Often times, we romanticize tough workouts. We think that lifting super heavy, sprinting uphill or doing thrusters until we puke on our shoes is the best way to increase performance. Truth be told, that isn’t always necessary or best. In our never-ending quest for performance, intensity is simply a tool. But it’s not one that everybody has earned. Intensity and volume applied to a person without a decent aerobic base is, at best, a short-sighted approach to fitness and, at worst, a recipe for injury.
Aerobic capacity is your body’s ability to process and utilize oxygen while you work out. It’s measured as your VO2 max. When you see athletes wearing a mask with a tube hooked up to a machine that looks like a ventilator while running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, they are testing their aerobic capacity. It’s what CrossFitters refer to as your “engine.” As it improves, so does your body’s ability to move more intensely and longer without stopping, unequivocally linking it to physical performance of all facets.
It does not matter what you pursue as a sport, hobby, or athletic endeavor. If it requires movement, then you will get exponentially better at it as you increase your aerobic base. If you are an endurance athlete, the need for a bigger engine is self-explanatory. If you are a CrossFit athlete, it is probably less obvious, because so much emphasis is put on intensity. But when you consider the way that our bodies process and utilize oxygen for almost everything that we do, that is quite literally the equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. What many fail to realize is that once that intensity runs out (your body uses up its minimal stores of ATP and can no longer keep pushing anaerobically), your ability to keep working out will be solely dependent on your underlying base of aerobic fitness (as your body will need to switch back to relying on oxygen). If you are a strength athlete, your aerobic conditioning translates to being able to put out more effort deeper into your working sets.
Now the million dollar question: how do we specifically go about increasing our work capacity? Long, gross workouts seem to be the obvious answer and certainly are an option if placed correctly in some workout programs. I’ve had coaches program workouts with 60 minutes of max meters on the rower. Woof.
But the aim of this article is to dissect different methodologies that we can use to develop our aerobic capacity without dedicating our entire life to it. Surely, in the world of health hacks and fitness as a lifestyle, there are ways to get more bang for our buck! The three ways discussed below are the most efficient ways (that I have personally seen) to layer in aerobic development - without using so many of our natural resources that we can’t function throughout the rest of the day or give effort to our other hobbies. If you work these three methods correctly and consistently, you will leave the gym with more energy than when you walked in.
Shut your mouth. Closing your mouth during bouts of cardio will force your body to efficiently use less oxygen to accomplish the same amount of work. It is free to begin doing but definitely not easy to do! Nasal breathing has undoubtedly been the most life changing implement I have added to my routine in the last year. After having Brian Mackenzie, the founder of the Art of Breath, on my podcast, LionHeart Radio, he sold me on the adaptation that takes place from “nasal breathing only” cardio. While the physiological effects of limiting oxygen consumption during workouts is still a work in progress, early studies are promising. They’ve found that the reduction in oxygen consumption is forcing the body to distribute the oxygen it does recruit more efficiently to fatigued tissues. In theory, this would improve athletic performance and recovery with practice of the technique.
My go-to exercise is a 30 minute walk at 3 mph with a 15% grade and a 45 pound weighted vest. Buyer be warned, this is an easy exercise to start and a very difficult one to finish. Work on starting without the weighted vest and a shorter time frame, such as 15 minutes, so that you can gage the difficulty. In my humble opinion, the barrier to entry is just too low not to try it.
Simply close your mouth at the beginning of your workout and don’t open it again until it’s over. You will instantly notice a sharp decrease in performance, but over the course of a few months, you will get back to where you’re at currently. Over that same period, you will notice a drastic improvement in your work capacity while you are breathing normally. It would appear that results can be seen from implementing this only two or three times per week. (Just ask the multitude of CrossFit Games athletes that are currently using it. This list includes but is not limited to: Annie Thorisdottir and James Newbury)
Fasted cardio. Part of what makes up your engine isn’t just your body’s ability to use the oxygen that it has, but also to efficiently use all the resources that it has. This includes training it to work off of a reliable energy source. This is known as your metabolic efficiency or metabolic flexibility; when your body maintains the ability to switch back and forth between using fat or glycogen for fuel. The best part is, you don’t have to be a ketogenic athlete to take advantage of this. Using fasted cardio is a great way to teach your body to use what it has.
The easiest way to implement this is to do your cardio in the morning after you naturally fast all night. I recommend being fasted for a minimum of 12 hours prior. So if your workout is at 8am, don’t eat anything after 8pm the night prior. Adding this just a few times per week is easy. For added benefit it is also easy to combine it with a nasal breathing protocol. Your workouts don’t have to be intense, and in fact, probably shouldn’t be while you are adjusting. Try to stay within the range of level 2 cardio. The easiest way to gage this is by going at a pace that would allow you to carry on a conversation during your workout. It can be as simple as a 45 minute brisk walk. The hardest part is not drinking coffee until your workout is over. ***Note, some choose to drink black coffee prior to their workout but there is significant evidence that coffee stimulates a response from the liver and may hinder results.
Threshold training. More specifically, increasing your lactate threshold. At one time considered to be the king marker of adaptability in endurance training, your lactate threshold is your ability to recover from intense activity in order to repeat it. The higher yours is, or more appropriately, the better your body is able to buffer lactic acid, the longer you will be able to sustain bouts of effort.
I can hear CrossFitters and sprinters everywhere rejoicing over this one as it does require a certain level of intensity to work. It is worth noting, however, that there is an art to appropriately building your lactate threshold. Simply working out as hard as you can until you puke , five days per week, isn’t it. It needs to be layered into your training correctly, as you slowly increase the effort and decrease the rest time between activity. The simplest approach is to add high intensity intervals into your program once or twice per week. Keep track of your intensity level and your rest periods, increasing one and decreasing the other over time. Make consistent note of how long it takes you to recover fully after a prolonged all out effort and use that as a way of gaging progress.
The key to appropriately apply threshold training comes in your movement choice. For example, if you do intervals of snatch or the clean and jerk, and your technique isn’t good enough to perform the movement under duress, you run the risk of unnecessary injury. For this reason, I like to add lactate threshold work in with relatively low-risk movements, such as the body weight squat, burpee, or on a cardio implement such as the Airdyne bike. The advantage of HIIT training is that it can be done relatively quickly and won’t require you to spend hours on the rower. The inherent risk is that it is often prioritized over other methods of training when, in reality, it should be looked at as one of many tools.
Due to the enormous boom in the fitness industry as of late, we are learning more and more about the different ways that we can manipulate our biology and produce the outcomes that we are after. With that comes great responsibility. It is important to remember that not one thing can or will change your life or your fitness. Instead, we need do our best to use the knowledge and tools that we have at our disposal and to work in concert to produce the best possible outcome. Every tool has its place, but if we overuse any one thing too much, we will not only plateau in terms of results, but we will also run the risk of injury. And so I’ll leave you with this: don’t be afraid to experiment. You never know how the simplest thing like shutting your mouth might begin to produce positive change in your life. Although this article is largely about endurance training, the parallels could certainly be drawn to everyday life. Keep an open mind because it could be the thing that you’re not doing, or that you dismiss as stupid, that is holding you back.