Thursday, January 21, 2010

High Intensity Training, Part Dos!

Welcome back to the High Intensity Training (HIT) series. Since we last met, we’ve all been tracked for our 2009 goals. Some of us are on track for early goals. Some of us are on track for late season goals, and some of us can see the tracks as we wait for motivation to move us. To summarize “Part Uno” of the HIT series I talked about what HIT is, and how this training technique is best suited for the elite and/ or chronically trained athlete when compared to submaximal efforts. During “Part Dos,” I’m going to compare and contrast: what makes distinguishes an “elite and/ or chronically trained athlete” (from now on, “elite and/ or chronically trained athlete” will be referred to as “elite” since HIT research combines these two groups) from or a “recreational athlete,” and the effects of submaximal training. No matter where your motivation or training status currently is, there’s something to learn here, so lift your coffee, take a sip and keep on reading.

If you’re still reading this, at some level you want to be known as an elite athlete. HIT research combines both “elite and chronically trained athletes” based upon physiological training adaptations (don’t worry, talk of this will be very, very brief) and so, in the interest of the validity of this article, I am going to follow suit. Generally speaking, an elite athlete is one who trains consistently enough to reach the upper echelon of their physical potential. The minimum VO2 max of these lucky individuals typically is better than 60 ml/kg/min. That’s “fit,” but not “Tour de France fit (VO2 max >73 as a domestique).” 60 ml/kg/min would be a “good” regional athlete (Category 3) or an average national level athlete (Category 2). These athletes have trained enough to reap most of the benefits from just riding “lots.” They can make you hurt, but they will not be riding away from a peloton solo.

Recreational athletes are far from removed from a typical, “armchair or television athlete” that decides to jump on a bike for a friendly stroll. They will typically show a VO2 max = 45-55 ml/kg/min, which puts young men (under 30) in the 70th percentile and any women in the +90th percentile of fitness relative to everyone. What differentiates a recreational athlete is just that, recreation. Typically, rigorous training isn’t done often enough to provide a training stimulus necessary to trigger the adaptations needed to reach the upper echelons of fitness. These athletes are usually are strong, but not on the same level as your elite athletes. Still, do not underestimate their abilities. This article does not address the potential for a blistering and explosive sprint, bike handling, long term effects of drafting, strategy, etc.

BUT WAIT! There are disclaimers. The numbers I just mentioned are all based on trends and statistics. That’s right, fun with numbers! Someone who has a VO2 max <55 may still be considered elite and someone with a VO2 max >60 could be considered recreational. This all depends on your genetic disposition towards fitness. Talent plays a big part in all sport in that it is necessary for great success, but not sufficient on its own. However, at the professional and amateur level, hard work is both necessary and sufficient for success.

In order to understand why it is that an elite athlete must train with HIT in order to realize his/ her full physical capacity for performance, we must first understand what physiological improvements the recreational athlete will reap as he/ she begins to consistently train. Concerning the recreational athlete, training adaptations can be categorized into central and peripheral changes.
Please trust that I could ramble on for hours, even days about these changes and exactly why they happen, but I’m much too polite for that. Instead, let’s just say that central changes happen rapidly and permit the body to deliver more blood to the working muscle. Peripheral changes occur more slowly (several weeks to months) and enhance the ability to assimilate oxygen from the blood and consume it inside the muscle cell. As a result, muscle contraction becomes more efficient (at the sub-cellular level) and the cell’s capacity for work increases, thus making you “more fit.”

However, as this submaximal level of training becomes habitual, the improvements mentioned above subside and cease. This is because the elite athlete has, for all practical purposes, maximized his/ her ability to adapt to all submaximal training. Lab tests show that elite athletes already benefit from 3-4 times the oxidative enzyme activity (read, “bigger aerobic engine”), 3 times more capillary density, and a greater percentage of slow twitch muscle mass compared to recreational athletes. It appears that in order for continued performance improvement, a different training stimulus must be presented rather than “simply increasing the volume” (read, “junk miles”).

At the elite level, the athlete is looking for that, “little bit extra.” However, that “little bit extra” is extremely difficult to “find” and it takes an experienced and insightful professional to help reach that “little bit more.” Make no mistake, everyone can benefit from HIT. In the final installment, I’ll discuss the effects of HIT, how it happens, and how to know what to do in order to “find” your best endurance performance. Stay tuned!