All of us want to be more fit. We think to ourselves…
“Man, if I was just a bit fitter I’d be more confident. If I was more confident, I’d get that new job. If I got that new job I could afford to go to cooler places. If I went to more places I’d have cooler stories. Maybe, I’d even get a response on Match.com. My whole life would be so much better!”
Ok, ok, ok, being more fit certainly has a positive cascading effect, but let’s not get carried away.
A vital component of fitness is your conditioning level. Conditioning is important because it allows you to go - and keep going. Many of us like CrossFit training because it gives us balanced fitness. We can lift heavy things, we can run fast and long and we have an overall toned, athletic physique.
So, if we accept that we should be adding some level of conditioning to our training, the question becomes how should we train to improve our conditioning?
Well, if you consult Google or most trainers you’ll quickly be sold on high intensity training. You’ll learn that the average workout takes less than 30 minutes, that you can burn more fat, preserve more muscle and avoid overuse injuries.
While these characteristics are true, you’re not getting the whole story. And to understand why, you need to learn a little physiology 101. The body has three primary metabolic systems to create energy. These systems are the anaerobic alactic (phosphagen-creatine), the anaerobic lactic (glycolysis) and the aerobic system (oxidative). While all three work simultaneously to meet your energy demands, each one becomes the primary player depending on your overall conditioning level and the intensity demands of the work.
The graph below shows how these systems interact:
The graph shows that the anaerobic alactic system is used for max intensity work lasting up to 30 seconds, the anaerobic lactic system is used for submax high intensity work for up to 180 seconds and the aerobic system works for hours at moderately high to low intensities levels.
The fact that one system can sustainably work for hours at a time vs the other systems that can work for only seconds should be illuminating. The aerobic system is the conditioning workhorse and as such should be prioritized in your training.
If your conditioning only consists of high intensity workouts that leave you gasping for air post workout then you’re sabotaging your potential. Additionally, some coaches mistakenly believe you can effectively train your aerobic system through high intensity training alone. While this is technically true, the overall improvements are small. Think of it this way. Your aerobic system is like a pyramid, the bigger the base, the bigger you can build the pyramid.
Prioritizing your aerobic training is also beneficial because it has the greatest potential for change from training. This is true because there are more mechanisms at play during aerobic metabolism, which means more room for improvement. While you can improve your anaerobic systems from training, your potential for change is hamstrung by your genetics. Everybody is born with a specific ratio of fast to slow twitch muscle fibers and all the training in the world won’t make a substantial dent in this ratio.
Furthermore, training the aerobic system actually improves your anaerobic system as your body becomes more efficient at clearing away deleterious metabolic byproducts that are created during anaerobic metabolism.
Take a look at the graph below
The takeaway point is that as you train your aerobic system, not only do you become more powerful, but you push your anaerobic threshold higher. In layman’s terms, this means that what used to push you into an unsustainable pace, means you can now sustainably repeat it.
Without digging into the science too much, this should be obvious from watching endurance athletes compete. In 2008, Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru won the marathon at the Beijing Games in an Olympic record of 2:06:32. That computes to an average mile pace of 4:50 for 26 miles!
For many of us, if we could even run a single mile in 4:50, it would force us to max out our anaerobic engines and we’d be left gasping for air, collapsed on the ground as soon as we finished. Sammy’s aerobic base is so large he’s able to do that 26 times in a row, with no breaks.
This holds true for many CrossFit Games level athletes. For many of us, doing one Open style workout leaves us crushed and laying on the floor. For someone like Rich Froning, he can finish the workout, walk around comfortably and then be ready to train in a few minutes. Even though they are doing pull-ups, snatches and box jumps, these athletes are completing them aerobically.