Endurance Training: Getting Beyond the Aerobic Wall

Introduction

In the previous blog “The KI Hack Explained”, I introduced Kinetic Intelligence.  This is a promising resource for improving athletic performance beyond the metabolic peak each of us encounters early in adult life.  Just like the virtuoso musician who continues to perform more brilliantly with age, we too can become virtuoso athletes

With KI, Paula Newby-Fraser won her eighth Hawaii Ironman World Championship at age forty.  As the Queen of Kona, Paula was truly a virtuoso.

In this blog, let’s explore an alternative to the conventional method of metabolic fitness training.  To pursue virtuosity through KI, we have to expand our training method to also strengthen and build neural fitness.

Metabolic Explained

Let’s begin by clarifying the term “metabolic fitness”, commonly known to athletes as “aerobic fitness”.  Exercise physiology excels in the science of metabolic fitness and how to optimize it.  So, what is this metabolic/aerobic fitness?

Your working muscles need a supportive and favorable operating environment to perform.  This is the function of your metabolic system.

Metabolic fitness is our ability to convert oxygen and fuel (fat, carbohydrate and protein) into energy that moves our muscles.  Your metabolic system includes your heart and lungs, your vascular (circulation) system, and specific components in each muscle cell that convert the oxygen and fuel into energy so the muscles can move.  Think of this as the environmental control system in a building that maintains a suitable temperature and clean air for all of the workers, as well as lighting, plumbing, etc.  If the environment is inadequate or hostile, function and productivity suffer.

Your metabolic system provides your muscles and your nerves with an adequate operating environment and the necessary energy to support and sustain the repeated strokes and strides.  As long as the operating environment is favorable, we are able to maintain that goal pace and feel like the glorious athlete-warrior.  If it becomes to hypoxic or too acidic, or if we are not converting the fuel into energy fast enough, muscle function is impaired.  We go from glory to bonk.

However, even with peak aerobic fitness, if your technique is inefficient, you won’t perform at your greatest potential.

Faster?  Longer?

To go faster or longer, we have two options:

Improve metabolic fitness to our greatest potential to support a higher level of output by the muscles, and/or for a longer duration: Work more.

Improve the efficiency of our technique so that we require less energy – taxing the metabolic system less: Work less.

It’s important to note that we can target both metabolic fitness and technique efficiency simultaneously, in every training session.  However, if we ignore the promising resource of KI and focus only on chasing the numbers that measure metabolic fitness, our training devolves into “banging our heads against the Aerobic Wall.”

When we expand our training focus to include neural fitness, we can stop “banging our heads against the Aerobic Wall”.

The Aerobic Wall?

Imagine that your peak aerobic potential is a wall.  Let’s call it the Aerobic Wall.  Until age 25, your wall moves forward as your potential increases.  But after age 25 this wall begins to move backwards towards you and your potential decreases.  Now it is a limiter – it begins to encroach and limit your performance.  In desperation, we feel driven to push against it, to resist its encroachment. 

Bottom line?  Nobody wants to get old!  So we keep banging our heads against that Aerobic Wall day after day, year after year.  Where is the joy and satisfaction in that?

Seductive Science

The science of metabolic fitness has advanced significantly in the past few decades and is now very exacting and very affordable.  That makes metabolic fitness training very attractive and reliable. 

We can measure metabolic intensity (through heart rate, blood lactate levels, respiratory gas analysis) and correlate that with pace and/or power output with great accuracy.  Such accurate measurements provide clear guidance and a sense of reassurance.  We grow to depend heavily on exacting metabolic metrics to govern each training session. 

So, even if we are beyond aerobic peak, metabolic fitness remains the gold standard for improving athletic performance. After all, what else is there? 

What else could we possibly rely on so confidently to guide and structure our day-to-day training and our long-term preparation for goal races?  Anything else seems foreign and less trustworthy.

Three Systems

To explore an alternative, let’s begin with this: As athletes, we train more than our metabolic.  We train three physiological systems:

  • Metabolic
  • Muscular
  • Neural

Of those three systems, which one do you think you can improve the most? 

The physiological system that is most trainable – the one that can continue to improve for many decades – is not the metabolic.  It is the neural.

Our neural system is the most “plastic”, most adaptable system.  This is the system that learns.  It gets smarter and more functional with experience and consistent, mindful practice.  Experience and practice come with age.  We build and strengthen kinetic intelligence through this neural training.  KI is the wisdom of the aging master athlete.

So… What is this neural system?

Wired!

In simplest terms, your neural system is a matrix of “wires” that conduct electrical signals between locations – most significantly, between your body and your brain.  Some of the wires conduct in one direction (say, from body to brain) and others conduct in the opposite direction. 

Your neural system is your body-mind connective network – so vital to everything you do, including endurance sports.

Mind Over Matter?

The skills we have learned in life and use each day – from tying our shoes to driving a car – are like computer programs that we store and activate.  Some of these skills – like driving the car – require us to activate multiple programs simultaneously.  Each of these skills/programs must be stored (in IT terminology “hosted” ) somewhere within us. 

