• Alison Annison

I Want to Get Fitter and Stronger

Like everything in life that matters, it’s a bit more complicated than that.


If you want to buy a new car, you will probably have a few desirable features listed that will help you to decide which make and model to get. Perhaps you want to tour Europe, so you need something spacious, economical, and comfortable. Maybe you want to drive on a track, and only ever on a track. You might want to tow your horse trailer through muddy fields at events. The same vehicle will not do all these things well. A Toyota Prius will just keep going without drinking much juice, but a Porsche 944 is more exciting to drive on a track, and Land Rover’s Discovery ticks boxes for both comfort and towing capacity, but is neither cheap, nor cheap to run, so would be a good choice for the horsey events but probs not your Europe trip or your track day. Think of the Prius as a long-distance runner, the 944 as a shinty player, and the Discovery as a strong(wo)man. In case you missed it, my point is that you need to define both “fit” and “strong”.



You wouldn't take a bicycle banger racing


Coaches think in terms of qualities and adaptations. Broadly speaking, if you train a movement or quality (think speed, movement efficiency, endurance, coordination…) it will improve, but it will improve specifically to the way in which you train it. Full range squats will make you strongest at the bottom of a squat, and quarter squats will make you strongest in the quarter squat position. Sprint training will make you faster over short distances, and long slow rides will improve your endurance for, well, enduro.


And so already there is a problem with asking a coach to get you “fitter” and “stronger”. What do you need to be fit for? Team sports? Hill walking? Weightlifting? What kind of strength do you mean? Maximal strength (lifting really heavy things), explosive strength or power (lifting heavy things fast), and strength endurance (lifting lighter things lots of times) are just a few examples of different types of strong. Fancy getting good at all of them? Tough. Why? So far in the exploration into the boundaries of human performance, there have been no 120kg rugby props taking ultramarathon records, they simply don’t train a lot for steady state endurance because it’s not a big part of rugby. Lifting weights to increase muscle mass, doing agility drills, repeated sprints, and running into solid objects is not the standard training fare if you want to do a long, repetitive, steady speed running sport. Makes for some interesting off-season non-specific training though.



Bet my Granny could beat him at a 10km


Below is a visual aid to understanding why you can’t be a good weightlifter and do well at multi-day cycle events. It illustrates the different energy systems your body preferentially uses, depending on the demand of the activity you’re engaged in. Remembering the idea of specificity, if you train at a certain intensity, you’ll get good at performing at that intensity. Sounds simple enough, if you want to get better at something, practice it. So, if you want to get good at weightlifting and long-distance cycle races then practice both right? Unfortunately not, you can improve at both, but you are unlikely to excel at both, at least not at the same time. If you trained for both, the adaptations you need would be in conflict. For the absolute strength to lift heavy loads over your head, you need some big muscles, and bulky muscles a good endurance athlete do not make. They’re heavy and metabolically expensive, you’d likely start to use them for fuel fairly early on in a long-distance event. The extra mitochondria (the part of a cell that manufactures energy for the rest of the cell to do it’s thing), which you get from all the aerobic training needed to be successful at endurance sports, are spot on for making lots of energy via oxidative pathways, the preferred method of energy production for endurance athletes. But aerobic glycolysis takes time, and if you need to boost 200kg from the floor to above your head in a few short seconds you don’t have that luxury.



Simplified but effective


Without getting into why there are different names for the same thing, the graph above illustrates the contribution of the energy systems at different durations. If your sport or activity requires a lot of strength in a few seconds, you need your fast energy production; PCr and fast glycolysis, to be on point. If you need to keep working over a few minutes and then you can get a wee rest before starting again, it’s an idea to be focussing your training on your fast to moderately fast energy. And so on. Now, there are ways of improving aerobic energy production by doing high intensity work and doing slow steady work is beneficial for recovery and therefore fast energy needs (neither simple nor straightforward, I know). My friend and colleague Callum Stewart has written a much more in depth article on energy systems here, I recommend giving it a read for a better understanding.



Not strictly true but hills aren't to everyones taste anyway


Back to getting fitter and stronger. It is entirely possible to do two or more sports with opposing energy, strength, and movement demands without being terrible at them. Some sports do it deliberately, like decathlon. You need to find the compromise between the 100m and the 1500m as well as everything in between. Good fun challenge though eh? It does make it much easier for your coach if you can tell them what kind of fit and strong you want to be, and the easier it is for your coach to understand what it is you want, the better your training programme will be. If you’re not really sure, you still just want fitter and stronger, have a think about what you do with yourself and what you find hard. Most folk aren’t professional athletes, so assuming you’re not, try these:


· What does your job involve?

· What do you do with your downtime?

· What would you like to do with your downtime?

· Have you entered any fun runs or drag races?

· How much time do you have (or want) to spend on training?


A decent coach will take all these things, and more, into account and start you off at a level of challenge suited to where you’re at right now, then progress you towards your target. When you get to your target, it doesn’t just end there, you won’t just keep running faster or lifting heavier than last week, you change it up a bit to stop getting stale and keep it interesting, and alter your training load according to what’s going on in your life.


It’s poetry in motion.

Thanks for reading this far and as always, if you have any questions please get in touch.


Alison

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