This is an article series designed to help further educate my Performance Coaching clients. I am releasing it in this article series to help educate more people to create a life of health and adventure. If you are interested in getting fitter -- irrespective of whether you are a novice or regular athlete -- then please read through this series and learn more about the endurance training process. I welcome you onboard as your performance coach to help guide you to the summit of your athletic potential!
Training Science Series: Why We Focus on Capacity Training…to Eventually Go Really Fast
Part Two - The Utilization Training Problem
The best way to build endurance isn’t to repeatedly leave nothing in the tank with each workout. Some people regularly go out for a 30, 45- or 60-minute runs pushed right up against their endurance limit – almost everyday or every other day. Often they do this because they have a goal race a few months away, and also because they are limited for time. Another reason, is that people love the post run feeling, called “the runners high”, which is an endorphin rush that follows high-intensity exercise. Some people live for this feeling, and feel more alive when they’ve pushed their body hard. However, like all things that temporarily give us a high, it can be both damaging to the body and unsustainable in the long-term if it becomes a daily “need.”
Utilization Training provides the instant boost in overall fitness gains allowing people to prepare for races and other endurance goals quickly.1 Because it works in those shorter time periods, it makes this approach very seductive as a preferred ongoing endurance training approach. If you aim to be active all year long and want continued improvement and progression in the years ahead, a heavy focus on utilization training is going to be fraught with danger.
A common thought novice athlete’s have is they should train just as they would race, regularly matching the demands of their goal event in training; not an illogical thought process by any means. Races involve high-intensity, typically the highest intensity you can muster for a set period of time. So, training at high intensity seems like the most appropriate way to train for a high-intensity event. We tend to think this way, because in almost all areas of life when you are determined to achieve a goal, the most common pathway for success is to give something your all, while ultimately making the process as time efficient as you can. It is completely understandable people fall into the trap of overdoing utilization training; however, life also teaches us that taking shortcuts, instead of doing something properly, often backfires.
The whole premise behind a high level of utilization training is predicated on the assumption intensity is a shortcut to fitness around more training volume (time and effort) and that training slow also doesn’t have much benefit in actually racing fast. Who doesn’t love a shortcut when it comes to avoiding a lot of hard work? If only it was true! We’d all be world class athletes!!
High-intensity training permeates current gym and athletic culture in the mainstream making it the “cool” thing to do, but beware the people who build their businesses on capitalising on your laziness and lack of patience. A $50 program spruiking a fast-tracked utilization training program to engineer top level fitness, is not going to transform you anywhere near the shadow of an elite endurance athlete or Olympian.
Elite athletes have to do a lot more utilization training than novices to maximise results, which is why they tend to do much more harder training. This often leads to novices mistakenly copy the training of their idols. This then further leads to the mistaken belief that these athletes are simply genetically superior to handle such hard training, discounting the decade or more of hard work that led to their higher level of fitness.
Ultimately, most novice endurance athletes typically end up overusing utilization training because they experience rapid performance improvements in the initial weeks and months of its use, and become seduced by these results. This is because certain adaptations in the metabolism are quick to respond to this type of training. At first it seems like a good diet of high-intensity is working, but when employed as the predominant feature in the training process, one day the improvements begin to taper off, and then the decline begins with progressively diminishing returns. It’s often assumed this falling fitness can only be solved through the application of even more intensity, and the athlete enters into the real danger zone. Uphill Athlete, co-founder Scott Johnston – an accomplished endurance coach with an extensive background as both an alpinist and high-level endurance athlete – explains why this is referred to as “Death by Threshold”. He writes:
I first heard the term ‘death by threshold’ during a session with famed track coach Alberto Salazar at a seminar a few years ago. It’s a trap people fall into when they do a lot of Zone 3 training—middle-to-higher-intensity training (around Anaerobic or Lactate Threshold)—without the sufficient aerobic base to support it.
At first it seems like the regimen is working: you see a rapid improvement in performance, because the adaptations that take place in your glycolytic metabolism are quick to occur. Then after about a month, these steady gains level off. When you hit that plateau, the immediate reaction is to do more—add intervals, increase the intensity. It was working, you reason. If I do more it will start working again, right? But if you keep doing that, your performance won’t turn around. Instead, it will drop off.
It’s an unfortunate and all-too-common circumstance: by trying to escape the hole, you end up digging yourself in deeper.2
The human body is amazing and can handle so much, but it’s also fragile and can only handle so much. This is a huge source of frustration to athletes, who work so hard, day in, day out, and end up back to where they started, or even worse unable to train at all. The bottom line is: many endurance athletes train at higher-intensities more than they should. You may be wondering, “how do I know if I am capacity training or utilization training?” We will discuss how to know throughout the coming sections…
Next Article -> Part Three - Overtraining Syndrome (OTS)