“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – E.E. Cummings
photo via USA Today Sports
It still (still!) shocks me when people assume that to be a great athlete, one has to go 100% balls-to-the-wall puke-fest each and every workout. A notion, of course, that is absolutely ludicrous. It does, however, seem to be the public’s romanticised idea of “how athletes ought to train”. The kissing cousin to that idea is the assumption that health tracks athletic performance. Yeah, I know — I grew up with the Rocky movies too. And Bruce Jenner on Wheaties boxes. It’s time to bust free of the Matrix, Neo.
Note, 2/3/16: re: Bruce Jenner – my oh my how times have changed since March of 2014 😉
But let’s table, for the moment, the fact that athletic prowess has little correlation to overall health. Now, I’ll grant you that “health” is a rather nebulous term, but we can for sure agree that chronically elevated cortisol and inflammatory biomarkers (results of chronic overtraining) don’t point to good long-term outcomes. And athletic prowess means just that; a person very well equipped for survival in the short-term. Should things go completely Road Warrior, you better damn well be the fittest honcho around. However, in kinder, gentler environments, the super-stud’s own long term survival is on shaky ground. It’s a Faustian bargain, I tell you. But hey, don’t blame me; I didn’t make the rules. And as unpleasant to stomach as this notion may be for the athletically inclined (myself included), it does make total sense from an evolutionary perspective. Equip some to survive any wildly varied epigenetic input. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not such a special snowflake; just a cog in the species’ wheel. Or, if you rather, no more than a meat-host for opportunistic bacteria. And you thought that only politicians and corporate middlemen were toolish, back-loaded puppets, huh? Not so, big guy.
Let’s put all that aside, though, and for a moment speak to the effective training of real, no-shit, competitive athletes. Are there periods (blocks) when those ball-buster sessions are necessary? Yes, of course. Conditioning, work capacity metabolic training (whatever you care to term it) is no doubt tough friggin’ work. Now, work capacity (my chosen term) can for sure be trained smartly, and in such a way so as not to inadvertently harm the athlete. But let’s face it, much of the improvement in this realm realized by the trainee must must be obtained via gut-wrenching flog sessions. I’ve explained it to folks this way: muscle is dumb, and to a large extent, so is the cardiovascular/metabolic system. These systems only respond to blunt force. Gains here are made via sustained, ever-increasing, resistance to discomfort. Much of this requires overcoming mental blocks along with the physiological retuning aspect; all the way down to the mitochondrial level. Again, work capacity can (and has to be!) be programed smartly, but the execution of those workout are, by necessity, sometimes very painful. The mindset here might be best described as “steely determination”.
And in my world, which has, for my entire life (both as an athlete and in coaching experience) centered on power athletics, “steely determination” is best exemplified by the requisite mindset of 400 meter runners. Does this distance require speed, strength endurance and technique? Of course it does. But the unique anaerobic/aerobic mix of this distance means that the training is tough going, and the actual race itself is blisteringly painful. Want to make a pure sprinter breakdown like a jilted, Texas prom queen? Tell him/her that they’re going to have to bump-up to 400 meters for a season.
But work capacity is only part of the “make a better athlete” equation. Athletes also have to be brutally strong, quick/speedy, and — above all — powerful. And these remaining qualities are (1) much tougher to program for and around, (2) require a different type of mental focus and determination, and (3) make for a hell of a lot *less* interesting YouTube clips. Even if you were to add the requisite hot babes, knee socks and cleavage to the mix.
To further make my point, just take a look at what the most viewed Youtube “fitness” or “workout” videos depict. I mean, those not replete with the aforementioned hot babes, knee socks and cleavage. Nothing at all wrong with those videos, of course (I like ‘em, too), but let’s concentrate for a moment on those offerings actually attempting to convey some measurable worth to total body of S&C wisdom. In this realm, epic beat-downs and carnage rule; the latest clip from Football Factory U’s off-season beast-builder program. Three Frans in a Row — with a Pukie Cameo!!! And, to a large degree, the entity known as Crossfit capitalizes on the notion (even if it’s only *somewhat* implied) that “you too can workout like a big-time college/pro athlete!” Which is total horseshit of course, but I get it. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And there’s a hell of a lot more that I like about Crossfit than dislike. That little bit of marketing sleight-of-hand, though, really gets my goat. But I digress….
