Better Conditioning – Sun 8.13.17
Phil shared with me a good article this week from the CrossFit Journal. It’s a long but good one, and adds to the reason that we do longer WODs on Saturday. But remember, a lot of this article is talking about working with the highest level of CrossFit athletes and the volume is often too high for the rest of us.
The key takeaway for me is, those of us training for general physical preparedness don’t need to add a great deal of running to our training, but targeting a weak area such as endurance can result in greater overall fitness:
Better Conditioning Now: Airs and Errors
Remember events 11, 12 and 13 at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games?
The trio started with a 280-foot handstand walk for time. After a short rest, athletes hit an 840-foot suicide sprint. Another short rest, and then a 560-foot plow drag.
When looking at the three events, you might assume Event 11 best suited the former college gymnast, while Event 12 was made for the 400-meter sprinter and Event 13 for the big, strong athlete.
You would be wrong, explained Chris Hinshaw, endurance coach and subject-matter expert for CrossFit Specialty Course: Aerobic Capacity.
“The best sprinters didn’t necessarily do the best on the suicide sprint,” Hinshaw said. “A lot of athletes misjudged the events. The sprinters were like, ‘I got this. I’m a sprinter. I’m going to win this event.’”
But the events weren’t about finding the best sprinter or the best plow dragger but about whose recovery was on point, Hinshaw said.
“And that largely came down to who was the most aerobically developed.”
The Devastating Trio
The mistakes started with Event 11—the handstand walk—Hinshaw said.
“Athletes thought because they weren’t using their legs on the handstand walk that they’d be fresh for the sprint.”
The reality was that pushing the handstand walk as hard as they could caused their arms to fatigue, meaning lactic acid started to build.
When you’re working at high intensity—as Games athletes were during the handstand walk—the body starts off emphasizing non-aerobic energy systems, which use glycolysis to release energy and convert glucose into pyruvate. Pyruvate can be used as fuel when oxygen is available. But if oxygen becomes limited, pyruvate gets converted into lactate.
During a short sprint, lactate can be used to break down glucose; however, after 60-180 seconds of high-intensity activity, lactate starts building in the muscles as a way to protect the body from overexertion, Hinshaw explained. It does this by increasing muscle-cell acidity and essentially limiting the muscle’s ability to contract.
As the handstand walk progressed and athletes became more fatigued, their arms became more and more lactic, Hinshaw said. Those less aerobically developed weren’t able to flush the lactate out as effectively, so it moved to their bloodstream. And once it hits the bloodstream, there’s no stopping where it goes, Hinshaw added.
“And where do you think it went? To the largest muscle group in the body: the legs.”
The result: “Their legs were fatigued even before the sprint began, but many of the athletes didn’t know this was going to happen, so they attacked the sprint and throttled down the field and back before they realized their legs were already damaged,” he said.
Noah Ohlsen provided the perfect example, Hinshaw said.
“Ohlsen did his handstand walk unbroken, but the lactate was building. And the deeper he got into the (handstand) walk, the more lactic he became. And what happened to him by the time he got to the plow? He didn’t even finish the event. Not because he was mentally weak but because of his fatigue level. His muscles refused to fire; that’s how bad the damage was from the handstand walk.”
Kari Pearce, a former college gymnast who was second on the handstand walk but dropped to 20th on the suicide sprint, remembers the physical decline she felt during those events.
“(The handstand walk) affected me for the sprint because my core was tired and probably because (of) some lactic-acid build-up. There was lactic acid build-up everywhere in my body for the plow. That was the second-most-demanding event at the Games,” said Pearce, who noted the 7-kilometer run that opened the Games as the toughest challenge for her.
Alea Helmick found herself in the opposite position to Pearce. She put forth a conservative effort on the handstand walk and placed 32nd, which allowed her to crush the sprint to place second.
“I walked the minimum distance (on my hands) before dropping down, took a quick breath and went back at it. This worked out for me, as my arms didn’t fatigue as much as they would have if I had gone for max distance. I went all out on the sprint,” she said.
