“I always believed you’re either fast or you’re not,” says Tami Lenox, 50, a recreational-soccer player and former girls-soccer coach. Lenox began to rethink that assumption after she sent two of her slowest players to work with James and Monica Walker. Their business, Athletic Excellence, trains athletes.
Lenox hoped the girls would get fitter and become a little faster. Eight weeks later, she was stunned: They were among the fastest sprinters on the team.
She decided to see if James and Monica—he’s a former strength coach at the University of Maryland, she was a college sprinter who competed at the 1996 Olympic trials—might be able to help her, too.
Lenox had always been fast; in her twenties she outran just about every opponent she faced, and her soccer teams won amateur national championships. She slowed down in her thirties and forties but figured there wasn’t much she could do about it.
After six months of training with the Walkers—during which she learned a new running form and did strength training—she was able to sprint as fast as she had 20 years earlier, possibly faster.
Athletic Excellence, in Chantilly, is among a handful of local companies that offer what’s called “sports-performance training.” It became popular a decade ago and has been fueled largely by competition among high-school and college athletes but also by adult weekend warriors.
The idea is that by doing workouts designed by experts, you can improve more quickly. Sessions, which can be one-on-one or in small groups, incorporate techniques used by Olympic and professional athletes.
The format is similar to personal training, but instead of trying to tone your muscles, the goal might be to get more rotation in your golf swing, jump higher on the basketball court, or shave ten minutes off your marathon time. Like Lenox, many athletes say they were surprised to learn how much better they got through smarter training.
During his first session with Xtreme Acceleration in Bethesda, Josh Sorbel sits with sensors on his ankles, wrists, and chest as a computer analyzes his heart rate, brain waves, and other physiological indicators. Sorbel, 33, played soccer in college and is getting in shape for recreational tennis.
When the test is finished two minutes later, Vernon Boyd, one of Xtreme Acceleration’s cofounders, reviews the results.
Called Omegawave, the testing system provides information on aerobic and anaerobic capacity as well as other fitness indicators. Little research has been published on the system—which became available in 2000—and some experts are skeptical, but it has been adopted by collegiate and professional teams, especially in Europe. Boyd and his business partner, Shawn Vass, are also sales representatives for the system.
Sorbel’s aerobic system—responsible for endurance—is strong, according to the test. He has a high VO2 max, a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen his body is capable of using in a given time.
Sorbel seems pleased until Boyd explains that his aerobic capacity won’t help much on the tennis court, where points rarely last more than 30 seconds. The bursts of power required in tennis come from the anaerobic system, the body’s mode of producing energy at high intensities without using oxygen.
It’s a common mistake among amateur athletes: Believing that any cardio work will help performance, they don’t differentiate between aerobic and anaerobic training.
But working on one system will decrease your capacity in the other, says Todd Miller, a professor of exercise science at George Washington University. Two years ago, one of his students demonstrated this phenomenon. A professional endurance athlete with very high aerobic capacity, she was able to jump only a few inches off the ground because she had so little anaerobic power.
To improve Sorbel’s anaerobic capacity, Boyd and Vass will have him do exercises such as sprinting and jumping to get his heart rate very high for about 15 seconds, followed by a rest period.
Physiological tests can determine at what heart rates athletes’ bodies work within the aerobic and anaerobic training zones. With a heart-rate monitor, athletes can then make sure they’re working at the right intensity. Aerobic exercise occurs at a steady heart rate and at an effort you can maintain for a long time; anaerobic work happens at higher heart rates that are sustainable for short spurts.
Most sports require a combination of aerobic endurance and anaerobic power. In soccer, which involves both sprinting and jogging, players need a balance. Even distance runners can benefit from a small amount of anaerobic work; it helps them run uphill or sprint to the finish.
Endurance athletes should spend most of their time training at lower heart rates than most realize, says Ken Mierke of Fitness Concepts, who coaches runners, cyclists, and triathletes. By staying at a pace at which you can hold a conversation, you increase endurance and burn fat. Speed up a little bit, Mierke says, and you dramatically increase the strain on the body.
“When you’re working on endurance, work on endurance,” Mierke says. “Don’t try to do two things at once.”