Real World Conditioning

It’s good to be strong. It’s good to be fit. It’s awesome to be both. Most workout plans are really good at one or the other – either size and strength or fitness. Very few deliver on both.

The reasons are actually pretty simple – people think of “fitness” in a single way. It either means something like a MetCon type workout or maybe some prowler pushes for conditioning, or it means mindlessly slaving away at low intensity for hours on an elliptical machine for cardiovascular fitness. But there’s actually four different types of work required to get both a big gas tank and a big engine. And, if we want to really be strong, fast, and durable we need legs that can withstand any and all punishment.

Let’s quickly look at the different energy systems and what they do:

ATP/ CP system – max power output is approximately six seconds. Think an all-out sprint or 1RM. That’s the ATP system in action. Because ATP replenishment is slow – roughly 3 minutes for full replenishment – these sessions feature short periods of near maximal output and lonmg rest periods.

Glycolytic system – 20 – 40 seconds. The glycolytic system is the one that makes the muscles burn and is represented by a 400m all out run. A lot of training ends up using this training zone but gains here are very hard won and limited. This is mindless but fun sweating that often doesn’t produce an improvement in line with the effort put in.

The aerobic system – contributes more and more to total energy from about 75 seconds onwards. Even for events as short as a 2000m row, which is completed in around 7 minutes by most males, is 87% aerobic. [1] In other words, if you want true all day fitness you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. I’ve seen plenty of WOD monsters who can crush short 20 minute workouts be ruined by having to repeatedly put out all day long during selection type events.

Now we’ve covered how your body makes energy there is a fourth factor to take into account – muscular endurance. There are plenty of people who tell you that maximal strength work in low rep ranges will give you better efficiency. The problem is that for some tests, like a military push up test, a higher bench press won’t translate into greater push up numbers. Having a big squat also won’t help you pack march 20km either. You’re actually going to have to develop some local muscular endurance, which means some higher rep training. Having said that, I’ve also seen too many great runners who can go all day but fall to pieces when they have to carry something heavy. Muscular endurance is better termed strength endurance and it bears remembering that you first need some strength before you worry about the endurance part of that equation.

The main factors to consider:

We want to avoid the ugly middle ground as much as possible.
For legs that can truly tackle all tests we need a combination of power, strength, and strength endurance.
There still needs to be longer, low intensity, steady state work that teaches the body how to be strong and durable, helps us recover, and builds that big gas tank.

It may seem at this point that you should just add more intensity more often to get the desired result. However, the opposite is true, especially for athletes concerned about maintaining muscle mass. An all HIIT routine led to a 3.7% drop in body mass (and this was in elite endurance athletes who don’t have a huge amount of extra muscle to begin with).[2] What they found was that in a single week of six sessions the training time for best results were broken down like this:

2 x 60min HIIT sessions.
2 x 150-240min low intensity sessions (that included 6-8 5s maximal sprints).
2 x 90min low intensity sessions. (<80% max heart rate).
If you add all that up what you get is about 22% of the week being HIIT and 78% lower intensity. The down side is that while this training was effective for increasing VO2max and time to exhaustion I’m also sure that most people don’t have 11 hours per week to focus solely on the various elements of energy systems work without taking into account the strength endurance protocol.

So how do you create a plan that provides for this?

The easiest way to get the low-level work in is walking. Not loaded walking like with a pack. Just walking. A recent study by Song et al found that, “A short walk in a forest can have significant physiological and psychological effects on middle-aged hypertensive individuals. Compared with walking in the urban environment, walking in the forest environment significantly increased parasympathetic nerve activity and significantly decreased heart rate. These results are consistent with those from previous studies that examined physiological responses to a forest environment in young adults. HRV responses are often detected during relaxed states such as during rest, a massage, or after performing yoga. Therefore, we concluded that participants who walked in the forest were in a physiologically relaxed state.”[3]

