How to maximize your training – and the magic of workouts with programmed rest

Have you ever looked back at a workout and thought you could have gone faster, or the opposite – “wow, I went out way too hot”? This boils down to simply hitting a workout with just the right intensity, but how do you know what the right intensity is for a workout? In this brief we break down the concept, science, and perspectives from NBK and from the CompTrain team.

Additionally, in the video, Coach Jimmy breaks down a third level of detail that isn’t covered in this article. You can connect with us in the comments below, or even better in person at NBK.

You will often see in our WOD Briefs where we break down the intention of a workout – specifically HOW you should feel in the workout. In every day of training, our NBK coaches share WHY we are programming the day’s workout, through both the WOD Brief online and our pre-WOD explanations in class. This information is designed to help elevate your competency in CrossFit, but more importantly, to help you tune your intensity accordingly. When appropriate, we also include pacing guidelines and goals to help you achieve this careful balance. This style of programming and guidance is aligned to how the best in the world train. In fact, Coach Jimmy spent time with Ben Bergeron on program design and maximizing fitness in 2015 at his CompTrain weekend immersion program up in Boston.

Now you know the why, how, and purpose. Let’s get right into addressing the concept of “pacing” a workout against your lactate threshold. We will start with highlights from the CompTrain article from their mindset series.

Great question. Here’s a little bit of science. Don’t freak out.

Everyone has a lactate threshold (LT). It’s different for everybody—it depends on your level of fitness—but generally it is between 75-85% of your maximum power. When exercising at or below this threshold, any lactate produced by the muscles is removed by the body without it building up. When you work out above it, lactate accumulates in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. As the unbuffered acid is added to the blood, you start to feel really bad. At this point, no amount of mental fortitude will save you. It’s biology. You have to slow down.

In other words, your lactate threshold is your maximal sustainable pace. If you go faster, it becomes unsustainable. If you go slower, it’s no longer maximal. It’s the exact point at which you cannot go any faster without slowing down later. At most, you can only spend up to 3 minutes above your lactate threshold. After that, you explode.

However, if you manage your intensity you’ll dance along your lactate threshold and then surge at the end, as is highlighted below.

If you go too hot, you fatigue too fast and then end up training slower and slower through every round to the point where they’re training at 40-50% of their max pace. This strategy looks like this:

The area below each curve represents work. It’s easy to see that Athlete 1 got significantly more work done than Athlete 2. This is the magic—not only did Athlete 1 get a better score than Athlete 2, she got fitter.  

As the article above explained so well, training at that LT level delivers the best results, but duration matters. If you only train at it for a short period of time, than you are not getting the stimulus designed for that training period, and are not getting fitter. So, to maximize your fitness you must go hard enough to hit the workout at max speed relative to the workout itself. Specifically, you want to work at or right below the LT level for you, and then go for gold at the end.

Based on our coaching observations and review of the whiteboards, we know that each of us can improve on hitting the right pace, and thus our programming includes carefully designed and placed tasks you need complete in a particular workout + rest. This methodology includes workout structures such as AMRAPs with blocks of rest. These allow us to hit a workout with an intensity and if we planned correctly, to keep that pace. But, if we messed up, we can then use the rest to reassess and try a different intensity level. This is why you see workouts with varied work periods and rest periods. These allow us to build an awareness to our personal LT levels and the intensity with which we can both kick butt AND sustain throughout a workout. In addition by changing the work vs rest ratio and duration, we change the stimulus and results.

So — to become a mature athlete, we adopt this programmatic training method, just like the best in the world do. If you are a numbers-minded human, you can get a heart rate monitor + Vo2Max measurement to see your precise LT level. If not, use each training session and each planned rest as a chance to learn, adjust, and maximize your potential.

Bottom line – Fitness (intensity) for everyone of us is unique, but by applying these lessons and opportunities in our programming to adapt your fitness WILL improve and you WILL be fitter.

So, let’s go out and hit the next workout smarter, hard, and you will hit new personal records more frequently.

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