The fitness world is a strange one. Despite people finally starting to understand that washboard abs don’t necessarily mean someone is a bad ass we still have this idea that someone who looks like a beast performs like one.
But if you’ve spent any amount of time at all around martial arts you’ll know that it’s not unusual for someone who looks like they couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag to beat an opponent who looks like a GI Joe doll. The first Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock fight springs immediately to mind. But so too, does Phil Baroni vs. Mat Lindland as well as all of Fedor’s fights. (Because Fedor looks like a teddy bear. That can kill you. While seemingly half asleep).
In our heads, thanks to the fitness media and the pervasiveness of social media, we still seem to think that more strength training equals better performance. Am I the only one who remembers what happened to Ivan Drago who spent all his time pumping iron in the gym while Rocky ran in the mountains?
The bottom line is that people confuse the three elements of fitness/ conditioning. Performance on the field is made up of four factors. The first is technical skills and the ability to use efficient technique. It doesn’t mater of you have the internal biology of Lance Armstrong if you have no skill in the sport in question you will lose. Skills are always first. But the next three can be made up in varying quantities depending on the athlete. Those three are cardiovascular fitness, strength endurance, and mental toughness.
Mental toughness is not something you are going to develop in the gym. I know various people will tell you that it is possible to develop it in the gym, but they’ve clearly never been on a six-hour heavy ruck. Or ridden up a 13% gradient for 28km. Because in comparison to those everything in the gym is a peace of cake. What I’m trying to say is if you or your athlete lack mental toughness there are faster ways to develop it than on workouts that last a single hour in an air-conditioned gym.
That leaves two main elements we need to address – cardiovascular fitness and strength endurance. The two often get accidentally linked via the mechanism I spoke on in the introduction – the fallacy that weight training is the most efficient means to develop any component of fitness, whether it be speed, power, or endurance. I will make this simple – at every heart rate weight training produces less cardiovascular improvement than traditional aerobic training methods. Running, rowing, cycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing are all faster ways to develop a big engine.
The big question at this point is why do you want a bigger engine? Along with the myth that six-pack abs equal performance is the one that says that most sports are played in an anaerobic zone. The old breakdown of the way the body creates energy is split into three parts. It looks like this:
- ATP-CP system – responsible for short bursts of explosive activity for up to 6-8 seconds.
- Lactic system – Takes over when the CP system runs out of steam and can power efforts up to around the 2min mark.
- Aerobic system – The longer the event goes the more the aerobic system will influence how you create energy.
All these systems work all the time. But here’s where you need to have a major rethink – at approximately 70 seconds the aerobic system becomes the dominant player. The longer your event goes for, or even the more intervals you may do in a single session, the more you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. That rugby player who runs at low speeds for 80 minutes with repeated sprint bursts? Heavily aerobic. The ice hockey player who may only be on the ice for 30 seconds at a time, but plays in matches that last an hour? Also heavily aerobic. The BJJ competitor who has matches that last 5 minutes, but then has further matches to advance in the competition? The more matches he has the more aerobic strength he needs.
The bottom line is that unless you’re involved in something that is a one-off effort that takes less than 70 seconds to complete you would do well to spend some time on aerobic development.
The good news is that you don’t need to mindlessly smash yourself to do so. In fact, doing so may be counter-productive. As I wrote about in Run Strong, the best athletes in the world spend 80% of their training volume around 70% max heart rate. If you look at the formula given for cardiac output training – the kind designed to bring up a lagging aerobic system and boost ventricular hypertrophy – it’s between 120-150bpm. 70% of my MHR is 128bpm. A walk up a steep hill will cover that nicely with very little stress to my body.
But, if I spend 80% of my time on relatively easy fitness work I need to spend 20% of my time on hard work, right? This session here is where you put in the hard 400m intervals, or 500m repeats on the rower. But remember – it’s one in every five sessions that you need this, not four out of five with a single easy session. In other words, for the person who does daily fitness work you need a single hard session each week. If you do only three cardio sessions weekly then you do this single hard session once every two weeks.
That decision to selectively use intensity can be applied to your strength endurance work too. While traditional cyclic activities are better for aerobic gains an element of sport conditioning will always come down to muscular endurance. Even once people wrap their heads around the selective use of intensity while running or cycling they can never seem to understand that the same CNS that powers you outside is the same one that you use in the gym.
The texts on Russian weightlifting, which pretty much all of modern training knowledge is based on, all limited intensity to a single number. Until a lifter cleared Candidate Master of Sport (roughly a lifter who would be heading to nationals but not good enough to win) their average intensity year round would be 70%. That doesn’t mean that they never lifted heavier. It means that they spent a lot of time on easier lifts and used volume to do a lot of the work for them.
So looking at this, we have a combination of the best aerobic athletes in the world choosing to spend the majority of their training time at 70% as well as the best lifters in the world doing the same in the gym. My question to you is why are you trying to train harder when you are not even close to world class?
The body can only handle so much stress. It has no way to differentiate between work stress, family stress, sickness, relationship stress, and training stress. It just feels stress. Given the way most people under recover through poor sleep and diet they are already behind the eight-ball when it comes to how hard they can train anyway. So wouldn’t it make more sense to drop the intensity and actually have sessions you can recover from?
To make this system work is simple. Whether you’re in the gym lifting weights or you’re out running the hills drop the intensity to 70% for four out of five sessions. To begin with you’ll feel like you’re cheating, like this can’t possibly be hard enough to help you get any better. Then, one day out of every five sessions go to the wall. Test for a new PR whether it’s in the squat rack or on the track. Think of the 70% sessions as building sessions and the max effort session as a test session. Spend the majority of your time building fitness and then test it. Sounds a lot like what athletes do, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s something to that…