Conditioning Part 1

There’s no such thing as being ‘fit.’ Sporting fitness can only be defined in terms of being, ‘fit for purpose’. A Sumo wrestler is incredibly ‘fit’ for the purposes of their sport – whether they can run 10km is irrelevant. In short, fitness and conditioning must be ‘specific’ to the sport being carried out. In part 1 of this article strength & conditioning expert Phil Nourse explains how we use energy when we CV train and how we should approach our training.

Metabolic Processes

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So how do we ensure athletes are able to structure their cardiovascular conditioning specifically to their sport? Common sense would dictate that the first port of call in this journey is to investigate the physiological mechanisms behind how the body utilises and re-synthesises energy – what’s known as the metabolic processes.

Breakdown of ATP

“Thus, if we had no other mechanism of resynthesising this ATP we wouldn’t be able to move and in fact would die, within seconds of starting to live!”

Forget what else you may have heard, the only substance, or energy store, the body can directly utilise to create muscular activity is ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). It’s therefore not surprisingly called the ‘universal energy donor’. Every other form of metabolism, energy production, described in this article simply takes place to replenish stores of ATP.

So that rapid explosive movement, for example of putting a shot or a powerful kick in a combat sport, is simply fuelled by the breakdown of ATP and the energy released from the chemical reaction. However at any one time we only have enough ATP to fuel about 1-2 seconds of explosive activity. Thus, if we had no other mechanism of resynthesising this ATP we wouldn’t be able to move and in fact would die, within seconds of starting to live!

Breakdown of CP – Creatine Phosphate

Creatine Phosphate – finally a familiar word! Yes, this is where the rationale for Creatine supplementation comes from. In high intensity activity, as soon as the athlete’s stores of ATP have been depleted, the metabolism shifts to use Creatine Phosphate. The energy released from the chemical reaction of the breakdown of CP goes into reforming our stores of ATP to once again, permit explosive activity.

The rate at which ATP can be re-formed dictates the intensity we can work at – the breakdown of CP resynthesises ATP rapidly. However, our stores of CP are also limited and we only have enough to fuel around 8-12 seconds of high intensity activity. The 100m race then can be considered almost the perfect example of a CP fuelled event – very high intensity and lasting almost exactly 10 seconds.

The Lactate Systems

“…lactate is always being produced but at higher intensities and with inadequate delivery of oxygen, the body can no longer remove lactate at the rate at which it’s being produced.”

When the stores of CP dry up the body shifts to the metabolism of glucose. Glucose is the simplest of sugars, which could be taken from the blood or from stores in the liver and muscle. As most of us are aware, sugar contains many calories and calories are a measure of energy.

Chemical reactions liberate this energy from the glucose which then goes back into reforming ATP. The problem with this system is that it requires quite a lot of oxygen to be delivered quickly into the energy production centres of the cell.

This isn’t a problem when exercise intensity is low and ATP only needs to be replenished at a relatively slow rate, but when exercise intensity is high and ATP is being sucked up as quickly as it can be produced, the body simply cannot supply oxygen rapidly enough to allow this process to work efficiently.

So when you’re doing some easy aerobic exercise you’ll notice your heart rate elevating a bit, as you will your breathing rate and depth and this will allow you to deliver oxygen rapidly enough. On the other hand in the middle of for example, an intense sporting contest like rugby, or football regardless of the best efforts of the heart or lungs, you simply will not be able to provide enough oxygen for this process to take place.

It is at this point that lactic acid or lactate begins to accumulate. Now many people think this is when lactate starts to be produced, not so – in fact lactate is always being produced but at higher intensities and with inadequate delivery of oxygen, the body can no longer remove lactate at the rate at which it’s being produced.

On the plus side this system allows you to keep working at a high intensity, but on the downside high levels of lactate are painful, they impair performance and in the long-term they would lead to termination of exercise if the intensity level didn’t drop.

Hold this thought for later on (and for the second part of this article) – the athlete that can work at higher intensities before lactate begins to accumulate is the one that can continually work at a higher work rate for the entire duration of a long sporting battle.

