Monday, January 31, 2011

defining endurance

those of you in the Ironman community probably know of the new triathlon-specific print magazine Lava. it's a relatively new magazine (less than a year old), and i was one of the community that was given a free subscription to it (don't worry, it's not that expensive).

if you haven't heard of it, i can tell you it's a very well done entrant into the market of tri-related periodicals that aims for a different look that can best be described as a more picturesque and more advanced--unlike most of the other magazines in the market, it appears to assume a pre-existing level of skill and racing (i.e., the content doesn't seem to go so often towards newbies or the uninitiated to the sport) and seems to have a cleaner format (i.e., the layout avoids glitz and goes more towards understatement). most of the material is for 70.3 and 140.6 (Ironman, Challenge, or independents), although i have seen materials for Olympic distance and Xterra.

you can check out the magazine for yourself:

i wanted to bring attention to an article in the current issue that i think is useful for anyone involved in ultra-endurance sports in general:
the article focuses on the definition of endurance. in case the link doesn't work, i've included the full text at the end of this post.

essentially, the article asserts that endurance can be viewed in 3 ways: 1) as the typical fitness/conditioning level for competitive race performance, 2) as the ability to maintain physical activity with age, and 3) as the capacity to sustain physical activity without injury to personal overall (physical or mental) health.

i find this interesting in that it expands the definition of endurance beyond the scope of fitness and conditioning that we tend to associate with the word.

too often, i think that for many people involved in endurance sports (triathlon or otherwise), some measure of their motivation is tied to attaining fitness and conditioning levels suitable for competition that invariably is rooted in personal desires for attention and aggrandizement.

to a degree, a hunger for glory is fine and natural, since it can fuel a process of self-improvement. but for some people, the hunger for glory mutates into overt narcissism and outright megolamania, which perverts self-improvement into self-primacy, where self-primacy makes the self more important than the world--or the people and events--around you...and as the universe always shows, no one is more important than anyone or anything else. no one.

the definition of endurance in the article, by expanding the term to include alternative notions, provides an alternative way of looking at endurance sport, with other scales by which to measure our motivation for involvement. by doing so, i think it offers some perspective as to what fitness, even on race day, can be about.

fitness doesn't have to be about seeking gratification through competition against others, but can also be about gratification by realizing what it's doing for the self, particularly in the face of the 2 greatest competitors against which everyone we must always face and which we may never truly vanquish: the progress of time and the continuation of our being within it.

House Calls: Defining Endurance
Dr. Philip Maffetone
January 31, 2011

To be human is to possess endurance. It’s built into our genes. One of the primary ways we’ve survived as a species is thanks to the role endurance has played in our own evolution. With bipedal and upright posture, feet designed for walking (instead of climbing and hanging from tree branches), and the ability to sweat (preventing the body from overheating), early humans were able to travel long distances without fatigue, heat exhaustion, or injury. The search for food or water could lead to newer life-sustaining environments many miles away.

If, over the course of several million years, natural selection has given us the gift of endurance, it’s only recently that sports science has begun to fully examine what it means for an athlete to go far at a consistent intensity. But what accounts for the physical differences among us regarding endurance? Why are some of us faster? Why do some of us excel at shorter distances while others race better in longer ones?

While genetics may dictate some of these performance differences, we actually control much of our natural athletic expression through the training and lifestyle habits we choose. Making the right decisions brings out the built-in endurance we already have in our bodies. We increase our endurance by being both fit and healthy.

By looking at the whole body and fine-tuning all of its functions, one can greatly improve endurance. Balancing the whole body is key to achieving athletic potential and optimum endurance. Many factors contribute to and create our endurance, from muscle function and fat burning, to the various nutrients we consume and the intricate workings of our brain. The optimal working of all these factors is important, and if one is deficient, endurance diminishes. Endurance helps make us more than the sum of our parts.

But what is the meaning of endurance for triathletes? Endurance can be defined in many ways. The popular college textbook Exercise Physiology, by Ardle, Katch, and Katch, discusses dozens of different aspects of endurance but does not actually define the term until page 756—and then only in more academic and terms. Other sports researchers and authors define endurance as a form of survival. But you don’t want to just survive a triathlon like the Ironman; you want to embrace it, live it, and enjoy it. Otherwise, why are you participating? One unique feature of endurance that differentiates it from true sprinting speed is effort: endurance is performed at sub-maximal exertion while sprinters perform at all-out, maximal effort.

Endurance has such a wide range of physical, chemical, and mental functions that I want to propose several important definitions.

First, endurance provides the physical, chemical, and mental tools to continually power our bodies over long distances while maintaining higher speeds at sub-maximum effort. Each of us, however, defines endurance differently. For some it’s running a 10K race, swimming a mile, or finishing an Ironman. Driven by the urge to compete at the highest levels, many endurance athletes express themselves by racing professionally. Going strong for eight or sub-nine hours in the lava steam bath known as the Hawaii Ironman requires superb mental and physical conditioning.

Endurance is an expression of the body’s aerobic system. This key system includes aerobic muscle fibers that burn fat for energy, the nerves and blood vessels associated with the muscles, and all the support mechanisms to put them in action, including the heart and lungs. Properly training the aerobic system can allow a runner to cover five miles in 45 minutes at a heart rate of 150, then progress to performing the same distance a month later at 43 minutes. Or, the cyclist who can ride a flat 10-mile course averaging a steady 15 miles per hour at a heart rate of 140, with proper endurance training can now ride the same course averaging 19 miles per hour at the same heart rate. This feature of endurance is what I call aerobic speed.

We obtain endurance by first developing our slow-moving parts. Our aerobic system contains “slow twitch” muscles that burn fat for energy. Training these relatively slow muscles is the first step to building greater endurance, including aerobic speed, an important component of endurance. Initially, these muscles will move us at relatively slow paces. But as the body can more readily convert fat to energy, aerobic muscle function improves, enabling our endurance to build.

Another important aspect of endurance, and one that sets it apart from all-out speed, has to do with aging. Endurance can persist for many years and decades. Instead, too many athletes lose endurance with age—not always for lack of training, but for lack of proper training, and lack of health. Many endurance athletes can continually improve well into their 40s and 50s. Master athletes often outrace younger athletes, despite having a lower maximum oxygen uptake (V02 max). But improvement over time also means that athletes who begin serious training relatively late, such as in their 30s or 40s, can perform their best even in their 50s and 60s. And, athletes beyond age 60 and 70 can still achieve remarkable feats, and sometimes even outrace some 20 and 30-year-olds.

Perhaps most importantly, endurance is the ability to carry on athleticism successfully without sacrificing our health. While much of our life, consciously or not, is dedicated to training for more endurance—and for most athletes this includes competition—there’s usually much more to do in the course of a day. Most of us also have other daily chores—careers, yard work, families, and other events that take our time and energy. Endurance sports are not separate from these other activities; balancing everything in our life is vital to building and maintaining the endurance we’ll use for training and competition.

No comments: