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Training for the Uphill Athlete: Capacity vs. Utilization Training

BY Scott Johnston

For endurance converts intrigued by mountain running or ski mountaineering, this new manual offers training insight from the sports' biggest innovators.

The following is an excerpt from Training For the Uphill Athlete, a manual for mountain runners and ski mountaineers, by Kilian Jornet, Steve House And Scott Johnston.

Imperfect as it may be, one of the more helpful models of training out there is the distinction made between Capacity Training and Utilization Training. Understanding whether a workout’s goal is to increase your capacity for that sort of work or to maximally utilize whatever capacity you bring to the workout can help with placing individual workouts into a plan.

Among endurance sports, US Swimming has had the most consistent and unparalleled international success for decades. This success has caused the athletic and coaching world to take notice. Bob Bowman, most famous as Michael Phelps’ coach for all of his phenomenal career, has used the terms Capacity Training and Utilization Training to describe two different types of training swimmers can use. Here is how Bowman defines these terms:

Capacity Training: Training that improves the long term performance potential of the athlete. Capacity Training is commonly prioritized during the Base Period.  This training acts to improve the fundamental qualities need to support the event itself and utilization training. As such is often not sport specific.

Utilization Training: Training that improves the near term performance results of the athlete. Utilization training is commonly prioritized during the build-up to the competition period or the targeted event. This training models the specific demands of the event you are training for.

A debate has raged in sports for decades: Is it more effective to focus the training of an athlete on the more general qualities (increasing Capacity) with a short Utilization phase before competition? Or is it better to train primarily by doing event specific workouts that maximally Utilize whatever Capacity the athlete currently has?

Running in the US dealt with this debate at the turn of the century after the United States’ success of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to an era of disappointing results in the 1990s and early 2000s. The later era coincided with a shift by many coaches and athletes away from a capacity oriented training system to one relying heavily on a utilization approach. Rowing had this debate back in the 1980s after a dramatic change in the coaching philosophy in Germany which abandoned the utilization approach in favor of one based on building capacity. This switch soon led to German domination of the sport. Cross country skiing had a similar internal debate when, in 2004, Norwegian exercise physiologist Dr. Jan Helgarud caused a sensation with his outright denunciation of capacity training as useless.

These two training model have been well-tested by millions of athletes and thousands of coaches in the ultimate laboratory: the competitive arena. While some noteworthy holdouts exist, the approach of relying primarily upon building Capacity before applying limited amounts of Utilization training has largely won out in this contest of ideas. 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, but doing so without their years of capacity building work will mean that you are actually doing utilization training. As you read on you will see why this is not the best path to long term gains.

Different sports use different terms to describe these concepts but Bowman’s is perhaps the simplest to understand. This is how he explains the terms.

Capacity Training

Capacity training increases the ability to do work in each of the various realms required for the sport. In uphill athletics (mountaineering, mountain running, ski mountaineering, and Skimo) here is what we’d call Capacity Training:

  • Aerobic Capacity: This training improves the main locomotive muscles’ ability to produce ATP via aerobic metabolism. This results from increases in mitochondrial mass, capillary density, aerobic enzymes, and cardiac output. This should be the number one priority for all endurance athletes.  An endurance athlete can never have so much aerobic capacity that it is detrimental to performance.
  • Anaerobic Capacity: Increases the ability of the glycolytic metabolism to produce ATP. An endurance athlete can have too much anaerobic capacity and this depends very much upon the event being trained for.
  • Strength Capacity: Increases the maximum muscular force in sport-specific movements along with local muscular endurance in the main locomotive muscle groups.  Greater strength is beneficial up to a point. Excessive strength can cause problems for mountain endurance athletes when they add significant muscle mass. We will discuss this in detail in the Strength Chapter.
  • Technical Capacity: Improves the economy (energy cost) of locomotion, balance, and proper movement patterning.  

