Working Hard, Hardly Working?

I just don't get it! It seems everyone these days wants or needs to lay some claim to their sport being Aerobic! Maybe it's down to the videos of heroic Tour De France cyclists grinding their way up a French Alp, or Marathon runners hitting the wall and staggering towards the finish line, determined to complete the race no matter what. I understand the effect these heroic images can have on our psyche, aided by the never ending slow motion replays and emotional music that often accompanies them, but what I do not understand is why everyone needs to stake a claim to some of this reflected glory? Why are other sportsmen achieving great things are not deemed equally heroic and aspirational. I watch videos of Usain Bolt breaking records in Beijing, or the Elite FTS guys training at the UGSS and I find those extremely motivating, am I alone in this?

"Just one example of the 'inspirational images' associated with extreme endurance events. An Ironman Triathlon is about as tough as it gets and to see athletes pushing themselves to the extreme as the sunlight fades is undoubtedly an inspirational site, but should it influence the way we train for other sports?!?"

"This video of some of Elite FTS sponsored athletes training together at this years UGSS. I know some people who see this and think its a bunch of oversized meatheads and nothing more. To me however, this is truly inspirational, people pushing the barriers of strength and conditioning in their chosen sport, each trying to beat each other whilst also encouraging and coaching their competitors between each lift!"

So why, when I talk to my athletes who compete in sports with no apparent Aerobic demands, do I end up having the same conversation time and again. Here's an example of the actual conversation I had with my Golfers:-

Me; OK, after a thorough needs analysis of your sport, watching you train and compete, as well as reading the relevant literature and even having a go myself, I have come to the conclusion that this is an Anaerobic sport with high demands on speed and power, especially in rotation. Also improving mobility is the key to making you guys hit the ball further and safer.

Athlete; Sounds good. What about aerobic training like long runs?

Me; There doesn't seem to be any Aerobic demands, so to make your training as efficient and focused as possible we won't be including any Aerobic training. We only get 2 hours a week so it would be a waste of our time.

Athlete; No seriously it is Aerobic! Tiger Woods could run on a treadmill all day if he wanted to!

Me; Tiger does other things I wouldn't want you boys doing either, however he is also extremely strong, powerful and mobile! This is where we need to focus our time. Think about it, you walk to the ball, produce a huge amount of force over a period of a second, put your club back in the bag and walk to your ball again. In fact you only hit the ball really hard 1 or 2 times a hole, putting and approach shots require very little energy. You'll get by just fine without Aerobic training.

Athlete; Yeh but I couldn't play four rounds in a row without getting tired.

Me; How often do you play four rounds in a row?

Athlete; Never, but I'm just saying!

Me; Fine, but I'm just saying if it's not actually done in the sport, we ain't gonna train for it! (as a side note this would come down to proper hydration and nutrition during the day anyway, not being marathon ready!)

Hopefully some people are reading this and seeing the lunacy in this conversation. I have had similar conversations with other athletes I have worked with as well. Recently myself and several other S&C coaches have been designing training guidelines for Fencing. After looking at the sport, relevant literature, having a go ourselves, as well as speaking to some of the most respected coaches from around the world we came to the understanding that fencing is an Anaerobic sport.

For those who have no idea what fencing is, it is competitive Sword fighting and is characterised by periods of low intensity activity as the fencers move back and forth, followed by a fast, explosive attack. The referee then separates them; they walk back to the 'On Guard' position and begin their low intensity movement again. Each round lasts 3mins and they get 1 minute between rounds (This is in 2 of the weapons, Sabre is slightly different but for simplicities sake I won't go into this). The key thing to identify though is that when an attack occurs it is extremely fast and explosive. If the Fencer is too slow to react in either defence or attack they are likely have a point scored against them.

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When we presented this to the coaches, some embraced it with open arms, whereas some vehemently disagreed. I think they thought it was a criticism of the sport to suggest that there was no Aerobic demands. Some of the coaches and athletes pointed out that they get out of breath during a fight and some great questions were asked about the Aerobic systems influence on recovery between rounds and between fights; did that need to be trained for? Firstly as far as getting out of breath is concerned, this is a common misconception that heavy breathing must mean your performing aerobically.

In reality your body uses the oxygen to recover from the effort, hence why Usain Bolt is breathing heavily in his after race interviews. No one would think a 100m race is an Aerobic effort just because he is breathing heavily and so other sports should be no different. Fencers do indeed recover Aerobically, as do my Golfers, my Rugby players and the other athletes I work with. The important thing to identify is the degree to which the Aerobic System must work so that the athlete can recover in the given time. Fencer's Aerobic levels are reasonably low when compared to sportsmen that compete in Aerobic sports such as long distance Cycling, Running and Triathlons. In fact an objective look at the literature suggests that the VO2 max of top international fencers is only slightly higher than a normally active person (52.9mL/kg/min).

When you tie this in with the fact that the energy systems in the body work in a very task specific way, you have one more major reason to be careful about devoting time to general Aerobic training with your athletes. Fencers will be much better off and efficient in their training by developing any Aerobic capacity required by Fencing, not running, swimming, doing Kettlebell Swings or any other exotic training protocol we can dig up! I always point out the case of Lance Armstrong, who caused a stir of excitement when he decided to run the New York marathon during his first retirement from cycling. Runners World magazine even ran an article stating he could go below the 2hr mark due to his extraordinary VO2 max scores (83.8 mL/kg/min). The only problem being that his VO2 max had been measured on a bike, not on a treadmill, running!

This would have given him a very different result. No doubt still well above average, but not at the level of the lifetime marathon runners, because his energy systems were trained to work efficiently during cycling, not during running. Just because they both involved propulsion by the lower body did not mean they worked the same muscles, in the same way! Sure enough he staggered home in a time of 2hr's 59m in 856th position.

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Let me be clear, this is an amazing achievement for a first time marathon runner and I am not criticizing his time, instead the belief that identifying which sports are Aerobic is as easy as which sporting events last longer than 3-5mins. The human body and energy systems science specifically, is not that simple! You need to look at how that event breaks down. How intensely is the athlete working during the event? What rest periods do they have, no matter how short?! Do they have the opportunity to take on fluids and fuel to aid recovery during the competition?

These are just some of the questions you should ask yourself when working with any sport. Some sports do indeed place huge Aerobic demands on the athlete and sometimes you may need to account for that in your S&C training. However the best energy systems training you can do, whether Anaerobic or Aerobic, will always be the sport itself. If you want to train for a Marathon, you better be running! You want to play golf, get out there and play a couple of rounds! Fencing, you guessed it, get on the piste and spar! I could go on with other sporting examples but I think you get the idea! Use your gym time effectively by making yourself faster, stronger, more mobile, stable and more resilient to injuries. If you really have to get in some extra conditioning work then go for it, but think long and hard about what your including. Sprints, kettlebells, barbell or bodyweight circuits and Prowler work are all great fun and can make you suffer, there is no doubt about it.

However you need to be honest with yourself as a coach and establish whether that time is benefitting your athlete, or if it is entertaining them. There is definitely a time in the season for both and those training modalities listed above will be ideal for general preparation phases. I think it often boils down to the level your athlete competes at or wants to compete at, but I think the line between improving and entertaining is often becoming blurred these days! I know when someone is paying me hard earned money to improve their sporting performance and I have a limited time each week in which to train them, I am going to spend my time training the most important characteristics of their sport. If they enjoy going long drawn out aerobic sessions, or use it for building mental toughness or something similar then I'm not going to lose sleep over it; but they can spend their own free time doing this, because they will not being doing any of it on my watch!