HOW TO WIN

Issue No. 17
Maximise aerobic capacity Learn how to rest

Demolishing the myths about back pain

 

We know the right kind of exercise resolves back pain and prevents it from returning. However, most people do the wrong kind of exercise!

Sports Injury Bulletin discovered that many of the most popular beliefs about caring for your back have little or no scientific support. Several of these beliefs, which up to now have been treated as ‘gospel’, are exposed as myths.

Click here to receive this special issue of Sports Injury Bulletin (issue number 25) on free trial, or to read more about the myths of low-back pain.

Training to win

If you want to reach your peak level of performance and be a winner, especially in an endurance sport, you must accomplish five tasks:

1. Raise your lactate threshold as high as possible, so that intense efforts can be maintained with a minimum of fatigue

2. Fortify yourself psychologically, so that the changes in training and competing can be handled more easily

3. Maximise your aerobic capacity (V02max) so that more energy is available to sustain your exercise

4. Become more efficient at carrying out the exact activities required in your particular sport, so that less energy is wasted during competition and hard exertions feel less stressful

5. Learn how to rest, so that your hard training is perfectly balanced with adequate amounts of recovery

Lactate threshold

Lifting lactate threshold (the exercise intensity above which lactic acid begins to increase appreciably in your blood) is fairly straightforward. If you improve your V02max, you will usually raise your lactic threshold as well, since lactic threshold is often a fixed percentage of aerobic capacity.

However, it is also possible to raise lactic threshold independently, which is lucky in those cases where V02max refuses to budge. Training continuously at about 85- 90 per cent of max heart rate for 20- to 25-minute periods will generally have a profound effect on lactic threshold. If you don't own a heart monitor or hate checking your pulse, a good lactic threshold raising intensity is one which feels as though it would be impossible to sustain for longer than 30 minutes during a workout.

Fortify yourself psychologically

Compared to the physiological requirements of a winning performance, the exact psychological needs of the top-level athlete are less clear. It is certain that superior performers are able to concentrate almost totally on their bodies during workouts and competitions, blocking out extraneous thoughts and negative information which might impede their performances.

The best athletes also tend to be somewhat self-critical, but not overly so, and they often engage in "positive self-talk", giving themselves encouragement both during exercise and throughout the course of an average day.

Supreme competitors also have the ability to let bad performances roll off their backs; in fact, they tend to regard poor outings as opportunities to learn more about themselves and to make necessary changes in both their physical and mental preparations for competitions.

The best athletes also seem to form mental images of themselves moving powerfully and quickly, and they tune in these images before major competitions.

Finally, almost all top athletes have the apparently paradoxical ability to both relax and remain somewhat tense. Their muscles are relaxed and ready for maximally powerful efforts during competition, yet within their minds keen fires burn, which are ready to ignite almost superhuman physical exertion.

Maximise aerobic capacity

Improving this is probably the easiest of the five tasks, since just engaging in your sport for extended periods of time can heighten your V02max. If you're a runner, for example, and currently training 40 miles per week, you can earn a nice V02max upgrade simply by expanding your weekly schedule to 50-60 miles, without increasing the actual intensity of your workouts.

However, beyond a certain point, increasing your quantity of training no longer boosts V02max. Once that point is reached, intensity of training becomes the key factor: you'll have to cycle, run, row or swim at speeds which lift your heart rate to at least 95 per cent of maximal in order to push V02max as high as possible.

To make things more difficult, attaining such high heart rates for brief periods of time won't work. If you're really interested in sending V02max to the stratosphere, your "intensity needle" will have to point to 95 per cent of maximal heart rate for four-to-five minute stretches several times during selected workouts.

Efficiency

The key to improving your efficiency of movement is to recognise that each muscle in your body is composed of collections of individual muscle cells.

If you make a particular muscle stronger, then fewer of the individual cells within that muscle will be required to sustain a certain level of effort. In other words, more muscle cells within the strengthened muscle are allowed to rest while you're engaging in your sport, and other muscles, which assist your power-boosted muscle, are less likely to be called into play.

Since you'll need to activate fewer individual muscle cells to pedal a bicycle at 20 miles per hour, swim at 1.5 metres per second or row a boat at a particular velocity, your overall energy demand will be lower and you will be more efficient!

As a result, you'll be able to step up to higher than expected intensities of exercise, or else conserve large quantities of precious muscle fuel if you prefer to remain at your traditional work rate.

To get more powerful, and therefore more efficient, you'll need to carry out some training at levels of effort which are actually higher than your usual competitive intensities.

Obviously such exertions can't be sustained for long, so the, usual plan for the endurance-oriented athlete is to employ 30 to 90 second intervals at close to top capacity. The recipe for the correct recovery interval during such workouts is, a bit ambiguous.

Utilising recoveries that are equal in duration to the work intervals can be good, because it helps an athlete's muscles to develop "lactate tolerance" the ability to control increases in acidity and sustain high power outputs for longer periods of time.

On the other hand, longer rest intervals allow more work to be done during each work interval, so it's probably best to have some workouts with short recoveries and others with more extended rest periods.

Sprinters, of course, usually won't want the 90 second work intervals; for a 400m sprinter, for example, 10 and 20 second intervals at faster than 400m pace would be ideal. An additional way to become more efficient is to make use of an esteemed tenet of training called the "specificity principle". There's no special magic here; the idea is simply to do some training at the exact intensity one hopes to use during an important competition. For example:

  • the top-level runner who wants to sizzle through a 5K in 13: 10 should complete some 1000m intervals in 2:38 each,
  • the I0k competitor shooting for a 30-minute race should carry out 200Orn intervals in six minutes
  • the marathoner hoping for a 2:11 clocking should cruise through 10 miles runs in 50 minutes.

In each case, these runners are practicing the exact tempo, which will be required for the race. Likewise the rower who wants to hustle a boat through the water at a particular cruising velocity, the cyclist shooting for a goal time, and the skier needing a specific pace to win a race, must all practice that particular intensity during training.

The bottom line is that competition is not just a muscular event, an athlete's nervous system must learn to control muscular activity at the precise exertion level required for the race. Specific training allows the nervous and muscular systems to come together in a coordinated way.

Learn how to rest

Although severe workouts are necessary to get to the top, rest is equally important, but is all too often missing from a potentially great athlete's schedule.

Attuned to the idea that high-level workouts produce winning performances, the majority of athletes go overboard, pushing themselves to the brink of fatigue and overtraining. Top athletes have learned that optimal training involves exercising and resting; it's not possible to reach supreme performance levels unless fierce exertions are balanced with restoration and recovery.

Even the seemingly fatigue-proof Kenyan runners take two-month respites each year during which they do very little training. As they put it so simply: "Our bodies need to take a rest, so that we can train hard the rest of the year". All competitive athletes should have at least one annual six- to eight-week period in which very little training is done, and should avoid the temptation to carry out too many high-intensity workouts during the training year.

True, not every athlete needs to reach the five goals, which are outlined above. Sprinters and throwers, for example, don't require high V02max levels or lofty lactate thresholds, and they may in fact lose some of their raw muscle power if they focus on V02max-building training. They need to enhance the anaerobic capacities of their muscles, not the aerobic, so the maximum amount of force can be exerted in the shortest possible time.

However, for athletes involved in activities which last for more than a couple of minutes, hitting all five targets should lead to the biggest pay-off of all: a winning performance and a new personal best.

TRAIN TO WIN:

  • Training methods to increase your lactate threshold...
  • Mental training techniques that will increase your physical performance...
  • VO2max workouts that will boost your performance...
  • The secrets of vVO2max...
  • Training programmes to improve your efficiency and beat your personal bests...
  • Identify overtraining syndrome and achieve the balance between training and rest required to reach your potential


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