Why is this so important? Because high intensity training can burn you out mentally and physically quickly. In the original Tabata study all participants said they wouldn’t repeat the protocol because it was so draining. Given it only lasted six weeks and our plan needs to be one we can use for years we need something that is more sustainable. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s legendary sprint coach, had this to say about CNS fatigue, “CNS overtraining is caused by high intensity work occurring too frequently in the training cycle, in too high a volume in a single training session, or by the attempt to introduce high intensity work too rapidly into the program when residual fatigue still exists. Symptoms of CNS fatigue include loss of performance or technique, frequent cramps, involuntary trembling or shaking of the muscles after a workout, flickering eyelids, loss of concentration, sleeplessness, and general malaise”. So we probably want to avoid that.

The reason why the low intensity work features so prominently in these plans is because it has a calming effect on the nervous system. The best way to think about HIIT style training is that it represents the icing on the cake. Low intensity work is the cake. If you really want a great end product you better make sure you have some cake to put your icing on.

So goal one of the program is a daily 30 minute walk, five days a week. On the 6th and 7th days, when you presumably have more free time and flexibility a longer one-hour walk is required. That gets us four and a half hours of low intensity work per week, which means we can spend between 50 and 60 minutes each week on our anaerobic and strength endurance work. I can’t stress enough that the walking is the most important part of this entire program. Without it the high intensity work may be too much and you’ll soon find yourself sick or injured.

The following sample program gives an idea on how to set up the time each week as best as possible for maximum return. The conditioning protocol used hits the entire body extremely effectively – you’re likely going to find muscles, particularly around your abs, that you haven’t ever felt. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve had clients suffer extreme muscle soreness for days the first times they’ve used these protocols.

Because the repeat sprint protocol is so hard on the body, and the primary source of running injuries is a body not prepared for the length, frequency, or speed of a session you should follow the following 4-week break in plan to running:

Sprint length – 50m.
Frequency – two times per week.
Rest – 3mins between sprints.
Sets – 10

Week 1 – 30m
Week 2 – 25m
Week 3 – 20m
Week 4 – —

Rather than try to start from zero and hit maximum speed straight away in week 1 you’ll smoothly accelerate up to top speed over 30m and run the last 20m hard. In week 2 you’ll accelerate a bit harder and build up to top speed over 25m before finishing hard over the remaining 25m. In week 3 it’ll get a bit faster still and you’ll be at top speed within 20m and then blast the final 30m flat out. In the 4th week you go as hard as you can right from the start for each sprint.

Workout plan:

To make the body strong enough to withstand both the rigours of running as well as make it truly strong and fit, our training plan needs to cover multiple fitness qualities. To cover multiple fitness qualities in a single week means that a conjugate training template is needed. The short version of this is that we want to cover speed/ power, max strength, and strength endurance, in that order, in a single week. They are placed in that order because as fatigue mounts up the ability to work with true power decreases so it makes sense for speed and loads to decrease as the week progresses before a rest on the weekend to rejuvenate.

After every sprint strength session perform 150-200 reps of abdominal work. I suggest picking 5 exercises you like and working through 3-4 sets of 10 for each in circuit fashion. Given the size and strength of the spinal erectors it is critical that abdominal strength be developed and maintained at a level that allows effective counter-balancing of spinal erector strength.

There is a caveat to this type of work – you can’t begin this plan until you’ve gone past the beginner stage for conditioning. The beginner phase is two years of 300+ hours annually of low intensity endurance work. That’s 6 hours a week for 50 weeks a year for 2 years to get past the beginner stage. If you are sitting there thinking that perhaps you’ll never get to this workout then you are right – this is not a beginner workout and most people are absolute beginners when it comes to conditioning work. You don’t walk in the gym and start trying to lift as heavy as possible on day one and you don’t earn sprint conditioning on day one either. Spend the time to build the base. You may find, as most of my clients do, that they don’t really need anything beyond the base layer anyway. I have only a handful of clients now who are ready for this type of work and they have been with me for years. If you attempt this without having built the base adequately you will get hurt, or your fitness will actually go backwards.