A Tour de France rider will have such a relevantly conditioned CV system, that they will be able to work at intensity levels mere-mortals would find it impossible to do so, for the long and sustained distances (‘stages’) whilst keeping lactate levels low.

Aerobic metabolism

cardiovascular_2

As previously noted, if you keep exercise intensity low and you can provide oxygen rapidly enough, lactate will not build up – this type of exercise is again as noted aerobic (The ATP, CP and lactate systems are considered anaerobic).

Similarly, after about four minutes of intense effort and the build up large amounts of lactate, you would have no choice but to reduce your exercise intensity and eventually this intensity would drop low enough for the exercise to become truly aerobic, at least after the built up lactate has been broken down and removed, i.e. the oxygen debt has been repaid.

If exercise intensity is low enough and oxygen can be delivered at a really high rate, then increasing amounts of fat will be utilised as the key fuel source as opposed to, or at least in conjunction with, carbohydrate. This whole concept is easy to get your head round if you picture an athletics track and think about running around it as fast as you possibly can.

The first 100m would be incredibly quick and explosive and you’d just about be able to maintain this rate for most of the first 150-200m, but you’d be beginning to really feel it. This is your ATP and CP systems. Over the remainder of the lap, your pace would begin to slow and you would really start to ‘feel the burn.’ This is your lactate system working at full throttle.

Now if you kept going past the 400m finish – albeit at a forced to slow down pace you would eventually reach an aerobic steady state which you would be able to maintain for an extended period. Think about it though, how many sports are like that? Track events, cycling, rowing, triathlon, cross country skiing – they’re the ones that spring to mind, although the spread of effort is more controlled than our 400m lap blast.

In fact the use of the energy systems is very much reversed in these sports i.e. the athletes starts off relatively quickly high-end aerobic and then settles into more steady-state aerobic and then finished with an anaerobic blast to the finish line. (unless of course they are participating in anaerobic sprint events)

“This is your lactate system working at full throttle. Now if you kept going past the 400m finish – albeit at a forced to slow down pace you would eventually reach an aerobic steady state which you would be able to maintain for an extended period.”

Combat sports, field sports and racket sports are all fundamentally different in that there are peaks and troughs in intensity. There are times when you rest completely, times when you take a little breather, times when you are active at lower levels and times when you go all out. As such they involve a far more complex interplay between the various energy systems.

In any sport which lasts over a few minutes, aerobic energy production clearly plays a major role. The key concept to grasp, however, is that these sports are not aerobic in the same way as running 10,000m is.

If you take nothing else away from this article, this is the vital message. The relatively large contribution of aerobic metabolism to most sports actually comes in response to the sports’ intense anaerobic demands. In short, aerobic energy production in most sports does not take place to produce energy aerobically per se, but to remove the lactate built up during the anaerobic periods, repay the ‘oxygen debt’ and to promote recovery to permit another anaerobic, intense burst.

“In short, aerobic energy production in most sports does not take place to produce energy aerobically per se, but to remove the lactate built up during the anaerobic periods, repay the ‘oxygen debt’ and to promote recovery to permit another anaerobic, intense burst.”

The Greatest Distance Runner of all Time

Halie Gebreselassie

Halie talks to ultra-FIT in – brief about his running and glittering career

“I didn’t expect that I would get 26 world records and win two Olympic 10000m golds and eight World champs indoors and out.”

When I was 14 or 15, it was difficult to get a coach. I was in high school. I used to train 2-4 times a week, 40-50 minute runs. I started training very young when I was about 4-5. I would run 20km as part of my daily life, it was not for running or training though, just to get around. Monday to Friday going to school … it would take 6 miles and another 6 miles back home. When I was 16 I joined a running club and then at 17 a bigger one and I became more serious.

When you were young did you think you knew that you would have the ability to be as good as you are?

I didn’t think so …… I never expected to have become what I have now. I just expected to maybe become a World champion one time or an Olympic Champion one time, I didn’t expect that I would get 26 world records and win two Olympic 10000m golds and eight World champs indoors and out. Halie also went onto run a world record for the marathon of 2:03:59 in Berlin in 2008 aged 35. He still runs – as most of you will know at 40 – and is still among the world’s elite at distances on the road from 10k to the marathon.

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