Written by Jacob Tsypkin
When the rubber meets the road, fitness sport is an endeavor driven by endurance. Although strength and power are vitally important, both as developers of the unique kind of capacity in which fitness sport athletes excel, and for their role in the tested events in which fitness sport athletes will compete, the highest level athletes in events like the CrossFit Games are not merely the strongest, but those who can express their strength and power in a variety of predominantly aerobic and glycolytic events.
Avoid these four common pitfalls to make sure you’re developing the engine you need.
- Treating Running and Rowing Interchangeably
Substituting running for rowing or vice versa is no different than arbitrarily deciding to do back squats instead of deadlifts. Do they have similarities? Yes. Will they elicit some of the same adaptations? Sure. Beyond the most base levels of competence, will one make you better at the other? Almost certainly not.
Although both running and rowing are monostructural exercises, and are likely our two best tools for improving aerobic capacity, they are distinct skills which require specific training and specific adaptation. Substituting one for the other in the occasional multimodal endurance piece is acceptable. But specific endurance training utilizing these modalities should be taken seriously, and substitutions should only be made when there is no better option.
- “Active Recovery”
Say it with me: Low intensity steady state training is still training. Low intensity steady state training is still training. Low intensity steady state training is still training.
I frequently see athletes treating their low intensity steady state work as “active recovery”. This is problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, it can lead to the athlete not taking their low intensity steady aerobic training seriously. It becomes “recovery” work, not a serious component of their athletic development. Once it is relegated, in the athlete’s mind, to this secondary level of importance, it becomes susceptible to being changed in favor of something “more productive” (read: more painful), or forgotten entirely in favor of more couch time. After all, the whole point of low intensity cardio is recovery, right?
This is the second issue. Calling aerobic training “active recovery” isn’t precisely accurate.
Aerobic metabolism does play an important role – indeed, the dominant role – in an athlete’s recovery between training session. However, the process is not acute. Rowing for sixty minutes does not suddenly replete substrates. Instead, athletes with a high level of aerobic development are better at repletion of those substrates in the long term, because their aerobic metabolism is better, making the processes which drive recovery more effective.
A low intensity aerobic session in and of itself may reduce acute soreness and stiffness, and the athlete may feel energized afterwards, but the extent to which it actually improves recovery is up for debate. Low intensity steady state training is still training. It’s purpose is to develop your aerobic capacity for purposes of improving your performance.
- Not Working on Your Technique
Fitness sport athletes take their lifting technique seriously. Low bar or high bar squats? Sit back or sit straight down? Catapult or Triple Extension? (Ha! I’m kidding.That one’s not a real argument.)
Gymnastics is treated as a technical discipline as well, with a strong specialist market emerging and many athletes seeking out gymnastics coaches to both improve their fundamentals and learn more challenging skills.
Monostructural movements, however, are often left out in the cold. Running and rowing in particular are given short shrift. This is a real shame, because a little bit of technical work goes a long way towards reducing risk of injury, improving efficiency, and maximizing return on investment.
There are plenty of good resources available to help you with your running and rowing technique. Utilize them.
- Not Treating Energy Systems Programming Like Programming
Periodization is no longer a bad word in the fitness sport community. Coaches and athletes understand that if they wish to achieve the best possible results at the right time, training must be organized in a logical, progressive manner.
This paradigm shift towards well designed periodization protocols is clearly visible in the way we approach weightlifting and strength training. But when it comes to energy systems training, the attitude often seems to be that just doing it is sufficient.
It is important to remember that fitness sport is, ultimately, an endurance sport. Yes, strength and power are very important, but your ability to apply strength and power in aerobic and glycolyic bioenergetic environments are going to play the larger role. If you are serious about developing those capacities, training for them must be approached every bit as seriously as your strength and power training. You must create sufficient overload to drive improvement, you must track your abilities, and you must understand the why behind every workout you do.