Helmick’s approach helped her perform well on the suicide sprint, but she said her sprint effort hurt her recovery before the plow event, in which she was 39th.
“It was hard for me to find a rhythm in the plow event because I went so hard on the sprint.”
Hinshaw continued: “Then there was Mat Fraser.”
Fraser, the eventual Games champion, placed second, second and sixth in the three-event trio. Hinshaw insisted that—in terms of absolute physicality—Fraser probably wasn’t the second-fastest sprinter or the sixth-fastest plow dragger at the Games. Instead, his impressive finishes were due to the fact that Fraser’s body was conditioned to buffer the build-up of lactic acid that plagued other athletes, Hinshaw said.
“Look at where Mat Fraser passed everyone on the sprint (to win his heat): the final length of the field. Not because Fraser is necessarily the best sprinter but because his aerobic system is so developed. And we already knew that when he won the 7-kilometer run.”
The Importance of Endurance
In short, endurance is directly linked to recovery. And recovery is one of the most important qualities you can have in CrossFit, Hinshaw explained.
“If you’re inefficient aerobically, fatigue will develop and you can’t recover. Eighty percent of recovery comes down to the aerobic system,” Hinshaw said.
Part of aerobic development—and improving your recovery—is training your slow-twitch muscle fibers, he said.
Your body has two types of muscle fibers: slow twitch (or Type I) and fast twitch (Type II). They can be broken down into additional categories, but for our purposes we need only consider Type I, Type IIA (or intermediate fibers) and Type IIB (often called Type IIX). Type 1 fibers contract slowly, produce smaller amounts of force, fatigue slowly and rely predominantly on aerobic metabolism to produce energy, so they are recruited first in lower-intensity exercise that can be sustained for long periods. Fast-twitch fibers contract quickly, produce large amounts of force and fatigue quickly. While the intermediate Type IIA fibers have moderate capacity for aerobic metabolism, Type IIX fibers rely predominantly on anaerobic metabolism. The Type II fibers are recruited for more intense movements such as heavy lifting and sprinting.
When you run slowly, your body only recruits the muscle units you need to support that speed—meaning your slow-twitch fibers, Hinshaw said. As you increase your speed, Type IIA and eventually Type IIB fibers will also be recruited, he added, and if you continue working with all three types of fibers firing at once, you’ll reach lactate threshold. This means you’re now training anaerobically as opposed to aerobically.
Thus, if you’re trying to improve your aerobic system—and your body’s ability to recover—it’s important to train your slow-twitch fibers through lower intensity, he said.
“When your target is to adapt your slow-twitch fibers, then you want to run as slow as you can and still maximize the adaptation of those slow-twitch fibers.”
In saying this, Hinshaw isn’t suggesting CrossFit athletes of any level should abandon what they’re doing in the gym to focus entirely on endurance training. He’s simply saying if your endurance and recovery are lacking, it’s time to address the deficiency.
Specificity of Adaptation
When Hinshaw starts working with a new athlete, he asks the following questions:
“Do you need more speed or more volume in your training diet? Is your anaerobic system weak or is your aerobic system is weak?”
Once he discovers whether an athlete needs more endurance training or speed training, he devises a plan to drive the specific adaptations he’s after. He focuses on the following characteristics:
Regardless of the characteristic he’s working on, Hinshaw places emphasis on prescribed paces, distances, rest times and recovery activities.
If an athlete has more endurance than speed, for example, the program will focus on improving speed over various time domains. Over the course of training, the prescribed pace will increase while the distance remains constant or the distance will increase while the pace remains constant, Hinshaw explained.
“And if recovery is the weakness, then I’ll play around with their rest. Over time, rest times will be reduced or they’ll be asked to jog as their rest to drive their body to recover as they continue to jog,” he said.
If athletes need to improve their tolerance for work, the program will focus on increasing volume over time.
“I may chase the total workout volume, or interval volume, all the while keeping the rest the same,” he said.
Hinshaw admitted putting speed on one side of the equation and endurance on the other isn’t always a foolproof way of assessing an athlete in a highly skilled and technical sport such as CrossFit. In other words, it’s possible for an athlete to need more endurance when it comes to running but more speed when it comes to rowing.
