We all have choices to make in life. There's a line each of us draws and then decides to what extent we toe it. Do we fortify and defend it, or erase it and draw a new one when it suits our ego and needs? If life is about leaving a legacy, then it is critical your moral compass points True North.
If you've been following me at any length, you'll know that I refuse to tune-in to the Olympics anymore. Doping and cheating aside, the Games are a spectre of their former greatness. The Olympics have been so over-commercialized that I don't even know what I'm watching anymore. It's like a two-week long Super Bowl half-time show. It is nauseating.
The Olympic credo is "Faster, Higher, Stronger." Yet, how many sports are now in the Olympics which do not align to the credo? Why are eSports on the cusp of inclusion? Why is anything that first appeared in the X Games now in the Olympics? Being able to fly into the air and complete aerial tricks on a snowboard is athletic and takes talent and is something that I could never aspire to do -- not ever. I can scream down a descent on my bike at 60mph without thinking twice, but there's no way in Hell I would ever try to flip around in the air multiple times while heading down the snowboard half-pipe. Crazy! But, this is just one example of many of a sport that has no business in the Olympic Games.
Here's another way to think about it. If the Olympics are not the epitome of a sport, then that sport should not be in the Games. It's not a perfect distinction, but it is close. For example, cycling has the Classics, the Tour de France and the World Championships; hockey has the Stanley Cup; baseball the World Series; golf the various Majors; tennis the various Grand Slam events; basketball the NBA Championship. It is absolute stupidity and nothing but nationalistic ego stroking for the USA to win the gold in basketball at the Olympics when we flood the team with the best the NBA has to offer. Why watch? It is a foregone conclusion, for one thing. Even those sports with annual or bi-annual World Championships can still put the Olympics above that event in terms of prestige and honor.
And, speaking of basketball, it looks like 3-on-3 basketball will also be in the Olympics. What's next, "21" or H-O-R-S-E? Where does the silliness end?
The commercialization of the Games has become their undoing. Peter Ueberroth managed to turn a profit with the '84 Los Angeles Games by selling promo time to sponsors for big bucks. Up to that point in time, any host city operated at a huge financial loss given the exorbitant cost of building the necessary infrastructure and competition venues. The cost of tickets and food and merchandise could not come close to making a dent in those costs. Ueberroth adopted a model which showed there was a different way. Unfortunately, a little of a good thing became a lot of a bad thing. As I said above, I don't even know what I'm watching anymore. Athletes care more about image and schlepping logos than ever before. And, why not, when big bucks are at stake. I would, too. This isn't a self-righteous rant. But, make no mistake. Today's athletes represent themselves and their sponsors, not their countries. When some athletes pull out of some events because those events don't fit their schedule, when athletes swoop in, compete and then leave the Games just as quickly, there is a bastardization that has taken over the Games and crushed the Olympic Spirit.
Maybe it has been this way for longer than the past 30-35 years, since the Summer Games in L.A. I think the gluttonous beast that is the Olympics has evolved into this grotesque version of itself for myriad reasons. Some are listed above. Opening up all the sports to professional athletes is another.
The cost of the privilege to broadcast the Olympics has risen nearly tenfold since 1984, yet viewership is down and continues to decline. NBC is hemorrhaging money for this year's Winter Games. Fewer and fewer cities are lobbying to host future Games. The Olympic machine has lost touch with not only its soul but with its audience. Fewer and fewer people care. I wouldn't be surprised if we are seeing the beginning of the end. Unless the powers-that-be take a big step back and figure out a way to undo this mess, it can only get worse until it is no more.
The Olympics used to be a way for the world to put its differences aside and marvel in the spectacle of the feats of the best athletes; at least for a little while. The politicization and commercialization injected into the Games over the decades has served as a more vicious 1-2 punch than any Olympic boxer has ever delivered. It is sad. Really sad.
I do not fault people for tuning in and for celebrating the victories of their favorite athletes. For a shrinking number of folks, the Olympics will always be a grand event, and for which the two years between Winter and Summer Games cannot pass quickly enough. Part of me envies them. Most of me does not.
Unless you’re a pro athlete or retired with your days completely open, fitting in training is a constant (or at least consistent) challenge. We’ve got families, work, kids’ schedules, friends and a social life, not to mention the desire for some downtime of our own. Endurance athletes read all the magazines and all the blog posts about how to best train for their key races. I read this information as well and what I am always – ALWAYS – left thinking is two things: (1) where’s the context? These articles and blogs are largely presented in a vacuum without any perspective. For example, “12 weeks to a sub-12-hour Ironman – what about all the weeks which precede those final 12 weeks? The list of examples like this is endless; and (2) where is the rest and recovery?
