Understand the Process to Commit 100% to the Process
Why We Focus on Capacity Training…
…to Eventually Go Really Fast
Part One - Introduction
This is an article series designed to help further educate my Performance Coaching clients. I am releasing it in this article series to help educate more people to create a life of health and adventure. If you are interested in getting fitter -- irrespective of whether you are a novice or regular athlete -- then please read through this series and learn more about the endurance training process. I welcome you onboard as your performance coach to help guide you to the summit of your athletic potential!
For many decades, a battle has raged in endurance sports about how much Capacity versus Utilization training is optimal for endurance performance. The debate surrounds how much of each form of training is appropriate when considering the high-level performance – and longevity – of an athlete.
Capacity Training (also known as Aerobic Base Training) is training aimed at improving the long-term performance of an athlete through a high volume of low-intensity training.
Utilization Training (also known as High Intensity Training: HIT or HIIT) – includes faster pace tempo and interval workouts that rapidly improve the short-term performance of an athlete.
Some training methods might employ an entirely utilization training approach, some might balance it 50-50 between the two, while others may skew the balance 75-25, 80-20 or even 90-10 for overall yearly training volume.
Countless variations of the two training methods have been tested by countless athletes and coaches across multiple endurance sports for almost a hundred years. New stuff is tried all the time, bad ideas are reworked, and the good ideas rise to the top through results where it matters: in world-class competitions.
There was no shortage of motivation either as the importance of the Olympic games brought with it high stakes financial and political outcomes, especially between rival superpower states such as Germany, United States and Russia etc…. Huge amounts of money flowed into sports science to test an array of specific training approaches as countries tried to outmatch their rivals.
The outcome was clear: athletes who train with a large volume of low-intensity capacity training – with smaller doses of event-specific high-intensity utilization training performed close to races – have superior race outcomes than athletes who don’t train with this approach (approximately 80-90% capacity training with 10-20% of utilization training in the overall yearly volume). It doesn’t matter if the endurance sport is rowing, cross-country skiing, cycling, track, or trail-running etc… the same training balance invariably wins out when it comes to optimally maximising human endurance performance.
If an athlete’s goal is only very short-term performance for a few years before fading away, then a higher volume of utilization training can be successful, albeit temporarily. However, this is often only successful at the highest level if the athlete has a previous foundation of capacity training to work from and is not a complete fitness novice. High utilization focused athletes frequently suffer from Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and drop away from the top pretty quickly, rarely making it back, such is the debilitating effect it has on one’s physiology.
Many people wonder why certain elite athletes can keep producing at the highest level without burning out despite heavy race schedules and massive levels of weekly training loads. Kilian Jornet will be mentioned often throughout this document, and he is probably the finest example of a high capacity training athlete, renowned for his longevity and his astoundingly high volume of daily training. This is no doubt the fundamental reason why he is arguably the world’s greatest endurance trail runner. He typically trains for long hours in the morning at very low intensity (for him), and again in the afternoon for around an hour. On other days, he only trains once but is effectively out training all day long. Why doesn’t he burn out? People often put this down to a freak combination of genetics, however, Jornet was fortunate that he started capacity training at a very young age (around 3-years-old) and then progressed a little more every year of his life since then.
Jornet’s parents were mountain guides and took him hiking regularly at high altitudes from a very young age. He was said to have boundless energy. Starting his aerobic base training at such a young age no doubt had a profound affect on his developmental physiology. Once into his teenage years, his strongly developed fitness base saw him identified as a strong endurance prospect, and was given further coaching by experts in Catalonian academies designed to develop ski-mountaineering and trail running athletes (these schools are unique to certain countries in Europe and they are fantastic nurseries for trail running and skimo talent).
From those coaches, Jornet learnt the right way to train. He also had an obsessive infatuation with training science from a young-age which meant he “got it” long before most people do or ever will. While other kids at 13-14 years old were only sometimes listening to their coach’s advice and pushing their body hard because it was “more fun” that way, Kilian understood the big picture and was already looking a decade ahead. At that young age, he was listing out all the races he wanted to win (posting it as a vision board in his room) and was listening intently to what the coaches were teaching him. By 17 he enrolled in university at Font-Romeu in France, taking sports science, along with studying anatomy and physiology. He learned the theory behind what the coaches were telling him, and then he carried on coaching himself to this day using what he learnt, motivated by a single-mindedly ravenous appetite for success.
Kilian’s training is largely unstructured in appearance because he doesn’t do a lot of conventionally structured workouts due to his love of adventure, but what he does overall in a weekly, monthly and yearly load is very structured in application and methodology. He also knows when to push and when not to in his daily training outings, and what impact this has on his performance in races.
Jornet was meticulous in creating training logs and logging all his training and carefully reviewing the metrics and stats each year. In his training log, he was able to sum up the number of hours per year he spends training, which he then consistently incremented (see Figure-1). Knowing this data, he could ensure the next year was always doing a little more than the last. Now 32, Jornet essentially progressed through a consistently incrementing 29-year capacity base-building progression that makes my brain hurt just reviewing it.
Even back in 2002, 600 hours equates to an average of almost 2 hours training every day of the year, which by 2016, increased to an average of 3.5 hours per day. In this process, there are several years where he effectively plateaued his training time volume, but there are no years where he went backwards (until a recent high-profile skimo crash where he broke his leg).
