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Relative Intensity

Relative intensity is the intensity of a given training activity in relation to a desired performance outcome. Training and performance are two entirely different things. A marathon runner for instance will utilise training methods that are an inefficient use of energy, however they will perform in a race with the most efficient strategy. A marathon is best performed at a steady pace throughout the race as opposed to speeding up and slowing down too radically. However in training they will make use of intense interval training in order to challenge the body’s energy systems to adapt.

Here we will look at how maximal and high intensity activities can translate into an increase in performance at any other part of the spectrum from maximal activities to long duration endurance sports.

The aim of this is to demonstrate a more efficient way to increase performance, instead of the traditional approach of ‘more is better’.

Increasing Maximal Capacity Results in Increased Performance Across the Board

When an athlete wants to improve performance of any kind they need to ensure the foundations are sound and that they are up to standard. By foundations I mean their engine. The engine is essentially the athlete’s strength and power. All other things being equal it is the stronger athlete that will win. This has been shown across the board in a range of sports and applies from a range that spans from max effort such as a vertical jump all the way to an ultra-endurance race.

The first layer of training should always focus on this basis of maximal capacity. A heavy back squat will improve, to a certain degree, any other marker of performance from a 100m sprint to a marathon, a cycle sprint on the track to a 100 mile race. When you can squat a heavier weight for a single rep of max effort it translates into the ability or potential to be able to squat more weight for 10 reps, 20 reps or 40 reps, which then translates into a greater ability to develop the strength or endurance for the specific requirements of the given sport. The reason being that these sets of lower intensity are now a smaller percentage of the athlete’s maximum strength. However simply increasing the strength of the athlete is not all that is needed in order to improve performance. It must be combined with relevant and specific training to the task at hand.

The next layer is speed, power and anaerobic capacity. The more an athlete can output at this top-end, the greater their ability to adapt to the demands at the lower end over longer durations. Lets take a marathon runner as an extreme example. The marathon runner might have a maximal 400m time of 49 seconds. This is the pace they can run for 400m, however cannot sustain over the duration of a marathon distance. Over a marathon distance they might be able to sustain a pace of 55 seconds per 400m. This will yield a percentage of their maximal pace. Improve the 400m pace for a maximal effort to 47 seconds while maintaining the athlete’s ability to run a marathon at the same percentage pace and they have shaved each 400m down to maybe 53 or even 52 seconds for the entire distance, which makes a huge difference at the end of the race.

Taking this example back even further, a better 100m pace will indirectly translate into a better 400m pace. Greater strength and maximal power output translates into a greater 100m pace. So there is a knock-on effect that can produce a progressively greater athlete if it is approached intelligently.

Developing the Athlete With Relative Intensity

Ok, lets provide an example as to how relative intensity may be used to develop an athlete from foundation to performance and then on an ongoing basis. We will use a long distance road cyclist as the example, however this same approach can be adapted to essentially any kind of athlete.

1. Athlete begins by developing basic skills and developing the necessary engine. This is achieved through the development of strength, power, mobility and anaerobic capacity. This is the opposite of what is taught in developing an endurance athlete, where the aerobic base is built first. However the aerobic base is a by-product of anaerobic training, especially anaerobic capacity work. Training in this phase for the cyclist will involve increasing things like maximal squat weight, 1-3 minute sprint times, vertical jump, power output over 5-10 seconds etc.

2. The next phase will focus on meeting in the middle by applying these increased high-end capacities in the context of longer duration training. So the athlete will then do time trials of longer duration while maintaining a large focus on strength, power and anaerobic capacity. As strength and power increase so too do times of longer distances.

3. The final phase involves a slight decrease in focus on maximal effort and a greater emphasis on the specific task at hand. However there is still some continuous maintenance of strength, power and anaerobic capacity, with the goal always being to increase these components in order to transfer them to endurance. The result is an athlete that has a very high-end capacity for output, which means that over a given race distance they are operating at the same percentage of this maximum, which translates to greater speed over all distances.

This process is repeated indefinitely with phases focusing on increasing maximal capacity in order to continue to push the anaerobic threshold and continuously operate at higher speeds for longer.

This has been a very basic look at relative intensity and how it can be applied in the context of endurance sports. This is a very complex topic that could be discussed at great length. Just keep these basic principles and applications in mind.

All athletes, whether a power athlete or an endurance athlete, will benefit from increasing their maximal capacity. Foundations are the most important aspect of development. Without a solid foundation of strength and power there is no basis from which to launch specific components of fitness. This applies to the 100m sprinter, the javelin thrower, cyclist, rugby player, marathon runner, everyone. Build the base, increase maximal strength, increase power output, and if necessary increase anaerobic capacity.

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