It is no surprise that a large influence on an athlete’s performance is available time to train. However, in trying to jam as much training in as we can, sometimes with blunt force trauma, we are doing ourselves a disservice because simply focusing on the training volume risks creating a recovery deficit. It is better to train less, be a little undertrained and fresh, than to train more and be consistently fatigued.
Endurance athletes largely know that progress occurs during rest and recovery periods. However, raise your hand if you feel like you effectively put this into practice (hint: one recovery day a week probably is not enough). This is even more critical for those who are Masters athletes. It is really easy to not only train too much but also train too hard.
One aspect of recovery is, obviously pure days off as well as short, easy workouts. However, there is an even more critical aspect of the recovery process that I will guarantee the vast majority of endurance athletes fail to master – nutrition.
Resting is Key
As I just stated, improvement occurs during periods of proper recovery. Your fitness increases as your body adapts to the rigors of key workouts; that adaptation happens during recovery not when the hard work is being performed.
We are conditioned to “Just Do It!” and without pain there will be no gain. Endurance athletes are a motivated bunch! Unfortunately, it is this high level of motivation which easily leads to over-training, or at least improper recovery practices. Study after study proves that the biggest jump in fitness progress comes in moving from 3 days/week of training to 4 days. There is another, yet slight, uptick in moving from 4 days to 5 days. Moving from 5 days to 6 days results in an almost inconsequential fitness increase and there is no discernable increase at a full 7 days per week. For single sport athletes such as runners or cyclists, training 4-5 days a week really shouldn’t pose a challenge. It is the triathlete – the juggler of three sports – that faces the biggest challenge in working toward a balanced approach to training among the swim, bike and run. It is the multi-sport athlete who faces the biggest risk of training too much and recovering too little. And when fatigue overrides fitness, form never comes around and performance suffers.
The first step, is to allow yourself to put your ego up on the shelf. If you are constantly wrestling with yourself – the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other – about should you or shouldn’t you take a day off or train easy, then here’s a bit of advice. Get over yourself. Until you do, you will never fully blossom in your performances. Learn to LOVE your days off and recovery workouts!
Different Recovery Strategies
There is active recovery and passive recovery. The latter is easy – it is when our bodies are at rest. It is no secret that we are a sleep-deprived society, yet getting more sleep is the biggest boost to recovery – and, thus, to your performance – that you can start doing. Even 30 minutes per day can really add up. And, on those nights when you know you can sleep in the following day, go to bed when you would as if you were getting up at 0-dark-30, but sleep in an extra 1-2 hours since you’re not going to the gym. Avoid the temptation to stay up even later. These two simple things will have a HUGE positive impact on your workouts and, thus, your performances come race day.
The reason sleep is so effective is that when we sleep, the body goes into “repair mode.” The more you sleep, the more repairing occurs. On the flip side, if you are sleep-deprived or if your days are filled with mental and emotional stress, then you are perpetuating fight-or-flight. Sleep will be fitful at best even when you’re dead tired, and your adrenals will be overstimulated. It’s like frying your computer’s circuit board.
Find a way to get more sleep and make your sleep more restful. I’m not talking about 9-10 hours a night. Get at least 7, and 8 would be stellar. You will feel so much better any night you make this happen! Also, remove electronics from your bedside table. Read to fall asleep rather than troll Facebook or watch TV. Transition from the rigors of the day to bed by spending 10-15 minutes passively stretching (this is a personal favorite). It’s all good.
There are many active recovery strategies, the most popular being things like stretching, foam rolling, and massage. Some things are easier and less costly to incorporate than others, and the jury is out on the actual effectiveness of some things. For example, there is a bit of ambivalence on whether foam rolling is anything but a practice of self-flagellation. In my opinion, daily stretching (for me, at night time) is great. I do feel different the next morning when I skip it for some reason. Massage is expensive, but helps for sure. My advice here is to get your massage on the day of a hard training session (after the training is completed, of course!). Massage creates malaise in the muscles, so give yourself that night and the next day’s full day of recovery plus another night of sleep to allow your body to flush out that malaise before your next key workout.
Next, learn to love your recovery days. Recovery days are defined as L1 in effort, with very relaxed movements and an absence of “pressing” the effort. If you find yourself pressing the effort, back it down. Keep your HR below 120-125bpm. More and more studies show that even doing nothing between hard intervals is just as effective as jogging or spinning lightly (think of sitting on the wall between hard swim intervals, like a set of 10-20 x 100). I’m convinced endurance athletes train too hard on their recovery days. I will challenge you here to dial it back a couple of notches and just focus on enjoying your ability to move easily. Set your HR monitor to beep at 125bpm, tune out the technology and just enjoy the flow of moving. This subtle but deliberate shift really opens up your ability to enjoy an easy workout. Try it!
