Coaching Athletes: Endurance Training Part 3This part attempts to put the in-depth discussions of athletics and endurance training into practice. First, it covers the importance of general vs. specific training for endurance athletes. Next, it discusses the importance of interval training to improve an athlete's cardiovascular fitness and their ability to produce and sustain high levels of power. Finally, the article gives a sample training outline for different types of athletes.
Coaching Athletes: Endurance Training Part 3
General vs. Specific Training; The Process; Professionalism
By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, BLOC Editor in Chief
←Read Part Two
In the previous Part, we discussed what it means to train an athlete’s VO2 max and improve her lactate threshold. In this Part, we start to put the pieces together. It is up to the coach to identify the priority that conditioning should take for the athlete and to adjust training to both build a solid foundation for endurance and include enough specific training to best prepare the athlete for the sport. However, there is a difference between specific conditioning training and coaching the athlete’s sport. One of the strength and conditioning coach’s challenges is to keep the focus on improving the athlete’s physical capacity without veering into sports coaching.
General vs. Specific Training
As with so many physical goals, training to improve athletic endurance should start with general improvements before becoming more specific to the athlete’s needs. We can think of those general improvements as the ways that we can help an athlete’s overall physical competence, which will follow the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands).
The SAID principle is simple but often misunderstood. It states that a person’s body will adapt in predictable ways to the demands placed upon it. The goals determine the means. However, SAID does not support the idea that someone can maximize their capacity for a complex activity—like sports performance—just by doing that activity. Most sports bring together strength, endurance, skill, mindset, and a host of other elements into a performance. Trying to improve all of these elements at the same time will usually lead to stunted development. The SAID principle requires that we think more granularly.
First, we must identify what individual physical tasks make up the athlete’s capacity for the sport—things that will limit their development if left untrained. Strength is ubiquitous, which is why nearly all athletes benefit from lifting weights. Fueling activity is similarly universal to physical activity, so some type of conditioning work should also be a standard part of training. Next, we have to know what physical adaptations will improve those tasks generally. What makes a person generally stronger? What makes a person more generally conditioned?
The SAID principle centers on these physical adaptations such that our training goals are not improvements in complex tasks but are measurable improvements in general ones—improved numbers in lifting typically signals increased general strength and improved work:rest ratios for HIT work typically signals improved general conditioning. There is some overlap: For example, a lifter with very low muscular endurance may get a little bit better at lifting with an improvement in muscular endurance, regardless of the source of that improvement. Plyometrics, HIIT, calisthenics, and more can all lead to adaptations that will improve a person’s ability to lift—at least up to a point. Similarly, getting stronger may improve someone’s endurance performance because the muscular adaptations to lifting apply to other tasks that use your muscles.
For endurance training, we can raise the athlete’s ceiling by targeting adaptations that will improve his overall conditioning. Then, training for improved V02Max and lactate threshold, as required by the sport. Moving from general improvements to those more specific to the sport as we go. Based on the discussions in Part 2, an overall training program will include lifting, aerobic exercise, and HIIT or sprint interval training.
One problem with SAID is that it does not account for the trainability of adaptations, meaning how much and for how long we can improve a physical adaptation. We need to ask how much improvement is possible and what it takes to maintain improvements as the athlete develops. The sustainability of V02Max, lactate threshold, and energy systems improvements are not well studied, but it is evident that people make early gains in these areas quickly and lose those gains just as quickly. Also, the upper echelon of improvements may be very difficult to come by, requiring a specialized focus that is only necessary for certain types of athletes. (E.g., At some point, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying to improve an explosive athlete’s VO2 max, but maintaining his fitness will always be important.)
For an undertrained or novice athlete, basic conditioning training is likely to yield big improvements in capacity and measurable changes in VO2 max and lactate threshold. Studies tend to show that the less well-trained a person is, the more gains in these areas we can expect (Milanović et al.). For well-trained athletes, however, the focus will tend to shift toward the maintenance of their athletic fitness. Exactly how to do this will depend on the athlete’s level of training advancement, the coach’s balance of strength and conditioning work in the gym, and the athlete’s sport. The process that follows is less of a training program and more of a principled outline for what this might look like. It sacrifices some nuance in favor of being more universally applicable but should provide a jumping-off point for structuring conditioning training for a variety of athletes.
The process argued for here is simple: For a new or unconditioned athlete, work to establish a baseline of activity the progress to include general conditioning training and, eventually, specific HIIT or sprint interval training.
Competitive athletes need to be active outside of practice, preferably doing things that aren’t mimicking the stresses of their sport. In general, a baseline training schedule will include strength training, aerobic work, and interval training.
|There are some obvious differences between in-season and off-season training
The coach has to balance sports demands, adjusting the baseline of activity upward or downward depending on the athlete’s needs. I wrote about some of these considerations here:
Establishing this baseline will allow you to adjust conditioning work for the athlete’s overall improvement without borrowing from the time or energy they’ve dedicated to their sport in an ad hoc manner as issues come up. For the novice athlete or the athlete whose overall fitness is a limiting factor, a good training baseline should include two to three days of lifting per week, longer-duration, low-impact aerobic work at least twice per week, and the introduction of interval work (up to two times per week).