So yes, back to my point. Does that 4 to 6 week block leading into the first full-pads practice of summer suck? You can’t even imagine. And just a note here: I’m going to continue to roll with a football example, because that’s what I know best. But all power-heavy sports follow the same basic programming schemes tweaked for their particular season schedule and the sport-specific nature of the endeavor. But back to the extreme suck-factor of training work capacity: like I said, muscle and metabolic pathways are “dumb”. That said, you’ve got to engage the enemy in the enemy’s environment if you ever hope to win the war. As an athlete, you just have to buckle-down and get ‘er done. Wrap your mind around the fact that a miserable summer makes for a spectacular fall. And, as a coach, you gotta put on the drill sergeant’s hat. There’s not much nuance in this realm; it’s kinda like taking a jackhammer to the unneeded concrete that is the deconditioned state. Now, it can still go all kinds of “30 snatches in a row”-like effed-up, though, in the hands of idiots. So… don’t be an idiot! But again, I digress…
Here’s the deal: making a better athlete does not stop with bettering work capacity. Hell, it barely even starts here. This phase is simply the steep price of admission to rest of “the show”. As a coach, you’ve got to have qualified raw material to begin with; you can’t dillute your time on the entire herd. As an athlete, you’ve got to have the work capacity to endure, and to have a big enough “cup” to be able to tolerate the volume required for training the other modalities. So this portion of training serves two purposes: increasing intensity/volume tolerance and sharpening “mental toughness”. It also serves the other necessary purpose of “thinning the herd”. Funny how Crossfit and P90X, etal never discuss the “herd thinning” aspect of this modality. Anyway…
But the good news in all of this is that work capacity — and, to a large extent, maximal strength — are fairly “sticky” qualities. What this means is that there is relatively little drop-off in the peak performance of those qualities over a 30-ish or so day period. Now, it’s a little more nuanced than that, but for the purposes of this piece just realize that it’s perfectly fine — and you’ll experience very little relative drop in the expression of these qualities — if you then shift your focus to blocks of other qualities for a while. In other words, those qualities that are less “sticky” and a bit more ephemeral. Those more “ephemeral” qualities — and their “stickiness quotient” are as follows:
Anaerobic endurance – ~ 14 days
Strength endurance – ~ 12 days
Max speed – ~ 3 days
And note, too, that these more nuanced qualities require a much more elegant “mindset” attack. It should be noted that the highest performing athletes are not necessarily those who can contract musculature the fastest in any particular movement, but those who can relax the antagonist musculature the quickest. The name of the game is speed and power production. The best of the best know when to shape-shift their mindset accordingly.
So, from the 30-thousand foot programming view, we’ve got two aspects of each quality to juggle: the “stickiness” of that quality when it’s left not emphasised, and the inverse U aspect of actually training each particular quality. The inverse U? Think of this as return on investment. In other words, a particular quality can only be “bettered” by only so much within a particular block before we have to begin leveraging an inordinate amount of time and resources (recovery, CNS bandwidth) to produce an ever-decreasing amount of improvement. Yes, this can become very complicated — especially when we consider the training of teams of athletes within the context of competitive schedules and school sessions. Not to mention, the n=1 aspects of training response and recovery ability. This is where knowing the ins-and-outs of Autoregulation is a huge asset, as this can help offset the necessary (in a team setting), but somewhat non-individualized nature of block/periodized schemes.
And please remember, I’m not talking about powerlifters or Olympic lifting here. These are highly specialized athletic subsets, and the undulating periodization of these athletes is different, by necessity, than the periodized training for repeat power sport athletes.
OK, so knowing this, one can then create an undulating block periodization program for particular athletic goals. All fine and well, but where does that leave a trainee who leads a normal day-to-day existence, but who still wants to walk the tightrope between kicking some serious ass… and kicking-ass well into centenarianville and beyond? A trainee, like myself, who is not satisfied with mere health, but who wants some edge to go along with that health? A trainee who “gets” that work capacity is an important element to overall fitness, but who also realizes that work capacity is only a small subset of the total performance package? Well, that trainee still needs to periodize, but it’s a much looser type of periodization.
I plan on diving into this in more detail in later posts, but I essentially shift emphasis (in a systematic, block format) between three different training components (mesocycles) in a 12 week period. The 30-thousand foot view looks something like this:
Accumulation: 4 – 6 weeks. Strength emphasis. Loading >80%
Transmutation: 3 – 4 weeks. Speed-strength emphasis. Loading 55 – 80%
Realization: 3 – 5 weeks. Speed/high velocity emphasis. Loading <55%
Now, realize that I’m not actually “peaking” for any event every 12 or so weeks — if I were, I’d need to tighten my schedule up substantially. As it is, I just use this model (along with Autoregulation principles) to keep my workouts fresh, and my results coming. Stagnation becomes a thing of the past when following a model like this, as does the the problem of highly overdeveloped/underdeveloped qualities.
Again, there are A LOT of moving parts with this, and the complexity and time investment increases exponentially in relation to the expected performance return. And you’ll need to determine if this next step in sophistication even fits within your Five Ts to begin with! Remember, great health and a decent level of fitness can be had with much less in the way of programming sophistication. However, if you’re looking to make a run at increasing performance, the big take-aways are these:
1. If you do have the time to pour into training (let’s say > 3hrs/week), you’ll show better results over the long haul (and prevent stagnation and overuse injury) by following a very basic, undulating, periodized model.
2. Autoregulation must be used to regulate workout volume to tolerable day-to-day levels. This is your n=1, fine-tune adjust. Periodize qualities, autoregulate modalities.
3. Remember a quality’s “stickiness” when planning the length of each subsequent mesocycle. Also, the length of each mesocycle must also be weighed against the law of diminished returns over time.
4. Remember that quality trumps quantity, even when we’re talking about work capacity training. Train hard, yes. But for God’s sake, train smart. What’s the easiest way to eff-up your training? Get injured.
5. Remember, too, that you don’t have to be immersed in the NASA space program to take advantage of Teflon. Nor do you need to be a NASCAR driver to take advantage of anti-lock braking systems (ABS). These are “trickle-down” technologies that serve the wider, general public. In the same way, a weekend warrior athlete can put the basics of periodized block training to good use for better performance outcome.
6. There’s a time to drive hard, in exercises requiring little in the way of technical precision, in an effort to overcome severe fatigue/duress. There’s also a time to attack things as a technician, addressing such elements as perfect form, peak power output, etc. Know the difference, and when to summons each quality.
I’ll speak more in depth about this subject in the weeks to come.
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In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –