Two-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser pointed to the Assault air bike across the room. It was after a particularly tough workout and Fraser was laying on the couch nearby. He gestured to famed endurance coach Chris Hinshaw at the oft-torturous piece of aerobic equipment.
“How,” he asked Hinshaw, “can you make me win on that?”
Hinshaw was taken aback. Most athletes, at any level, didn’t really care about the how. They sought out Hinshaw to become more fit. To work weaknesses or gain an engine. Fraser —who frequently uses the #HWPO (hard work pays off) mantra — wanted to know how. How could he use the bike to win?
But Fraser, who dominated last month’s Central Regional, is already a heavy favorite to defend the “Fittest on Earth” title this summer. It can be tough to draw parallels between a gifted athlete with youth, time and talent and the rest of us mere mortals that inhabit most CrossFit gyms.
Why should we— average gym-goers, coaches, affiliate owners and local competitors— concern ourselves with lactate threshold and time under tension, concepts Hinshaw uses in helping athletes like Fraser?
Because it works.
“We are trying to drive adaptation faster,” Hinshaw explains about bringing his meticulously crafted methodology to the masses. “People’s time is precious and if we aren’t more precise and knowledgable, they are going to go somewhere else. This is about driving results quicker.”
That’s something we can all benefit from.
REST YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS
“Just because you are good at running a six-minute mile, doesn’t mean you are good at running a 10-minute mile.”
When Hinshaw first met former Games athlete Jason Khalipa his running was a major weakness. To that end, his track sessions consisted of 400 meters all out until he couldn’t do 400m repeats anymore. Than he’d do 200m and call it a day.
The problem wasn’t intensity; Khalipa was trying as hard as he could. But what was he accomplishing with each lap slower than the last?
“He taught himself to run real fast and then go slower,” Hinshaw said. “He was confusing speed for endurance. Endurance is the ability to sustain that speed for a longer duration.”
But how to get him there? Rest. At the time, Khalipa’s best 400 was 68 seconds. To teach him how to sustain that, Hinshaw took it in small blocks, breaking down how fast Khalipa had to go at 100 m to keep up that 68 seconds pace. Then he’d rest and repeat, eventually working up to 150 m, 200m and so on.
“You’re focused on the targeted adaption: speed for more and more volume,” Hinshaw said. “As soon as I lose the stimulus [and Khalipa can’t keep those times] even with more rest, I’d call the workout. You get comfortable with speed by building rest.”
The same principle holds true for any rowing, biking or CrossFit workout meant to be performed for speed: find a variable that helps you work that intended adaptation. Unfortunately, most of us approach a workout one of two ways: pacing too slow from the beginning or doing what Khalipa did, going all-out until we can’t move.
Try this: Establish a pace you want to hold for a mile. Break it up into 200 m and do 8 x 200 at that pace. Rest as much as you need between to hit that same number. Gradually over time, keep lowering the rest so your body can adjust to the speed and the volume.
ARE YOU MISSING THE POINT?
There are three main qualities to any workout: volume (time or certain amount of work to complete), intensity (speed, strength, power) and recovery. You need to be manipulating all three in your training to maximize adaptation. Unfortunately, rest is something most of us give little regard to, leaving a big chunk of gains on the table. Rest is something we can use to build up capacity but we have to be precise.
Hinshaw furiously scribbles as he underlines this principle on the whiteboard, “Rest is as important [a variable] as speed or the weight you lift and volume that you do.”
This is what makes Fraser so great. He wants to know the HOW behind every workout.
For example, take a workout of 10 rounds of 60 seconds of running with 10 seconds rest in between. 10 rounds = volume, 60 second intervals = intensity, 10 seconds rest = recovery.
If you wanted to build your capacity, you could manipulate the volume by making it 12 rounds next time.
If you wanted to build your speed, you could increase the distance from 200m to 210 m or you could decrease the interval (running) time from 60 to 58 (or less) seconds.
If you wanted to build your ability to recovery faster, you could manipulate the quality of recovery such as making it nine seconds of rest. Or walking for the entire 10 seconds.
BUILDING TIME UNDER TENSION
World record holder and Multiple-time Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt would run 100 meters fast and then do a slow jog around the rest of the track. The rest of the lap was just as important to Bolt’s training as the sprint. Why? He was clearing fatigue and creating time under tension.
