Adam Reeder is the owner of Paragon Health & Fitness, a private training center located near Cleveland, Ohio. Adam has over 12 years of experience in the strength and conditioning industry and has helped athletes of all ages, ability levels and sports. More information, including personal training services can be found at Paragoncle.com or by contacting Adam directly at adam@paragoncle.com.

Aerobic Development for Athletic Performance – Part 3

Part 3: Putting it all together with Implementation and periodization strategies

Welcome to the final installment of this 3-part series on Cardiovascular Training for Sport.  In Part 1 we dissected the physiologic adaptations that occur during aerobic training and in Part 2 we examined how an individualized training program should look, based upon their aerobic assessment.  Today, I want to tie the pieces of the puzzle together and show how you can create a comprehensive training program for your athletes.

“Cardio kills your gainz, bro”

I’m a meathead by trade.  The vast majority of my athletic “career,” as well as my own training has revolved around lifting heavy objects.  I’ve competed in baseball, football, wrestling, Olympic weightlifting as well as powerlifting.  To say that most of my life has been spent developing and playing within anaerobic constraints would be an understatement.  All of this is to reassure you that I’m not an endurance coach.  I’m not a cross country coach, or an ultramarathoner.  I’m a strength coach first and foremost.  I’ve listened to all the gurus who said, “Train slow, get slow,” and I’ve coached athletes under this false premise in the past. I can tell you firsthand that cardio isn’t killing your gainz, bro.  In fact, avoiding cardio is getting in the way of optimizing your health and performance.

I don’t expect you to take my word for it, however.  There has been a prevailing fear in the industry that if we try to combine aerobic training with strength training, that the desired adaptations of strength training become diminished.  This has come to be known as the “interference effect.” The thought process here is that if the body is making adaptations to aerobic fitness, it cannot simultaneously optimize adaptations to strength. 

Indeed, molecular adaptations for aerobic endurance take on vastly different characteristics than those for strength training.  Aerobic training adaptations include:

  • Improved mitochondrial respiration
  • Increased mitochondrial density
  • Increased angiogenesis
  • Enhanced fatty acid and glucose utilization
  • Enhanced cardiac output via increased stroke volume

Conversely, molecular adaptations to strength training may include:

  • Hypertrophy
  • Myofiber size and fiber type transitions
  • Changes in pennation angle and fascicle length 1
  • Addition of myonuclei and enhanced protein synthesis 2
  • Connective tissue remodeling 3
  • Improved rate of force development

Given these divergent strategies the body may take to adapt to each stimulus, it is logical to operate under the assumption that training for one diminishes your ability to optimally adapt to the other.  There are even some studies 4 that suggest a very real link to endurance training have a determinantal effect on strength performance.  However, there are a few things to keep in mind before we jump to the conclusion of avoiding aerobic training. 

Factors which seem to impact the Interference Effect:

1) Relief period- Most studies have examined what happens when we perform endurance training immediately prior to strength training.  When researchers have studied the effect of relief periods (the time between the end of an endurance session and the start of a strength session), all of the detriments to strength performance seem to disappear when we allow for an 8-hour relief period. 

2) Training experience and mesocycle- The interference effect seems to be most pronounced when an athlete is highly trained and is nearing the competition or realization stage of their mesocycle.  These highly trained athletes will have a more selective response to any stimulus, whereas a beginner athlete will respond much more generally to just about any stimulus.

3) Intensity and mode of endurance training- Higher intensity endurance training such as intervals seem to have a much greater impact on decreasing strength performance than long, slow duration aerobic training.  Additionally, lower body endurance training such as cycling seems to have a strong impact on subsequent lower body strength training- suggesting a more peripheral source of fatigue.

4) Type of strength training- Interestingly, maximum strength and even strength-endurance do not seem to be highly impacted by the interference effect.  Instead, high velocity and power movements seem to be impacted to the greatest extent and is again body part specific. High intensity cycling immediately prior to lower body power executions will likely result in a reduced performance of the lower body power move. 

To sum this all up, a thoughtful program combining aerobic and strength development should:

  • Allow 8 hours of relief between endurance training and strength training when possible
  • Be periodized based on the athlete’s sport and exercise history
  • Prioritize low intensity aerobic base development
  • Include planning to avoid the combination of high intensity lower body aerobic work on the same day as high speed/power lower body work in the weight room

 

 

 

 

Periodization

Before we see what a weekly prescription might look like for an athlete, here’s a reminder from Part 2 of this article of a 20-year-old who completed an aerobic assessment to determine his zones:

Aerobic threshold (2 mmol/L): 130 bpm heart rate

Anaerobic threshold (4 mmol/L): 150 bpm heart rate

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As mentioned earlier, if we’re dealing with a beginner athlete, they will respond to a very general approach to strength training across the board.  They’re going to see improvements in hypertrophy, motor unit recruitment, power, etc., almost regardless of what the strength program looks like.  So we’ll keep it very simple- do a full body strength routine hitting all major muscle groups, 3 times per week.  Follow the strength routine up with 30-45 minutes of high zone 1 cardio, meaning their average heart rate should be right around 125-130 bpm.  On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday we’re stretching out those aerobic efforts a bit more.  Lower intensity but more minutes, driving as many physiologic adaptations as we can to build aerobic base.  Sunday can be any mixture of mobility work or lower intensity cardio which serves more as a recovery tool than anything driving serious adaptation. 

This basic template will work extremely well for beginner athletes.  If an athlete has less than one year of training experience, I am hugely in favor of keeping things as simple as possible.  Periodization doesn’t matter.  Get them strong with good technique, get them mobile, and get them aerobically fit.  The benefits to the strength coach here are that you don’t need to waste precious weight room time dedicated to cardiovascular training.  You get to spend the entire hour, or however long you have with the athlete, dedicated to coaching them up on strength training.  Then each athlete is required to track their cardio on their own and submit it to the coach each night or each week, however you like to keep your athletes accountable.  We use a chest strap heart rate monitor and either Garmin or Apple tracking software.  It’s quite simple, easy to send data, and gives you all the information you need.  If you have a good relationship with the athletic coach of the athletes you’re working with, this helps them out as well.  They get to spend more time on skill-specific drills and don’t need to worry about adding extra conditioning at the end of practice. 

When we’re dealing with an athlete of a greater training age, we should start to consider the mesocycles surrounding their seasons and how to have them best prepared for competition.  The athlete mentioned above plays football, and so we’ll use September 1st as a rough start to their competition season:

Looking at this yearly plan, you’ll notice a few things:

  • We cycle our strength programming twice per calendar year. Technically this will happen a third time during the competition season for us, but for purposes of illustration this makes sense.  Feel free to periodize your strength program however you choose, but this is a method that has worked well for us for years.
  • During both cycles, we pair the maximum amount of aerobic volume (January/February and May/June) with the periods where we’re aiming for maximum strength production in the weight room. This goes back to the interference effect, or lack thereof when it comes to maximizing strength.
  • We decrease the volume of aerobic work in April as well as September-December as we look to avoid all possible interference with power and speed development.
  • As we move from GPP1 to SPP1 and again from GPP2 to SPP2, we dramatically cut down on total aerobic volume as weight room volume increases. This is a byproduct of what is called “residual effect.”  In Triphasic Training, Cal Dietz writes a lot about the residual effect length of specific adaptations.  If you haven’t read Triphasic Training, I highly recommend it.  Dietz writes that the physiologic adaptions from maximum strength training as well as aerobic conditioning have been shown to last for up to 5 weeks following the adaptation period.  It takes these parameters between 4-6 weeks to be built, but once they’re built the athlete doesn’t have to worry about losing them for up to 5 weeks.  We’ll take advantage of this residual effect by putting more time into other parameters we’re looking to build.
  • During the Realization periods, we’re looking to maximum specific speed and power and so we again decrease aerobic volume so that we’re not creating an interference effect. We’ll test speed and power in week 1 of the Realization period and we continue to monitor effort and output throughout this phase.  If we see a drop off in output or effort, we decrease aerobic training a little more.  When it comes time for in-season training, we want everything we do to be speed and power based, as specific to their sport and position as possible.  High intensity and low volume power training.  We use our aerobic program to serve as a recovery tool, so intervals are eliminated completely.  They are getting plenty of anaerobic energy system development during practice and games at this point, we want to get them to recover better and be able to put out consistent effort.

I hope you’ve found this guide to cardiovascular development to be helpful.  By combining aerobic training with strength training in a cohesive, logical manner, you’ll be able to build a stronger, more resilient athlete with long term development in mind.

References

  • Muscle structural assembly and functional consequences. Narici M1, Franchi M2, Maganaris C3.
  • Skeletal muscle design to meet functional demands. Richard L. Lieber1,* and Samuel R. Ward1.
  • Region specific patellar tendon hypertrophy in humans following resistance training. Kongsgaard M1, Reitelseder S, Pedersen TG, Holm L, Aagaard P, Kjaer M, Magnusson SP.
  • Neuromuscular adaptations to different modes of combined strength and endurance training.

Eklund D1, Pulverenti T1, Bankers S1, Avela J1, Newton R2, Schumann M1, Häkkinen K1.

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