit of monitoring and programming.
When we are training an athlete to improve aerobic capacity, we need to monitor their heart rate. When we are training for adaptations of the aerobic energy system, we usually want their heart rate to be between 130 and 150 beats per minute, which will seem like a very low intensity, especially to CrossFitters who are used to very intense activity. Again, this heart rate range allows for the heart to fully fill with blood, leading to eccentric hypertrophy of the left ventricle of the heart. This eccentric hypertrophy (enlargement of the volume of the left ventricle) leads to a bigger stroke volume, meaning a larger amount of blood is pumped with every heartbeat.
By working in this heart rate range, we allow this adaptation among the other ones listen in part 2 to happen.
If we work outside these heart rate ranges, such as heart rates at 170, 180 or even 190 beats per minute, it is a sign that we are training adaptations of the lactic energy system. Again, with a CrossFitter, we will eventually get to training in these heart rate ranges and in a manner that a typical CrossFitter is used to training, but that will wait until later. Remember that training in this manner leads to concentric hypertrophy of the heart, leading to a lower cardiac output and less blood being pumped by the heart. This training also kills off mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of the body; they produce ATP. The less of these we have, the less energy production we have.
Whichever method you choose to train aerobic capacity, you can’t really go wrong. Circuit training, long, slow duration work, sport specific skills (a good choice for CrossFitters); they all work as long as you monitor your heart rate. We usually have our athletes use a Polar FT7.
With the diversity of the exercises used in CrossFit, whether you choose rowing, running, double unders or just about any type of exercise, you can’t really go wrong as far as being sport-specific in your aerobic capacity work. We typically prefer the athlete do their conditioning with something that is similar to their sport because it develops efficiency in their movement. The aerobic energy system plays a huge role in performance, but being efficient in your movements is another big factor. Remember, just because you’re not training like it’s game day doesn’t mean you can’t become more efficient in your movements.
One of the most sport-specific aerobic energy system development workouts we have our athletes do is go through their normal WoD, but keeping their heart rate at the prescribed zone. This leads to the adaptations I’ve been describing as well as bettering the athlete at the movements they need to be efficient at for competition.
Aerobic energy system development is a vital part in any athletes program if they’re serious about reaching the top level. Whether your goal is to go to the games or compete in a big local competition, if you want to perform your best at a certain time, you need to have a long-term plan. While something as low intensity as aerobic energy system training might not seem directly applicable to a high-intensity sport such as CrossFit, any good coach will tell you not only that it is important, but also why.
Planning out the long-term training program is the first step in realizing your full potential as an athlete. A plan needs to be thoroughly thought out and monitored to ensure that everything is going as planned as well as determining whether any changes need to be made.
The goal of the long-term plan isn’t just to make someone do work to do work. Everything should have a reason while keeping the big picture in mind. More often than not, the first step in creating great CrossFitter is slowing everything down, making sure they recover and developing a base from which everything else can reach it’s highest potential.