Proper fueling during workouts and post-workout nutrition is also an active recovery strategy. I’m not suggesting you “eat clean” 100% of the time. I think using the 80/20 rule is both realistic and good enough. If you shoot to eat well 80% of the time, then the other 20% to eat “guilt free” is fine. For example, I enjoy a single beer or a couple fingers of Scotch every evening. I also enjoy a little bit of dessert every night, like several squares of dark chocolate or a cookie. Moderation wins the day. And, when I do decide to forego these indulgences as my season culminates in my key races, I’m in the mindset of maximizing performance “at all costs” and so do not feel like I’m giving anything up. So far, this approach has worked well for me. No need to be Spartan, but don’t be gluttonous, either.
That said, a good goal is to strive to eat as little processed food as possible. The simpler the ingredients list, the less processed that food is. And avoid too much sugar or too much sodium in any given food. Tune-in to whether you enjoy savory or sweet. I definitely trend toward sweet when given the choice.
Post-workout, think of your recovery in 3 phases and in this order:
Recovery is not an exact science. On your recovery days, sometimes you’ll feel invincible and like you could skip it and train hard again. Don’t! Avoid the temptation. Other days, you complete your recovery workouts and the next day you feel even more lethargic and fatigued. That’s OK! The body is processing immediate, short-term and long-term fatigue at the same time because the training effect of our workout regimen is cumulative and not linear. If you understand this and accept it, then you will start to recognize the signs which point to “this is not my day today” and you will have the confidence to take a step back, adjust your expectations down for the day and afford yourself the rest your body is telling you it needs. Live to fight another day!
Follow this advice and you will get more out of your key training days and, ultimately, your racing.
If you take an untenable stance on a topic and get called out for your hypocrisy, own it. It is pretty amazing how infantile people can get when their opinions on athletes or sports -- good, bad or ugly -- get challenged. Whatever happened to intelligent debate? Clean sport and doping are both incendiary topics. Nationalism blinds many of us into believing things we see when those things are clearly part of the ridiculous. Absence of ironclad proof does not equate to innocence as we know time and time again.
This is the complementary follow-on to the video, "An Effective Alternative to FTP Testing". At the risk of making the video too long (and frankly, maybe too boring!), I stated I would instead do a Part 2 in which I outline what the various Critical Power (CP) training zones are, what they mean, and what target value can be used to determine threshold power.
As stated in the Part 1 video, the CP test protocol is easy to administer, removes the inherent failure points of the 20-minute FTP protocol and is modeled after the best practices lab-based stress testing but in a way that provides a more definitive end point -- which is required when you don't have the luxury of a tester telling you enough data points of HR, power, O2 consumption and blood lactate have been pulled in order to crunch results.
When you've completed the CP ramp test as outlined in the video and the subsequent Tmax test, you will then be ready to calculate your power zones (NOTE: One thing I forgot to mention in Part 1 is that you should also capture the average HR you hit for that final successful minute of the ramp test as well as the average HR during the Tmax test. The higher you can drive these HR values and the closer your get to your Max HR, the better your body is handling the building of blood lactate. If there's quite a gap between these values and your Max HR, then there's a bit of work at and above threshold left to be done.). Here are the zones. The percentages are based on your CP ramp test result:
So, what the hell does each abbreviation mean? Here I'll explain briefly and provide an example or two of what these workouts can look like.
CP (Critical Power) -- to stimulate Type IIb muscle fiber recruitment
Some people refer to this as SupraMax effort, or similar to L6/L7 efforts with the standard FTP zone pyramid. The difference is that instead of the zone being based off a 20-minute effort bastardized into an hour's value, this zone is based directly off the ramp test. And, given the short duration of the Tmax test before failure, I explain 100% CP as being more intense than VO2max but shy of SupraMax (which tends to be in the 1-minute range).
