How do you maximise athletic performance?

Many athletes only train up to 80% of their capability. Here, Professor Greg Whyte explains how to find that extra 20% so you can maximise your athletic performance when it counts

How do you maximise athletic performance?

Why is racing so much harder than even the toughest session? Why is muscle damage worse and recovery time longer after racing compared with high-intensity training sessions? Well, there’s a school of thought that suggests we only work to 80% in training, meaning racing is always
a physiological and psychological step-up from the most demanding of sessions.

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Several recent studies have proposed a psychobiological model of exercise intensity termed ‘The Central Governor’ which suggests that, linked to feedback from the body, the brain takes central control of training effort/intensity to protect the body by avoiding training ‘beyond 80’.

The myriad receptors in the body feed back to the brain to ensure safety during maximal exercise. Accordingly, as we push hard during training, the feedback from the body, often interpreted as fatigue and pain, leads to the brain, limiting effort. This response may, in part, be responsible for pacing during training to limit pain, resulting in training at 80% of capacity.

This is why racing always feels harder than training, and why muscle damage and recovery time are increased after racing compared with our hardest training sessions. Racing creates the required motivation to push ‘beyond 80’. However, it’s those athletes who are best able to conquer the fear of pain during training and work ‘beyond 80’ that are likely to be the most successful racers.

As we experience pain during hard sessions our anxiety heightens our experience of pain. But being able to push beyond 80% during training is crucial for success. In short, the podium is won in training.

I like to think of ‘beyond 80’ sessions as ‘resetting your misery gauge’. The pain and associated misery of ‘beyond 80’ sessions create an opportunity to reset your internal perception of what maximum effort really feels like. By pushing yourself to your limits, you create a new upper limit to perception of effort, which will improve all subsequent sessions (you’ll need to reset your misery gauge on a regular basis).

There are a number of ways to push ‘beyond 80’ in training:

1) Teamwork. Training with a squad can make a real difference, particularly on days when you’re struggling with motivation (the ‘social placebo’ hypothesis suggests that supportive teammates can help you handle pain and fatigue, pushing sessions ‘beyond’ 80’ and improving racing performance)

2) Training Time Trials (TTTs). I’m a big supporter of regular time trials in training. Rather than tapering into the TTT, use them to stretch yourself ‘beyond 80’ even in a fatigued state

3) The Finisher. The ‘finisher’ is an additional effort at the end of an 80% training session lasting up to 10mins, pushing you ‘beyond 80’ and maximising effort, pain and misery!

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The physiological and psychological stress of training ‘beyond 80’ creates a potent stimulus that should not be used lightly. ‘Beyond 80’ sessions should be targeted to optimise their impact. The purpose of training is to develop every determinant of performance, including those we like the least! So embrace the pain and go ‘Beyond 80’.