Are you someone who has to repeat themselves over and over? Maybe even more miles? Would you like to take that a step (or few thousand) further?
Any endurance athlete who enters races is constantly trying to go further or faster. Today we discuss the 3 physical factors for cardiovascular endurance. This blog post isn’t intended to give the parameters for building a program, but rather give the background knowledge on factors that go into a building a program. Ultimately, building your program will depend heavily on how much training you want to do per week.
Your VO2 max is the ceiling for your cardiovascular performance. Think of it as how big your “engine” is. The bigger your engine, the faster and further you can go. This seems like it would be the ideal target to work on improving, but really it’s not. That’s because your VO2 max will increase significantly for the first 6 weeks of consistent training and then pretty much plateau. Which isn’t a big deal – with all performance, it’s most important to improve the limiting factor (or weakest link). Since VO2 max is the ceiling, it’s probably not the limiting factor. Our discussion of lactate threshold will make this much clearer.
Let’s say you’re running. You could run at an easy pace for a long time because your “engine” is not working too hard. That means it doesn’t need tons of fuel and you can use the slow burning energy provided by the aerobic system metabolizing fat for energy. Fat is a really great fuel but it takes a while to break down for energy so it can only be used when the engine is not working too hard. Now you pick up the speed to a faster pace. Your engine needs fuel faster than fat can be broken down, so your body has to dip a little bit into its reserves of faster energy. Your anaerobic system breaks down glycogen (a form of sugar) very quickly and provides you with the energy you need for the faster pace. But this system comes with 2 drawbacks.
First, there’s a limited amount of glycogen in your body – once you’re out, you’re done (called ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’). Second, this fuel doesn’t burn as clean, resulting in a by-product called lactic acid that begins to build up if too much glycogen is used. Lactic acid gums up the works of your engine so you can’t push your anaerobic system too far or it won’t be able to get rid of lactic acid fast enough. Your body gets rid of lactic acid by converting it into another form called lactate. The amount of lactate in your blood can be measured in a lab while you exercise and the tipping point, where it’s being created faster than it can be cleared away, is called your lactate threshold.
Think of your lactate threshold as the efficiency of your engine. Say your engine can produce 100 units of work (your ceiling or VO2 max). But it can only efficiently use 60% of that amount or it will be overloaded. Then, realistically, you will only get 60 units out of it. You could build a bigger engine (train to increase your VO2 max) to 110 units which would give you 66 units (110 units * 0.6). Or you could improve your efficiency to 70% which would give you 70 units (100 units * 0.7). Since VO2 max pretty much plateaus early on in training, it makes the most sense to train to improve your lactate threshold.
In physical terms having a higher lactate threshold means you could run at a faster pace while still using the aerobic system and relying less on your anaerobic system, which means less build up of lactate and saving your glycogen for when you need it (like on hills or the end of the race).
Finally, there is movement economy. In the engine metaphor, movement economy also factors into engine efficiency. If you can move at the same pace but using less energy, then you’re more efficient (once again, sparing the anaerobic system).
So how do you train to improve these 3 factors?
- VO2 max: general consistent training for 6 weeks. Then, interval workouts. Interval workouts are where you do short bursts of fast running. You can go to a track and do different repeats like 800 m (2 lap) repeats. You can also do fartlek runs – where you do a normal run but with bursts of faster running mixed in.
- Lactate threshold: tempo run. This is where you run at your approximate lactate threshold. If you’re a short- or medium-distance runner, then you could go for a 20-30 minute run at the fastest pace you could maintain for that time. If you’re a long-distance runner, then you could go for a 60 minute run at the fastest pace you could maintain. Interval workouts also improve lactate threshold.
- Movement economy: just running in general improves movement economy. Going for a base or long run logs miles and gets your body to naturally learn better running efficiency. Of course, having a coach analyze your running pattern is also helpful for serious runners so that any inefficiencies can be identified and specific drills or running cues can be practiced.
Now you can use this knowledge to build a training program. One of the main determinants of your program will be how much time you want to devote to training. If you’re someone who is willing to sink a considerable amount of time in, then a comprehensive program including base training, interval workouts, tempo workouts, and long distance workouts would be best. If your time investment is smaller, then you’ll need to shift your focus towards higher intensity training with interval workouts giving you the biggest bang for your buck. The price you pay, though, is that the more intensely you work out, the less volume your body can handle and the more recovery time you will need between workouts. Again, if you’re someone who isn’t looking to workout very frequently, then this probably works well for you.
Assumedly, if you’re reading this, you already do some sort of endurance training. Hopefully, now you can reflect on your training and fill in any gaps you might identify. Which is pretty much training to improve your lactate threshold. In summary, add in some tempo or interval training.
Note: Another very important component of endurance training is the mental component, however that’s a topic for another post!