Notes on Capacity Training:

  • Capacity training gains, in general, take a long time to accrue. Its effects tend to be longer lasting than those brought about by utilization training.
  • It usually involves training each of the above-mentioned qualities in isolation. As such it will appear as less sport specific and more general in nature; it may not bear a direct relation to the competition or event being trained for.
  • It is meant to improve the performance potential sometime in the future and may even reduce near term performance. It’s analogous to building the Interstate Highway system: Tedious and dull during the construction process and may cause a slow down in traffic but once completed it allows much more traffic to flow (work to be done) more quickly (Utilizing one’s Capacity).

Utilization Training

Used to increase performance outcomes in the short term. For a runner or a competitive ski-mountaineer this type of training would be racing or race specific workouts. These will maximally utilize whatever capacities the athlete has. Extending the Interstate analogy: It dumps a lot of fast-moving traffic on that Interstate system. If the highway system can handle the increased traffic flow, then a lot of work gets done very fast. It the highway system is still under construction with restricted speed limits then no matter how much traffic hits the highway, the amount of work being done will be severely limited by the capacity of the roads to handle the traffic. Utilization training is quicker acting than Capacity Training. For maximal effect it should be sport/event specific. It is usually of an intensity that mimics the event being trained for.

Here’s how Utilization Training looks by physiological system:

  • Aerobic Utilization training is also called endurance training, lactate threshold training or maxVO2 training (zones 3, 4 and 5 in a conventional zone system). It increases the athlete’s maximal sustained output. While it plays a role in all endurance training programs, this high intensity training is especially important for events with durations under two hours where the maximum competition speeds are at and above the Lactate Threshold. For long duration events, over three hours, the Aerobic Capacity and Aerobic Utilization Training are essentially the same because most of the event will be competed at speeds below the Lactate Threshold and nearer to the Aerobic Threshold.
  • Anaerobic Utilization increases the fraction of the Anaerobic Capacity that can be sustained in competition. It typically involves training at speeds 5-10 percent faster than competition speeds or under load significantly greater than those encountered in the event for a total duration significantly less than the competition distance. This type of work has strong training effect on muscular endurance capacity.

Notes on Utilization Training

  • Utilization training will reduce the athlete’s capacity and this effect must be offset with capacity training during all phases of the training cycle.
  • The effects of Utilization training are dynamic and volatile. While rapid gains are seen when implementing utilization training, they are often short-lived. If you’ve had back-to-back awesome and horrible races, or find it difficult to string together a full season of good races, one potential cause is too much utilization training.
  • Utilization training will be necessary to enable an athlete to achieve his or her personal best. However, utilization training cannot be expected to have its optimal effect if the athlete’s Capacity is small. Think of the Interstate highway system.
  • Athletes with a large Capacity can and must do much more Utilization training to maximize results. This explains why elite athletes do more and harder training than do novices, who have less capacity. It also explains one of the most common mistakes made in training, which is for amateurs to copy the elites.

It’s clear that Capacity Training and Utilization Training both have their place, and are interdependent. But it is Capacity Training that takes the majority of an athlete’s time. Only when the Capacity for the sort of work needed by your event is sufficient, will you maximally benefit from adding Utilization Training. The result of Utilization Training, which can be astonishingly quick and seductively satisfying is the reason that any uphill athlete is wise to take the long view. Real endurance is built from year to year, not weekly or monthly.

To learn more about training for mountaineering and mountain running, get your own copy of Training For the Uphill Athlete, or check out UphillAthlete.com.

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About Scott Johnston

Scott Johnston is coauthor with Steve House of Training for the New Alpinism which is still causing a revolution in the alpine climbing and mountaineering worlds and the just released Training for the Uphill Athlete coauthored with Kilian Jornet and Steve House. Scott is a lifelong athlete and coach, and competed internationally in swimming before racing on the World Cup circuit in Cross Country Skiing. Through his competitive years he also climbed at a high level around the world. He has coached multiple world-class athletes in a variety of sports. He is co-owner with Steve House of UphillAthlete.com a website for athletes interested in mountain running, ski mountaineering and alpinism. Their website provides a trove of free useful informational articles as well as training plans and coaching service.