I watched a video yesterday about Professional triathlete Jan Frodeno, the reigning Ironman World Champion. It was a video outlining “a day in the life” of an elite triathlete’s training regimen. In my own pursuit of professional status in triathlons, I figured it would be a good indicator of where I need to end up. The volume of work he put out in a single day was extremely impressive, and I couldn’t help but be a little humbled as to my own physical limits and the long journey that awaits me to get there. This got me thinking about a very important aspect to any athlete and their ability to get to the next level of training… their work capacity!
Work capacity is the determining factor of what someone can and cannot do. The difference between the amateur and the professional athlete is often shown by the amount of effort they can do and the time they are able to sustain a certain intensity during training or a competition. The greater an athlete’s capacity to do work, the greater their potential to improve. Work capacity can be manifested in a variety of forms: lifting a heavier load, maintaining a certain intensity over time, repetitions of maximal effort in a certain amount of time, etc. Developing a greater work capacity is a key component to improving athletic performance across any discipline. The more someone can do in training or in competition safely, the better.
Being able to do more work comes at a certain cost. When trying to develop higher work capacity, you are pushing the body’s limits; because of this, peak performance will tend to suffer from the greater need of recovery and breakdown being experienced during periods of training to improve this aspect of athleticism. Training to develop work capacity is difficult to do. Pushing the envelope of physical capacity requires digging deep and doing more than what you have done before, mentally and physically. Needless to say, it is a strenuous process that if not balanced correctly can do as much harm as it’s potential for good. There is a fine line between training to improve work capacity and causing harm to the body. Without proper recovery and nutrition during these periods of training, the body will only breakdown and get injured rather than experience positive adaptations that will result in greater work capacity.
Increasing the total volume of work you can handle is key in continuing to see progress and elicit physical adaptations. If you only do a specific amount of work day in and day out, your body eventually will regulate itself and its recovery rate in order to not waste excess energy. This is when the body has adapted itself to make it more efficient at performing certain amounts of work and creates a threshold. If this threshold is never tested, the body will not continue to build and improve, performance will suffer, and strengths gains will stagnate. The body builds muscle and adapts to greater physical capabilities not to be able to lift more weight or run faster, rather, these adaptations are a result of the body trying to more easily support the daily stresses placed upon it. When given the chance, it will adapt extremely well, and the body will do everything it can to use as little energy as possible to function at it’s minimal capacity necessary to live. The way to increase work capacity comes in the form of remembering the principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands; in other words, your body will adapt specifically to the resistances and workouts you put it through. Increasing work capacity comes in changing the imposed demand to a greater amount than previously experienced.
One big problem with athletes trying to improve their work capacity is that they do too much too soon and get injured as a result, losing a few weeks of training. It’s important to remember that the closer you reach to your current threshold, the smaller the amounts of improvement are going to be. This is why a new lifter is perhaps able to improve their lifts by 10’s or 20’s of pounds every month, or a runner is able to shave off minutes from their race times each race, where the professional athlete is happy to improve a single pound on their total lifts, or run 0.1 second faster than last year. When you reach towards that limit of intensity you are currently at, you can’t approach the improvements and weekly progressions the same way. With that in mind, training at your threshold to force the body to push beyond that limit requires careful tracking, increased time of recovery work, specific nutritional practices, and slow, measured, and controlled increases to the load. Remembering that the amount of weight on the bar is not the only way to show improvements is important in order to develop a proper training program to improve work capacity. Doing more sets, more reps, less rest in between sets, and any combination of this can also be indications and tools to be used to improve.
A general scheme to increasing work capacity comes in a progressive manner slowly introducing higher intensities, resistances, and durations of work.
Week 1: Establish a beginning intensity, 70% of the maximal effort (1RM, Pace Per Mile, etc).
Weeks 2-6: Increase training zone at start of week 2 (75%) and slightly increase every week through week 6 to 95%. Remember to include increases in sets, reps, or decreases in rest during training. Volume is just as effective as anything else to improve.
Week 7: Taper and recovery week, return to beginning training zone (Week 1).
Weeks 8-11: Slightly increase training zone from week 6 and slightly increase every week through week 11, Work to 105%.
Week 12: Taper and recover (just above beginning training zone).
(Re-test maximal effort numbers and reset the training loads to start the 12 weeks over again.)
I recommend not doing more than two 12-week-cycles training work capacity to avoid any injuries and also prevent any stagnation in your progress. Even when training at threshold, the body will find a way to adapt and minimize the energy demands to grow and improve. It’s always good to change things up after a program has done its job.
Every Day… A Little Stronger
By: Sam Winston, M.S. Human Performance Coach