Those are concepts all elite athletes use and one that’s incredibly common at all levels in running, biking and swimming. Hinshaw thinks the same principles can make you better, not just at running, but at things like handstand push-ups, air squats and toes to bar.
We know the ability to do more work in CrossFit, whether it’s weightlifting, gymnastics or conditioning, is a capacity that needs to be built up over time. But, what’s the best way to do that?
First you have to have a basic understanding of the three different energy pathways that allow your body to move. The two we spend most of our time in are anaerobic and aerobic. Think of anaerobic as high-intensity training, like the CrossFit workout “Fran” or weightlifting, and aerobic as steady-state cardio like taking your dog for an easy jog. (A lot of workouts involve both pathways, but we are keeping this very basic.)
When you’re working out anaerobically or at the end of your aerobic training threshold, eventually the fatigue coming in is going to exceed the amount that your body can clear out. Basically, when that happens you’ve gone above your lactate threshold and you’re going to start slowing down and/or hit a wall very soon.
Enter the concept of lactate clearing workouts, where we are building up capacity and focusing on clearing fatigue in a movement that’s similar. Have you ever seen someone do five minutes straight of handstand pushups or toes to bar? Hinshaw has. He’s used lactate-clearing workouts to bring many Games-level athletes to their knees.
We are trying to drive adaptation faster. People’s time is precious and if we aren’t more precise and knowledgable, they are going to go somewhere else. This is about driving results quicker.
Last summer, Hinshaw was with Games athlete Spencer Hendel, who was completing 100 handstand push-ups for time. Hendel was always doing three and resting for 10 seconds.
“If I do four my arms blow up,” he told Hinshaw, “And if I rest for nine seconds it’s not enough and I get a slower time.”
But if Hendel was always doing three and resting 10 seconds, how would his body ever adapt to do anything else?
“I asked him, ‘Is your issue your strength?’ He’s said ‘No, I can do 100 of them. I just get tired,'” Hinshaw said of Hendel. “So if I’m able to move your fatigue out faster you can do a whole heck of a lot more? Shouldn’t we be designing programming where you develop the ability to clear fatigue faster in a handstand push-up?”
To do that, Hinshaw didn’t manipulate intensity or volume. He increased time under tension, having Hendel do PVC strict presses in between sets on the wall. The 10 seconds of rest was still the same but Hendel was now using it to actively clear fatigue in those muscle groups. Hinshaw didn’t care how many presses Hendel got. The slower, the better really. The emphasis was now on using the recovery period to improve overall capacity.
“The trick is I’m calling this recovery when I’m actually increasing your time under tension,” Hinshaw said. “[Hendel is] essentially doing five minutes of pressing now.”
Skeptical? Give this workout a go. Five rounds of 12 seconds all-out sprint paired with 48 seconds active recovery in a similar movement. Option 1 = Handstand pushups + PVC shoulder presses; option 2 = push-ups + PVC floor presses. At his Aerobic Capacity seminar, Hinshaw had people do toes to bar paired with V-ups and air squats into lunges.
No matter which station you chose, everyone was equally smoked. From 12 seconds of sprint work? No, from five minutes of continuous time under tension.
Lactate clearing workouts are one of three types of lactate workouts, with lactate threshold (packing) and lactate stacking (intentionally not allowing enough recovery time to keep muscles turned on). Time under tension is a terrific –and often neglected–way to increase work capacity and build muscle, but –again– it can’t be the only way. Smart athletes are using all three types of lactate workouts to force faster adaption and increase their lactate threshold.
Variance is key in developing a well-rounded athlete, particularly in a sport like CrossFit. The strongest, fastest athlete doesn’t win the Games just like the most gymnastically adept athlete doesn’t win at your local two-day competition. The athlete with the biggest work capacity –the ability to flush fatigue out at superior rates– will always prevail in a sport built on mixing training modalities.
How are you improving your capacity?
This is Part 2 of a series about Aerobic Capacity’s concepts. You can read Part 1, “3 Ways to Own Any Workout” here. For more information on these concepts or to check out Hinshaw’s endurance program and seminars, visit Aerobic Capacity’s website.