Jornet deserves more credit than he gets due to his exceptional understanding of sports science and his strong discipline toward not overusing utilization training. While he does have a physiology that is potentially genetically geared toward success, its hard to say how much of these genetics are epigenetic changes, simply as a product of his upbringing and consistency in athletic progression. Jornet is not unbeatable as other athlete’s have shown, so undoubtedly someone else put through the same process – with the same mentality and dedication to the pursuit over 28 years as Jornet did – may yield similar outcomes in physiological adaptation and performance.
Many people wrongly assume Jornet is doing a lot utilization training given his high training volume and speeds, however due to his massive aerobic base, those training demands are still in the realm of capacity training to his physiology. He would not be able to sustain 3.5 hours of training per day for very long if it was regularly high intensity training. Would he be the same athlete if he lowered his training time per day but increased his intensity? Probably not, because it’s the long days on his feet that condition his body for success.
In previous years, Jornet rarely needed to push to the level of utilization training intensity other than for a few short weeks at the start of the trail running season after coming off skis (which he uses throughout winter for his training). His heavy race calendar meant he could simply use races (almost each weekend) as his only form of utilization training. 80-90% of his yearly volume still ended up being capacity training, which is the recommended amount and a number utilized by most world class athletes.
Jornet’s hours per year are not dissimilar from other elite athletes. Elite professional cyclists train upwards of 25+ hours a week, with a steady diet of long 3-6-hour bikes ride as a daily basis as part of their training. They actually have to do a little more hourly volume than Jornet, because sitting on a bicycle is so efficient physiologically compared with the impact loads of running.
Novice athletes often try to replicate the volume of elite athletes and burn out, failing to realise it took a long time for professional athletes to gradually rise to this level. Scott Johnston, along with colleague Steve House, partnered with Jornet to advise on the best training methodology for mountains endurance sports in the book, Training for the Uphill Athlete. In it they write:
Kilian’s legendary ability to handle a huge volume of work (and much of it very hard) is a result of his decades of capacity-building training. It can be very tempting to try to simulate the training of elite athletes. Doing so without their years of capacity-building work will mean that you are actually doing Utilization Training.1
The final sentence is a crucial point to understand. What is capacity training for one athlete, will be utilization training for another – and there is no shortcut around it. The more elite an athlete becomes, the wider this cavern appears to the ordinary fitness mortal. For example, the utilization training of a novice athlete wouldn’t even come close to the maintenance load capacity training of a world-class athlete. World class athletes cannot employ a lot of utilization training because as you become more elite, the demands of utilization training on the body grow significantly. Therefore, the fitter you become, the more polarized your training must become. The hard days will be really hard, but the easy days have to be easy (to the athlete – but maybe not to most observers).
Another example is Eluid Kipchoge, currently the world’s most impressive marathon runner. In preparation for this sub-2-hour marathon event, he logged an incredible training volume. His “easy” recovery runs of 10km in the afternoon, following more intense morning training, were performed in 40 minutes at 4:00min/km pace.2 For many people, that pace is fast enough to be utilization training, or at least a daily diet of it would be. To Kipchoge’s aerobic physiology, it barely makes him break a sweat, and allows him to recover from his more intense training sessions.
Remember that intensity doesn’t just equate to speed and heart-rate but also volume. A novice athlete cannot just expect to step in and do 1000 hours of training from a foundation of nothing and expect to get through it without fatigue or injury. They must start where everyone else has to start, which is said to be around the 300 hours a year mark (at most!) for novice athletes.
Therefore, we cannot use other people to model our training on specifically, but we can certainly follow the same training methodology they used to get there. Everyone should be training like Jornet, just in methodology, structure and progression, not in volume and speed. If you can actively work to apply those exact same principles and mentality he used, and match the appropriate level of capacity training to the fitness level of where your body presently sits, then this is historically shown to be the most optimal pathway to developing your full athletic potential. It requires patience, a long-term outlook toward training and to be constantly working off a training plan that measures progress. The problem is most people are short-term focused in their training goals and plan their training to maximise their short-term fitness.
The stark observation from all this is, you might not actually be 5-7 years away from your athletic potential, but more like 15 years. Anything beyond a 10% increment on training time volume per year is not recommended. So, assuming 300 hours a year is the starting volume, a 10% increase per year would take approximately 7 years for a novice to build up to 600 hours of volume, and a staggering 15 years to get to Jornet’s present 1300 hours a year, assuming no injuries or other setbacks halt the yearly progress (this timing is probably the best case scenario!). Ultimately, the best outcome is always starting young, but you can still achieve great things if you start at any age in life by looking only 5 years ahead and getting started. No matter what age you start, each year should build upon the last and it doesn’t take long to get really fit.
I started running at 28 and by 35, I was only 5 minutes slower than Jornet in a 40-minute Vertical KM race in Chamonix France at a reasonably high altitude I was unaccustomed to (I am from Australia land of no high-altitude mountains). Furthermore, I was about 40-minutes behind him in one of the toughest marathons in the world, the Mont Blanc Marathon, which I was quite happy about given it was the furthest I had ever run (even including training). My progression from novice – to the bottom end of the “elite” category – matches the 7-year theory pretty soundly. However, my gap to Jornet consistently widened the longer the race duration, due to my far inferior aerobic base and musculoskeletal conditioning compared to his. I was able to close the margin to within 10-15% in shorter races with a heavy utilization focus for maximising performance in Vertical KM races, but I did pay a price from that for a number of years suffering Overtraining Syndrome (to be discussed later in this article series).
Next Article -> Part Two - The Utilization Problem