Many forms of human intelligence – like solving a math problem, verbal communication – are housed in your brain.  So you may think that KI is also housed in your brain, yes?  However…

To be specific, our intelligence and skills are hosted by our neurons.  Neurons are cells within the wiring of our neural system.  In humans, 80% of our neurons are in our brains, while 20% are in our bodies.  KI is body movement intelligence.  The best place to host this form of intelligence and our movement skills is in close proximity to the muscles that express that intelligence.

Ever heard of or even felt your own “muscle memory”?  That’s mind IN matter!

“Muscle memory” isn’t quite accurate, since the memory is actually neuronal.  But it is close since the memory/intelligence for your PAGES technique is stored in the neurons embedded in your muscles.  In contrast, our day-to-day activities that are so dominated by spoken language rely on skills and intelligence hosted in the neurons of our brains.

The “brain intelligence” we engage most of the time cannot host or govern KI and PAGES technique skills.  So why do we feel so compelled to approach our training through methods that are brain-directed?  Why do we use the “mind over matter” approach as we strive for our next PR? 

Because we are most familiar with tasking and engaging the neurons in our brains to solve the problems of our daily lives.

Our attraction to the metrics of metabolic fitness – that have us banging our heads against that Aerobic Wall – arise in part from our desire to stay in the familiar territory of our brain neurons, rather than venture into the less familiar territory our body neurons.

How do we get from “mind over matter” to “mind IN matter”? 

Trust

The first step to pursuing athletic neural fitness is to trust your body intelligence.  This intelligence functions through sensations, rather than metrics.  Our pre-occupation with metrics can prevent us from actually feeling what we are doing.  Many athletes are lost without the heart rate monitor, power meter and GPS pacing.

Years ago, I worked at a triathlon shop.  I can remember fitting seasoned athletes for running shoes:

  • “How does that shoe feel?”
  • “Well, what size it?”
  • “Never mind the number printed on the box, how does the shoe feel on your foot?”
  • “Well, how should it feel?”

Many athletes would rather buy the shoe based on the number printed on the box it came in than buy a shoe that felt good to their foot.  They trusted the metrics more than their own sensations or their ability to evaluate those sensations.  This is profound when it comes to how we approach training.  No wonder we train by numbers instead of by feel

When we trust the sensations of our bodies for guidance, we are more willing to venture out of the familiar territory of our brain neurons and venture deep into the less familiar territory of our body neurons.

Getting Started

Start with the “Tips for KI Training” from the previous blog to get out of your head and into your body.

Learn to measure your level of metabolic intensity by Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), without having to rely on the metric monitors.  These monitors distract us from feeling what is occurring in our bodies.  The emphasis in the term Rate of Perceived Exertion is is perception – what you are feeling right now in this present moment.

With experience, your RPE is a much more accurate way of measuring your metabolic intensity than your heart rate monitor or power meter.  Why?

Your heart rate zones and power zones are determined through tests that determine those zones for the specific circumstances at the time of testing, including – but not limited to:

  • Your fitness level for that sport on that day
  • Degree of stress or recovery (endocrine system chemistry) on that day
  • Temperature
  • Altitude
  • Humidity
  • Blood sugar level
  • Caffeine level

These and many other factors vary day-to-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.  While your “hard metrics” were determined in the past, your RPE is accurate in this moment – if you are able to accurately monitor your sensations and gauge from them.  Book Two of the series “Kaizen-durance, Your Aerobic Path to Mastery” provides guidance in how to use your RPE as your most trusted tool for metabolic training.  (See Bottom Line below.)

When You Train…

Get out of your head and into your body so you can accurately sense both your:

  • Metabolic intensity
  • PAGES technique
  • Resources

Book One of the series “Kaizen-durance, Your Aerobic Path to Mastery” supports you in making the paradigm shift from banging your head against the Aerobic Wall to pursuing KI and PAGES.  It introduces you to expanding your training from a “metabolic-only” format to include neural fitness training. 

Book Two of the series explores in-depth the fledgling science of neural fitness.  I have devoted more than four decades pioneering this science primarily through my own training and racing, as well as educating over a thousand athletes through Kaizen-durance Arts Programs in swimming, biking, running and mindfulness skills.

Book Three of the series explores the mindfulness skills that are essential for the exacting perceptive acuity necessary for neural training.  Mindfulness is actually the first of the Four Vectors of Kaizen-durance Mastery (followed by neural training).

Book Four of the series offers methods and techniques for neural training.

Bottom Line

You don’t have to sacrifice metabolic fitness to focus on neural fitness: I have used RPE exclusively to gauge metabolic intensity as I prioritize neural fitness in my training over a span of decades.  In a recent ventilatory threshold test, my VO2max ranked at 99th percentile for my age, with my lactate threshold at 89% of VO2max.

Trust your body sensations more than the numbers that feed your brain.  To do this, learn to gauge your metabolic intensity based on RPE.

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