In fact, when Hinshaw tested his VO2 max while running—a test that tells you how efficiently your body uses oxygen—he scored much higher than he did when the same test was administered on a rowing machine.
“I’m a much more efficient runner than rower.”
Because of this, Hinshaw said he also considers an athlete’s efficiency—both anaerobic and aerobic—on various pieces of equipment.
Generally speaking, though, Hinshaw maintains most athletes need one of two things: more speed or more endurance. And when it comes to CrossFit athletes specifically, the aerobic system is generally the aspect that needs more work, he added.
For example, most high-level runners slow their pace at a rate of 4 to 6 percent for each doubling of distance, Hinshaw explained. This means a runner’s 800-meter pace is 4 to 6 percent slower than his 400-meter pace. CrossFit athletes, on the other hand, tend to slow at a rate of 20 to 21 percent when distance doubles, he said.
Hinshaw’s priority with his athletes is simple: “The athletes (I work with) have an ability to run fast, but they can’t do it for long amounts of time, so I want to build their capacity to run at fast speeds for longer and longer time domains.”
This usually starts with having the athletes slow down, he added.
“Their heart rate will be much lower than when they do high-intensity intervals.”
Let’s say Hinshaw starts working with an athlete with a modest 6:00 mile time and a relatively fast 400-meter time of 60 seconds. With a goal of improving the mile time, most of this athlete’s training will be running slower than his max-effort 6:00-mile pace for repeated intervals at distances of 200 to 300 meters, Hinshaw explained. Over time, as the athlete adapts, these distances will increase to 400 to 600 meters. Overall workout volume, as well as interval volume, will also increase as the program progresses, he added.
In terms of pace, this athlete would be expected to work between a 6:00 and 6:40 mile pace depending on the day and the workout. And in between intervals, he would be expected to continue to jog at a slow recovery pace. Hinshaw insists finding a jogging pace that allows the athlete to recover between intervals is as important as the working intervals themselves.
“With this athlete, I will be chasing the quality of their jog recovery pace, trying to improve their ability to run at slow paces,” he said.
As the athlete’s aerobic capacity develops through paced work that emphasizes slow-twitch fibers and aerobic metabolism, the mile time will come down.
The same concept applies when Hinshaw programs rowing workouts for his athletes: He wants them to become familiar with various speeds.
To help athletes learn what hard, medium and easy paces feel like, Hinshaw gets them to flip the monitor up and complete a series of rowing pieces—the goal being to hit the same number of meters in each piece. This helps athletes discover what various speeds do to their bodies, as well as how they recover after each effort, he explained. The key is consistency, he added.
“Rich Froning can hit a 1:45 split for 500 meters without even looking at the monitor. Or I had him do 4 rounds of 800-meter runs recently with 1-minute rest. He was supposed to take 4 minutes each run. Without even looking at his watch, he went 4:00, 4:00, 4:00 and 3:57.”
Hinshaw also prescribes long, slow runs or rows—up to 15 miles for his top athletes—approximately once every two weeks. To control intensity during these pieces, Hinshaw sets a heart-rate limit, as opposed to prescribing a specific pace.
“This means, if they need to walk to keep their heart rate down, that’s OK,” Hinshaw said. “For someone like Camille (Leblanc-Bazinet), I’ll tell her I don’t want her heart rate above 155 (beats per minute). What I’m doing is controlling her level of intensity because I’m trying to build her aerobic system.”
In other words, if Leblanc-Bazinet’s heart rate goes above 155 beats per minute, she will no longer be using her slow-twitch fibers to build her aerobic system, defeating the purpose of the workout, Hinshaw explained.
“The purpose of (a long, slow run) is fuel efficiency and building endurance and aerobic capacity to improve her recovery.”
Russ Webb is a lifestyle CrossFit athlete who has improved both his endurance and ability to recover since he started attending Hinshaw’s endurance classes two-and-a-half years ago.
“Even when I was a kid, whenever I ran I would get shin splints or tear my hamstring or my back would hurt or my knee would hurt. Running was fundamentally unpleasant for me,” said the 30-year-old former college football player.
