Aerobic Capacity

On Jan 11, 2021 our winter training cycle begins for us, with a crop of 45 athletes across multiple sport categories.  The Samsara Method is a Full Spectrum approach to training, which means that we don’t just train one attribute, or energy system – we aim to develop the full range of human athletic performance; explosive, agile, and capable of spectacular feats of endurance.

Each capacity (aerobic endurance, strength, and athleticism) has to be developed individually, and progressed so that each stage builds on the last. For example, to make an athlete explosive, they first have to have a high level of force-capacity at slow speeds, and before they can be subjected to these heavy loads, they need to have sufficient tissue capacity to support those loads. 

This same progression applies to developing their athletic IQ and aerobic endurance. In order to layer all of these adaptations appropriately – we have developed a framework, based on the emerging science of human performance.

For now, let’s focus on Aerobic Endurance, beginning with the Foundation phase. The central goal of the Foundation Phase is to improve Aerobic Capacity. In order to keep this post highly practical, and offer some training guidance, I’m going to keep the physiology simple.

The goal of Aerobic Capacity training is to improve the performance of your body’s most efficient engine. Think of it this way, whenever you start moving your body relies on one of three engines to power its movement. The choice depends on the rate of work. The more demanding and explosive the work, the more powerful (and inefficient) the engine. We dive into this topic here.

If you want to be a high level endurance athlete, the single most important factor will be how much work you can get done, in the most efficient way. That outcome relies on a highly developed aerobic system. The aerobic pathway will generate 38ATP molecules, for every glycogen molecule, as opposed to 2ATP molecules via the more powerful anaerobic pathway. That’s an almost 20 fold improvement in efficiency. If you want to outlast the competition or the terrain you need exceptional aerobic capacity.

Building aerobic capacity is shockingly simple, and gets back to the roots of our evolution as human beings. Go long, don’t stop, don’t snack, and go slow. 

Go Long – Low intensity training is worthless if you go in short spurts. As soon as you take a break, even a short one, you are reminding your body that it doesn’t need to make endurance adaptations because you plan on giving it a chance to rest. Effective aerobic capacity training requires long(ish) and sustained efforts. Most of these workouts can occur between 70-120mins, provided the effort is uninterrupted.

Stop Faffing – No tying your shoes, no chatting on the trail, no food and water breaks, just go. The biggest mistake athletes make is stopping and fiddling. Stop for 5minutes, and you have erased much of the value of your session. If you want to teach your body endurance, give it something to endure. If you are stopping to fiddle with your gear, your body gets the message “I can expect regular breaks.” You can spend a whole day in the mountains with lots of breaks, and get far less value than if you had just turned the music (reggae obviously!) up for 90mins and gone non-stop.

Don’t eat – One of the keys to endurance is to rely on an plentiful fuel source. Your body carries a very limited store of glycogen in the bloodstream, and muscle tissue. As soon as that is used up – you bonk. If you want to go all day, you’re going to need a much more reliable fuel; fat. The human body stores enormous supplies of calories in the form of fat, and as an athlete if you are habituated to fueling your work on fat, you will have energy for days. Our daily western eating habits constantly remind our brain that if it feels any sensation of hunger it needs food. It doesnt of course, but we (myself included!) are guilty of succumbing to the slightest hunger. 

When you train at a slow enough pace your body will learn to rely on the fat burning pathway. The easiest way to do that is to do your long slow work on an empty stomach. If your body has lots of available glycogen, it will default to that most readily available fuel source first. Encourage your system to rely on the slower (longer process of recycling ATP) burning fat metabolism, and your all day performance will sky rocket.

Keep in mind this is training advice – when you put the training to the test and go for the big missions, fuel yourself adequately for optimum performance.

Go slow – If you want to encourage your body to improve its efficiency, you have to cooperate with it. If you starve it, and go long – while also trying to push the pace, it wont work. On one hand you are encouraging it to rely on fat metabolism, and on the other you are demanding it to convert the fuel faster than is possible – which will result in glycogen being the primary source of fuel. 

These kinds of mixed messages result in poor training outcomes. The ideal training pace for aerobic capacity training is one in which you can converse comfortably.  You don’t feel hungry because your body is chugging along on fat, which relies on a slow conversion rate – pace accordingly. Training in our view is about collaborating with biology, not grinding against it.

Remember that all of the suggestions apply strictly to the aerobic capacity phase. Aerobic capacity is the single most important adaptation for the endurance athlete in my mind, but not the only necessary adaptation for high performance. Other training habits will give other adaptations, but we must give each one due time in order for the physiological changes to take place.

In summary – our method is built around 3 phases: Foundation, Intensity and Readiness, and each phase encourages certain adaptations in 3 performance categories: Aerobic Endurance, Athleticism and Strength. During each phase we aim to develop one aspect of each category – it’s all a bit complex! But in a 12 week period an athlete can experience the full range of athletic development. Over subsequent 12 week blocks we can scale up the training load in each phase.

Hope that helps, Z

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