“No pain, no gain.” This cliché has been the mantra of countless athletes wishing to reach peak performance. It has nurtured an obsession with volume and intensity, giving birth to the notion that more is better. A lot of age group athletes began emulating the amount of volume and intensity the professionals put in. Thinking that the sheer stress will force the body to adapt and get stronger, they neglect important considerations. While it may be undeniable that “hard work pays off,” there is more to training than logging in the most miles or going the hardest.
I came across a particular phrase from an article by TrainingPeaks that sums up my views: “The point of all training is not to become the most tired; it’s to elicit the best training effect.” It may be true that fatigue is part of training, but excessive fatigue is unnecessary and often dangerous. In fact, it has often been said that being slightly undertrained is better than being slightly overtrained. Preparing for a triathlon is very complex; not only does it involve balancing three disciplines, it also requires finding the appropriate combination of stress and recovery. Thus, one must be very cerebral in designing a program.
The concept of “smart training” has been thrown around very often. However, only a handful completely understands what it takes to train intelligently. Often, the misconception is that smart training is equivalent to time-efficient training. While time-efficient training such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) arguably gives the best bang for the buck, using such workouts haphazardly would be very detrimental. These hard sessions must be balanced with bouts of recovery and a solid foundation of fitness. One must accept the fact that there are no shortcuts, especially when it comes to health and well-being.
Smart training primarily involves three key concepts: specificity, focus, and structure.
Each athlete needs a tailor-made program. This should take into consideration the athlete’s schedule, goals, and capabilities. Workouts that address the athlete’s weaknesses relative to the event he/she is training for should be prioritized. These sessions should fit within the time available for the athlete. No matter how well designed the program is, it is only effective if the athlete actually gets to perform the workload.
Each workout should have a purpose. An important consideration is that an athlete’s needs may change depending on the phase of training. As he/she progresses through the season, focus shifts to other forms of training.
People tend to focus too much on stress whilst neglecting another equally important aspect of training: recovery. One reaps the benefits of the work put in during bouts of recuperation. A well-designed program balances appropriate forms of stress and recovery. Such interplay between the two takes place in small doses between sessions, in small blocks across weeks and on a larger scale across months within a season (microcycles, mesocycles and macrocycles, respectively).
The Role of Lactate Testing
Lactate testing is a tool to assess the metabolic stress and performance of an athlete. It gives us a preview of what happens to the body in a physiological sense. Similar to blood sugar testing, the lactate test determines the athlete’s athletic profile by taking blood samples across different intensities based on speed or wattage. These intensities range from easy to very hard, and the increasing blood lactate concentration levels from these stages are graphed and analyzed.
The data plot gathered from this test is called the lactate curve; it shows the athlete’s current fitness level and what intensities he/she can sustain for specific durations. The shape of the curve is a good indicator of the aerobic and anaerobic capacities of the athlete. Based on the data from this test, one can determine whether the athlete is in shape for the intended event. More importantly, the appropriate workouts and training load can be prescribed based on this assessment.
Furthermore, lactate tests fine-tune the athlete’s training zones based on how he/she functions physiologically. While there is nothing wrong with training based on feel, this approach often leads to a misrepresentation between effort and effect.
For example, to improve one’s lactate threshold, it’s important to train near a blood lactate saturation of 4.0mmol/l. This is a very solid effort that requires focus and some level of freshness. Since fatigue masks fitness, our perception of hard often results in different intensities. In some instances, athletes may be so exhausted that they are unable to reach the appropriate intensities despite a solid effort. This results in a very tough workout with mediocre results, since the stimulus desired is not reached.
On the other side of the spectrum, to recover from hard intervals or workouts, one must train at lactate levels well below 2.5mmol/l. Athletes who push too hard during these recovery workouts negate their purpose. Instead, they dig themselves a deeper hole and end up more tired.
Finally, it is important to note that stress is defined as the combination of volume and intensity. Different intensities tax the body in varying ways and are most effective at prescribed amounts of workload. Easier zones build aerobic capacity and increase capillary density but need relatively long steady-state efforts to do so. Higher intensities, such as threshold and VO2Max, build aerobic power and improve one’s lactate threshold. Too much volume, however, is detrimental. Thus, structure must be taken into consideration when planning within and between these sessions.
As published in the medical journal Frontiers in Physiology, research by Thomas Stöggl and Billy Sperch show that polarized training, which requires a balance of easy and hard work, has been most effective. Keeping the easy days easy so the hard days can be hard is more beneficial compared with pushing oneself during each and every session. Neglecting recovery workouts results in a decrease in performance for the other key sessions. This leads to a single speed athlete who works hard yet underperforms. Using lactate threshold testing, athletes have a sense of what it really means to go easy, and what it takes to go hard.