- Lifting 2-3x weekly
- Walking, jogging, rowing 2x weekly (30 min or more)
- HIIT or sprint workouts 2x weekly
Having established a baseline training schedule, the coach should be able to monitor the athlete’s improvements in the most general fitness categories. They will progress from a linear strength progression, show improved conditioning on their longer workouts, and adapt to basic interval training. As the athlete’s fitness improves, the next step is to more closely manage their interval training with specific goals of improving the work:rest ratio.
This is where things start to get a little more specific to the athlete. Introducing interval training will look non-specific to the athlete’s sport at first. This is because the first goal is to train their energy systems.
From A General Conditioning Program:
The following video clip comes from the Barbell Academy at Barbell Logic. In it, Academy Director CJ Gotcher explains the practical implications of the body’s three energy systems—the phosphagen, glycolytic, and aerobic systems.
Intuitively, we know how this works. You can sprint for a very short time, maintain a hard-but-doable intensity for a little longer, and you can walk or maintain low-intensity activities almost indefinitely.
All energy systems work all the time, but total power output depends on which system provides the most energy relative to that output. As your phosphagen and glycolytic systems fail to meet demand, total power output has to come down, and your aerobic system takes over. Hard training that empties your CP and glycogen reserves also forces your body to get better at replenishing those stores, improving your recovery and, in turn, improving your performance.
There are many ways to structure interval training. Common advice is to start high-intensity training with a low-impact modality and perform approximately 20-second intervals of maximum-effort work, followed by 1 minute and 40 seconds of rest. (This is a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio.) Start the athlete with three or four intervals on the first day, and then schedule progress in the following ways:
(1) Add rounds: If they completed four rounds on the first day, have them do five rounds next time. Add one round per week, working toward eight to twelve rounds before changing one of the other variables (rest or weight). Then, drop back to four to six rounds and repeat the process.
(2) Decrease rest time: Work toward a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio. Do this gradually, looking for a downshift in the athlete’s effort on their second to last interval. For interval training, it’s rarely necessary to decrease the rest to less than a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio. Like lifting weights, athletes need some rest between sets in order to perform at a usefully high intensity.
(3) Add intensity or weight: One reason sleds are so useful is that you can add weight to them, increasing the intensity of the work. Some implements will let you increase the resistance, which adds another dimension to the conditioning training. Make this the last factor you manipulate, however.
HIIT or Sprint Workouts
- High intensity: 85-95% maximum heart rate
- Repeating intervals: 20 seconds to 1 minute
- Work-to-rest ratio: 1 (work) to 3-5 (rest)
- Constant progress: (1) add rounds, (2) decrease rest, (3) add resistance
Getting Sport Specific
As your athlete gets closer to game day, the season opener, or a milestone performance, it’s a good idea to modify your baseline conditioning to be more sport specific. Some sports involve constant stops and starts with predictable intervals. Some are purely endurance events. And some require finding the balance between maintaining intensity and redlining. At least one of your athlete’s interval workouts should start to reflect the specific work-to-rest nature of the sport.
For example, one of my lifters is a competitive shooter. Different events take different amounts of time, but they tend to revolve around 40 seconds of high-intensity work, in which he needs to maintain intensity, focus, precision, and accuracy. Having multiple events per day means that he needs to be able to recover from each event and perform at a consistently high level, winning the war of attrition relative to the other competitors. To help with this, we begin to transition his general interval work to 40-second intervals at a 1:4 and then a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio four to six weeks out from a big competition. This work will peak two weeks out from a competition and then taper off along with his other strength and conditioning work, allowing him to maximize his preparation and recover fully before a meet.
E.g., Competitive shooter
- Baseline: strength and conditioning work
- General endurance: HIIT work up to :20/1:40 x 10 rounds
- Specific endurance: :40 second intervals with 1:3 or 1:4 work-rest ratio
For sports that require sustained endurance, it is better to drop one interval workout in favor of a lactate threshold or long, slow distance workout in the 4-6 weeks leading up to a competition. The more general, changing, or unknowable the sport performance is, the more we can apply SAID to the time domains and use general capacity improvements as our goals. Also, while the more you know about the sport, the better you can tailor conditioning work, there is a caveat that comes from being a professional strength and conditioning coach.
It’s important to remember that coaches should not try to be sports coaches for sports that we are not experts in and should recognize their limitations when setting out sport-specific training programs. A good strength and conditioning coach can add value to any athlete by managing their general training program. And every strength and conditioning coach should be comfortable coaching through the GPP phase and adapting their programming to fit the cyclical nature of an athlete’s schedule.
Crossing the line to providing sport-specific conditioning training requires some specialized knowledge of the athlete’s sport. If you’re not an expert in the athlete’s sport, it’s important to seek out someone who is and work with them to develop a conditioning program that meets the athlete’s specific needs. This might be the athlete or the athlete’s coach. At a minimum, make sure you have their buy-in to your training plan, do your homework, and keep the focus on raising the athlete’s ceiling as much as possible.
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