When he started working with Hinshaw, Webb’s best mile time was 7:30.
“Now, the last time we tested it, I was down to 5:42,” said Webb, who devotes just two one-hour sessions per week to running.
On top of shaving nearly 2 minutes off his mile time, Webb said he’s a healthier athlete now. Running no longer causes pain in his shins, hamstrings, back or knees. And his improved endurance has spilled over into other movements, as well.
“I have gotten a lot better at settling into a pace, at finding a sustainable pace and hanging in there for long periods of time,” he said. “I tested my 5,000-meter row recently and got a 45-second personal best.”
“Everything just feels easier now.”
Building Endurance During Strength Training
Hinshaw’s expertise doesn’t end with rowing and running. He incorporates what he’s learned about endurance and recovery into more traditional strength days as well.
One way he does this is by prescribing lower-intensity tasks in between, for example, heavy sets of squats.
“We do 5-by-5 back squats all the time and stand around between sets. I focus on, ‘How am I going to improve the quality of recovery between those sets? Why not hop on a rower between sets?”
Sometimes his athletes will row 500 meters between squat sets or do 1 minute of back squats with a PVC pipe. The idea is to keep the intensity at a level where athletes can still recover before their next set of squats, he explained.
Similarly, Hinshaw might program something like 1 minute of PVC thrusters or PVC push presses in between heavy sets of those movements.
“What you’re doing here is chasing the quality of recovery … . CrossFit athletes might have to do something like 60 clean and jerks at 135 pounds. They can’t just address speed, strength and power in their training to get through that. Being able to do the volume is also important.”
Performing high-volume tasks at a lower intensity helps build this ability to handle volume and to recover, he said.
Most gym owners have programmed a 5-kilometer run for their athletes at some point. And it often ends up being one of the most poorly attended days of the year.
“People just don’t like showing up for a 5-kilometer run,” Hinshaw confirmed.
But all is not lost for the affiliate owner desperate to get athletes to improve their endurance. You just need to find clever ways to effectively implement endurance training into a general-physical-preparedness (GPP) program in a way that holds your athletes’ interest, Hinshaw said.
One way to do this is to include lower-intensity tasks with specific paces in a class warm-up, Hinshaw suggested. Three 500-meter rows at an easy to medium speed in between dynamic stretching is a great way to “trick” people into rowing 1,500-meters in warm-up, for example.
“And it helps athletes get to know they have an arsenal of gears,” Hinshaw said.
Second, if you want athletes to run 5 kilometers, have them run an interval and throw in 5 power cleans after each round, he suggested.
“Tell your athletes they need to run slow enough that they can pick up the bar as soon as they get back from the run,” Hinshaw said. “You outsmart them, and what you’re doing is helping them develop a lower-intensity gear and forcing them to recover actively.”
Another suggestion for affiliates: Offer speed or endurance options during a rowing interval workout. The speed stream might include something such as 5 sets of 30-second max-effort rowing with 3 minutes of rest, while the endurance stream might include 5 sets of 3 minutes of moderate rowing with 30 seconds of rest between sets.
“Then people can choose the endurance stream or the speed stream depending on what they need more.”
Endurance for the Masses
CrossFit athletes will always prioritize GPP over specialization. We know varied training best prepares us for whatever life throws our way. But improving our broad general physical abilities also involves eliminating our weaknesses—getting better at the things you are worst at. For the CrossFit community, Hinshaw has learned this often means spending a little extra time on endurance.
That doesn’t mean endurance has to take over your life. Webb is a great example: He’s seen big gains from just two hours of endurance training per week.
“I strength-trained for 20 years, and I have made more progress in two-and-a-half years in my endurance under Chris than during 20 years of football training or lifting on my own,” he said.
Webb credits his progress to Hinshaw’s intelligence—to how each workout is designed to make the most of a person’s time.
Hinshaw reiterated: “I always look to find the highest value of a person’s time.”
This means every workout helps an athlete adapt and move forward with his fitness, he added.
“No workout should ever be wasted.”