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© Joe Friel 2008
This article originally appeared in Inside Triathlon
What does it take to perform at a very high level as Olympians do? What physical characteristics are common with top athletes? Sport scientists have been studying elite athletes for decades to try to answer these questions. The results of such research are especially helpful for the coaches of elites, but what has been learned is also of value to the less-talented athlete who wants to perform at or near his or her potential. For after all, whether elite or back of the pack we are all humans with basically the same bodies. So we’re talking about a few degrees of difference here and there, not individually unique functions. We might say that everyone is an elite athlete. Each of us has what it takes to perform at a higher level in sport.
Let’s get one thing straight: Elite athletes are not from another planet, although we sometimes say that about the very best in a given sport. What we mean is that a few are so far beyond their competition that they seem to be in a world of their own. When these best of the best show up everyone else is competing for second place. This brings to mind people such as Lance Armstrong, Mark Spitz, Frank Shorter, Mark Allen, Muhammed Ali, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. When in their primes and focused, they seemed unbeatable. But they really aren’t from outer space. However, the stars did align for them throughout life—and before.
There’s no doubt that genetics plays a significant role in the attainment of such high performances. Certain physical and, perhaps, psychological traits are inherited. But then lifestyle is also been critical, especially when it comes to how the athlete physically and mentally prepares for sport throughout life. This is called the nature-nurture effect. Athletes such as those above were given the right genes (nature) and grew up in the right environment (nurture) to produce a specific athletic success.
You can’t change your genetics or your life prior to this point in time. We must make do with what we have and determine ways to best use our unique talents to excel. I believe that you and every athlete have what it takes to perform at a much higher level than you are currently achieving. But for this to happen you have to do a lot of things right. Excellence takes hard work. There certain aspects of fitness you can improve to lift your performances to much higher levels. Lots of things. Here is but one.
You may know this as VO2max—the capacity of your body to use oxygen to produce aerobic energy. This is similar to having a big engine in a race car. The bigger the engine, the greater the potential for speed. Without going into all the testing details, elite triathletes, such as the ones you’ll see toeing the line in Beijing, typically have aerobic capacities in the 70s. That’s a big number. The rest of us have much lower numbers. While it certainly isn’t necessary, if you want to know what your number is you can probably find a local test facility at a medical clinic, university physical education department, health club or sporting goods dealer in your area.
Aerobic capacity can be improved. You can increase yours resulting in faster performances by giving it the proper nurturing. There are two physical attributes which determine aerobic capacity that to some extent are under your control—body composition and the ability to process oxygen.
Elite triathletes are skinny for a good reason. The less excess weight they carry around the faster they go. In other words, aerobic capacity is determined in part by how much energy is needed to carry the load. Put a 50-pound backpack on an Olympic triathlete and see how fast he runs then. Ostensibly, his aerobic capacity just went down considerably. On the other side of the coin, getting rid of excess body fat is the quickest way there is to get faster. But notice the word “excess.” Lose too much fat and body weight and you are likely to wind up injured, ill or overtrained. That’s certainly not the way to get faster.
Aerobic capacity may also be improved with training. Simply putting in lots of easy- to moderate-effort miles will lift your capacity to process oxygen for the production of aerobic energy. But the most efficient and effective training method is intervals, especially high-intensity intervals. Research and experience both show that about 15 minutes of high-intensity work once a week in each sport will do wonders for your aerobic capacity. Note that aerobic capacity is specific to the sport. Just because you boost your swimming aerobic capacity doesn’t mean that you will also be faster on the bike and run.
For best results these intervals should be done at your sport-unique aerobic capacity pace or power. To find yours do a six-minute time trial in each sport. From this test determine your swim pace per 100 and your run pace per mile. Unfortunately, pace doesn’t work as nicely on the bike due to primarily to wind. Power is the gold standard here. But if you don’t have a power meter (same on you!) find a hill that takes about six minutes to climb at an all-out effort for your test. The hill helps to reduce the effect of the wind, if any. Your average speed for the climb is your bike interval pace.
Then once a week in the last 12 weeks or so before your A-priority race do five intervals of three minutes each at the same six-minute, all-out pace you found for each sport. Recover after each bike or run interval for three minutes. Two minutes is adequate for swimming. On the bike use the same hill as for the test.
Note that heart rate does not work very well for these intervals. It responds too slowly to be effective for such short efforts. Use pace or power only. You will need to repeat the six-minute tests every four to six weeks as you get faster.
While raising your aerobic capacity over the next few weeks may not get you ready for the London Olympics in 2012, it should move you up in this season’s race results.
Joe Friel is the author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible. For answers to your questions on the topic of this article or for free training resources go to trainingbible.com.
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