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3 Unconventional Ways to Build Your Athletes’ Aerobic Capacity

BY Phil White

These three key areas of focus from evidence-based insights can help build the aerobic base of your athletes.

Every endurance coach worth their salt already knows how to build their runners’ aerobic base. 

But there are opportunities to amplify the great work you’re already doing on this front by introducing some of the latest evidence-based insights on aerobic training. 

So let’s highlight three from some of the best books on the topic by domain experts Alex Hutchinson, Dr. Marc Bubbs and Michael Easter

Focus on the Psychology of Oxygen Deprivation

There are many factors that can cap your runners’ potential and their ability to reach their goals. In his excellent book “Endure,” Alex Hutchinson asserts that, “There is no limit more fundamental — to endurance, and to life itself — than oxygen.” `

He goes on to share examples of how freedivers and alpinists such as Reinhold Messner — who was the first person to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen — have pushed the outer limits of functioning while experiencing extreme oxygen deprivation.

It’s likely that you’re already asking your athletes to log sufficient mileage at a pace that will develop their aerobic capacity and increase their VO2 max enough to do what they want to do on race day. So instead of switching up the physical stimuli, it might be more productive for them to concentrate on the psychological side of oxygen restriction. 

This can be accomplished by practicing breath holds, which will get them more comfortable with those moments in their running when they’re starting to get less oxygen delivered to their brains. This can trigger them to slow down or stop completely. 

From the perspective of a breathwork expert such as Patrick McKeown, author of “The Oxygen Advantage,” if your clients accumulate several total minutes of daily breath holding, they will also increase their carbon dioxide tolerance, enabling them to maintain high aerobic output for longer without needing to over breathe — which perpetuates the oxygen supply problem.  

Get More Sleep, More Often

In Dr. Marc Bubbs’ insightful book “Peak,” he writes, “Sleep is perhaps the ultimate performance enhancer, yet despite the research and increased public awareness, it is not a fully tapped resource.” 

He goes on to cite findings that suggest lack of sleep quantity or quality compromises aerobic capacity, power output, endurance and many other performance markers. Bubbs also states that when sleep is consistently compromised, it limits the potential of adaptation to exercise resulting from training. 

After all, it’s not workouts themselves that elevate your clients’ baselines, but rather the combination of exposing themselves to a stimulus and then facilitating adequate recovery from it.  

In other words, no matter how effective your coaching program is and how strictly your athletes stick to it, their aerobic performance will be hamstrung without the proper sleep their bodies crave. 

Bubbs suggests that it isn’t just the night before a big race that counts, particularly as he has found that over two-thirds of athletes experience anxiety and other mental symptoms that disrupt their evening. 

Instead, encourage your runners to focus on improving their cumulative sleep. This means the overall duration and quality of their nighttime slumber and naps in the two to four weeks leading up to an event. 

The same goes if they don’t compete. If they are well rested on most days, their cardiovascular, neuromuscular and other bodily systems will be able to carry oxygenated blood to their soft tissues, brain, heart and lungs so they are better able to express their full aerobic capacity. 

Use Rucking as Cross Training

As much as they claim to love running, sometimes your clients might get sick of it. Yet to progress toward their goals and adequately prepare for upcoming races, they still need to train on those days. 

In his brilliant new book “The Comfort Crisis,” veteran human performance writer Michael Easter cites research indicating that rucking can build aerobic capacity just as well as running. 

Rucking is basically imitating the British SAS or U.S. Marines and carrying a heavy backpack for a certain time or distance. There are several brands, such as GORUCK, that sell backpacks specifically designed for this purpose, along with conveniently sized weight plates to load before your clients head out on the road, track or trail. 

But as awesome as these purposeful products are, any of your athletes could make do with putting some heavy books in an old hiking pack. Then simply begin walking regularly with the pack. 

One piece of advice from my own rucking misadventures: If any of your clients are prone to excessive tightness and soreness in their thoracic or cervical spine, have chronically sore shoulders, or struggle with headaches and migraines, advise them to use a backpack or rucking pack with a thick hip strap that they tighten to take the load off the top of their torso. 

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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