I train something I like to call coherence, which I define as “a global capability for comprehensive interaction”—that is, for each of the component parts of some system (in this case my body) to be capable enough relatively to one another for each and every one to competently take part in the behavior of the whole (in this case running), and to not freeze, be sidelined, or detract from the functioning of the whole.
In practice, what does this mean? It means that I structure my training in two different dimensions: neuromuscular capability and metabolic capability.
1. Neuromuscular Capability:
Essentially, this dimension is about developing the ability of my body’s neuromuscular system to move itself and objects in space. (In a second, I’ll contrast this with metabolic capability). For any given sport, workout, or athletic movement I train neuromuscular capability in the following sequence:
The logic behind this sequence is simple: in order to learn how to move a particular joint or create a meaningful movement, your body needs first to be able to express movement in the relevant joint(s). Stability is essentially the ability of a joint to hold the position it wants to, or follow the movement arc it wants to. So, while mobility develops the ability to create a certain position or produce a certain movement arc, stability develops the body’s ability to maintain the position or motion, particularly in light of external forces that may challenge it.
Skill pertains to integrating that mobility and stability into a meaningful movement. All the mobility and stability in the world means nothing if I can’t coordinate my movements with my vestibular system, proprioceptors, and eyesight to grab hold of a barbell, put it on my shoulders, and (say) produce a squat. Without developing these integrated capabilities for every movement we want to master, we stand very little chance of producing a superior expression of strength, power, or endurance. Skill is also where you develop form (and yes, this includes running form).
Strength, power, and endurance is where the neuromuscular capability dimension meets with the metabolic capability dimension (their interaction is extremely important, and I’ll get to it later). But the big question is this: why that order? Why strength, then power, then endurance?
And furthermore: how much do you need, before moving on?
The answer is: enough for your sport. For example, the minimum power requirement to be a high performer in endurance running is the ability to sustain a stride rate 160-180 steps per minute. To produce this power, you first need enough muscle strength in your feet and legs (but really all across your body) in order to negotiate the impact forces created when the foot touches the ground. You don’t need superior strength. You don’t need to be able to squat 2 body weights. You just need enough to be able to support and move all the structures of the body correctly (i.e. maintain consistent form) throughout the gait cycle.
I define endurance as:
“The capability of producing a particular movement for multiple repetitions without falling below a minimum threshold of performance.”
The more repetitions, the more endurance. But look at the italics—that’s the important part. Simply slogging through miles, expressing your individuality through the extent of your power leaks, is NOT endurance. You can’t fall below a minimum threshold of performance. And what is that threshold, precisely? Look at strength and power above:
- For strength: maintaining consistent form throughout the gait cycle.
- For power: sustain a brisk stride rate throughout the gait cycle.
This is the first big reason that I put endurance in the “neuromuscular capability” dimension while it would perhaps lie more intuitively in the “metabolic capability” dimension. But what’s important to me is that the brain be able to move the muscles and maintain them in motion repeatedly, throughout the gait cycle. How do you achieve superior endurance? Although the neuromuscular implications are still very relevant, superior endurance tends to be more of a matter of developing increased metabolic capability.
2. Metabolic Capability:
In a very general way, I look at the body’s metabolic capability in relation to its ability to produce the energy necessary (at the right rate and of the right kind) to fuel its workouts, recovery, and the upkeep of all its various systems.
In particular, I’m interested in developing the body’s metabolic flexibility, loosely defined as the body’s ability to use a variety of different substrates (fuels) and to be able to switch to and from them as needed. Of crucial importance is the ability of the body to oxidize fats at a very high rate, which is a primary indicator of the body’s ability to return to rest after a period of acute stress (such as that from high-intensity exercise).
So, my two primary metabolic concerns are these, ranked in order of importance:
- Metabolic power and flexibility for basic health.
- Metabolic power and flexibility for athletic activity.
For example, a weightlifter or sprinter neither needs nor wants the massive fat-burning ability (aerobic base) of an ultrarunner. But processing the by-products of (anaerobic) strength training is the domain of the aerobic base. So, a decent aerobic base will grant the power athlete a greater recuperative ability from the workout, creating the possibility for a higher training volume without compromising health.
In my view, there is no “tug-of-war” between health and fitness. There is no “compromise” to be made between pursuing one and the other. Health only begets fitness (but doesn’t cause it directly). A habit or culture of disdaining health for quick fitness gains is the foundation for a long history of illness, injury, and overtraining.
A final rule: I don’t fatigue people in training. EVER. I’ll need another post to discuss this, but I believe that fatigue doesn’t train people to (say) be resilient to fatigue, in the same way that sleep deprivation doesn’t train people to be more resilient to sleep deprivation. (It trains people to psychologically tolerate it better, but it doesn’t train the organism into greater physiological resilience against it).
On the contrary, being a ketogenic athlete essentially inoculates you against fatigue (which I define in opposition to tiredness): tiredness is a depletion in muscle glycogen whereas fatigue is the inability of the metabolism to fuel the brain and the body at the same time. According to Tim Noakes’ central governor theory, the brain turns down the volume on the muscles if they begin competing for energy with the brain. The psychological experience that the brain creates in order to force this shutdown is called “fatigue.”
(You experience this when you “hit the wall” during a marathon: when you give up and decide to walk, fatigue disappears but tiredness doesn’t).
Bringing it all together
Both dimensions I’ve discussed here are intricately intertwined, to the point of being inseparable from one another. Whenever one works in from the neuromuscular dimension, there are metabolic considerations to be made, and vice versa. For example:
The metabolic considerations are more obvious: Overtraining trashes the body’s metabolic flexibility. don’t overtrain the client. Develop strength and power and create periods of aerobic work to allow recovery. (Easier said than done).
But more interesting, in my opinion, are the neuromuscular considerations to be had when working from the metabolic dimension. The reason I find them interesting is because they hold many caveats to the metabolic training orthodoxy. For example:
Often, people don’t have the stability and plyometric ability (power) to progress from a low-level aerobic exercise (say, walking) to a higher-level aerobic exercise (say, running). Stability and plyometrics are entirely the domain of anaerobic exercise. But they may be necessary components in bridging the transition from walking to running. So, even when someone doesn’t have the aerobic ability to run, it may be a good idea to achieve the mobility, stability, skill, strength, and power to produce the correct running gait (all anaerobic training) before moving on to running aerobically.
(But don’t take the eye off the overtraining gauge).
Approaching it this way will move people much more quickly towards being able to train greater aerobic power and develop more metabolic flexibility.
Although I’ll write another post on this, I want to point out another consideration: some athletes (like me) hunger for anaerobic training after some 10 days of running aerobic-only. Although I have no direct source to back this up, I believe that this “hunger” represents a neuromuscular and metabolic readiness for anaerobic work—the fatigue (and even revulsion) that sets on an overtrained athlete at the prospect of anaerobic training being the counterposition. In my opinion, even during base building it’s just fine to go for 2 or 3 anaerobic miles to take the sympathetic (SNS) edge off of things, provided that this volume and intensity not cause fatigue in the athlete.
But let me be perfectly clear: this situation ain’t ever gonna happen in an athlete who is ill, injured, or overtrained.
If a couple of anaerobic miles allows the next 100 or so aerobic miles to proceed smoothly, so be it. In my book, a 50:1 ratio of aerobic:anaerobic exercise still counts as “base-building.”