Distance running had this debate a couple of times over past 75 years. Most recently after the US dominance of the ’70s and ’80s gave way to an era of disappointing results in the ’90s and early 2000s. The consensus among running coaches is that the drop in US performance largely coincided with a shift from a Capacity-oriented training system to one relying heavily on a Utilization approach.
Rowing also had this debate back in the ’80s 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 led to their domination of the sport.
Cross-country skiing had a similar discussion in the early 2000s, when physiologist Dr. Jan Helgarud controversially proclaimed that much of the Capacity Training that had historically been the mainstay of cross-country ski training was a waste of time. This idea was quickly disproved by the stop watch in the ultimate crucible; the competition arena.
Around that same time swimming underwent a revolution, led by Jan Olbrecht’s book The Science of Winning. (Highly recommended for those who want to delve deeper into this material.) Bob Bowman is a self-proclaimed disciple of Olbrecht, claiming to have had his eyes opened to the distinction between what Olbrecht terms Capacity and Power (Utilization) Training. Bowman, having been largely responsible for Phelps’s 18 Olympic gold medals, has had a profound impact on the direction of US swimming training philosophy.
The value of looking at these debates, for us as (mostly noncompetitive) mountain athletes, is that each of them was settled by the ultimate test: international competition. The best athletes in the world, using competing training philosophies, have lined up at the starting lines of innumerable competitions.
The stopwatch doesn’t lie and what we see is that, across a broad range of sports, athletes who prepare by focusing on building the various capacities needed in their sport before adding in Utilization Training have better results in the long run.
On the other hand, those who tend to skip over the Capacity Training and jump right to the Utilization work will often see rapid improvement and then an eventual plateau in performance. These Utilizers often become confused as to why they progressed so rapidly early on only to have met a seemingly insurmountable barrier to progress. Just doing more and harder won’t get the results they seek if any of the underlying capacities are underdeveloped.