A couple of examples of CP-specific workouts:
1) 30-60 minutes straight of 15sec or 30sec "on/off". "On" = 100%; "off" = easy recovery
2) 12-20 x 1min at 100% with 90sec-2:00 easy spinning between
3) repeats of 50-70% of Tmax with 2x recovery time
4) 8-12 x 30sec at 150%+ with 4:30 easy between
SPAM (Sustained Power & Muscular Endurance) -- increase energy-producing Type II muscle fibers. These are bread-and-butter, VO2max-oriented efforts. Examples include:
1) 2 sets of 1-2-3-3-2-1 minutes @ 80-85% with 60-90sec recovery between; extra 5-6min easy between sets
2) 4-6 x 3-5min with 1-2min recovery between; if necessary, take an extra 5min easy halfway through the set
MITO (Mitochondria generation) -- increase mitochondria creation through glycogen depletion
These are great FTP-oriented efforts, yet are typically done above FTP (call it the 101-106% of 20min FTP range as a point of reference). The reps tend to be shorter with less rest, but you can certainly extend them and increase the rest interval. These are money for creating a great initial boost to CP. Examples include:
1) 5-8 x 5-8min @ 75-80% with 2-3min easy between; shoot for 30+ minutes of work
2) 2-3 x 10-15min @ 75-80% with 5-8min easy between
LIP (Lipolysis) -- increase fat utilization capacity and spare glycogen utilization
This is the classic "Tempo" effort -- harder than aerobic but without necessarily producing a lot of extra blood lactate. Generally highly abused which does an athlete quite the injustice; used effectively, and you can get super strong. Examples are straightforward and simple:
1) 30min straight, building to 60min straight at 65-75%
2) 25-18-12 reverse pyramid at 65-75% with 4min easy between
L1/L2 (Aerobic) -- foundational work for any endurance athlete
No magic here. But, that said, the way I have adjusted my aerobic days this year is that I let my body tell me how hard or easy to make them. Literally -- no joke -- the signals I get from my legs in the first 15-30 seconds of warm-up dictate what I do on my aerobic days. If I feel a burn and can tell my HR and BP (blood pressure) are immediately being taxed, then I keep it relaxed and keep my HR below 130. No matter what. If my legs feel great at the outset, then I'm happy to press to the top of the zone. If I feel great but have a key workout the following day, then I'll be more relaxed about it and end up being all over the zone; maybe I press to the top during hills and back off on descents, then settle into the middle on the flats, for example. I also watch HR more than watts on my aerobic days. I set a ceiling of 78% of Max HR and make sure I keep my L1/L2 days below that ceiling -- again, no matter what.
The upshot is that my legs feel SO MUCH BETTER for my key workouts. Rather than being a slave to power numbers, I take the immediate feedback from my legs during the first pedal strokes, determine the level of effort and then watch my HR to keep myself honest. By taking this approach, I've raised my watts to 3.9-4.0w/kg when I'm pushing to 75-78% HR.
Finding Threshold Power from the CP Ramp Test
In order to most accurately calculate your FTP from the CP Ramp Test, it is important to grab the data points from every minute split of the ramp. So, capture your watts and HR at the end of each minute segment. Once you're done, you can graph Power on the X-axis and Heart Rate on the Y-axis.
As you look at the data points, you will most likely see one of three line shapes: a straight line, a zigzag line with the line pointing out across the X-axis, or a somewhat straight line ending with a bend up the Y-axis.
In the case that you have a deflection point either up the Y-axis or farther across the X-axis, that deflection point fairly accurately represents your FTP. You may also see another deflection point from earlier on in the test. If so, this can represent more of an aerobic threshold HR data point. You can use this as the top of your current L1/L2 zone instead of the 65% of CP watts outlined above. As with your FTP, you can also train your aerobic threshold to improve -- in HR, in power or in both.
For the straight line graph, it's a little trickier and subjective to determine FTP. One way is to recall how you feel during your current FTP test protocol and correlate that to the CP Ramp Test at various 1min data points around the FTP value you currently use. For example, let's say in a standard 20-minute FTP test, you last averaged 250w and your average HR was 170bpm. Look on the CP Ramp Test graph at the 220-280 range of data points to see how your power and HR line up. HR is the governing factor in how long you can actually hold an effort, so see where your HR hits and then crests 170. Does it go from 168 to 170 to 171 to 172, or does it go from 168 to 170 to 175 to 177? The way your HR increases can help you determine where subjectivity can better become objectivity.
Another option is to simply pick a percentage of CP watts and play around in that range during SST or FTP-specific workouts until you hone in on where your CP-based FTP should be. I find that in the absence of a clear deflection point, athletes tend to fall in the 70-80% CP range. This may sound like a broad "swack", but it factors things in like where athletes are in their build-up, what is their power curve like (are they high power output sprinters or TT specialists, for instance), how fit are they, and so on.
While completing the CP Ramp Test to failure is the ideal way to chart your progress one test to the next, if you are more interested in focusing on just the progress of your FTP, then you stop the test once you've gone past your previous FTP by 3-4 minutes. That way, you still capture both the improvement and a couple of data points past the deflection point you need to see in order to recalculate your FTP.
Structuring a Training Plan
Now, you're probably wondering exactly how to structure a training plan that incorporates and builds through these various training zones. I've tried several different progressions and I can categorically say that the one I am using right now is by far the most effective -- for me and for my athletes who have been the willing guinea pigs in trying this protocol alongside, but a couple steps behind, me. So, this is the one I will share here with you.
I've applied all different sorts of periodization to this model. You name it, I've probably tried it. The approach I'm about to outline has been shockingly effective -- again, for me and a small number of the athletes with whom I work. So, in no way a scientific, double-blind study. That said, I've been at this training thing for nearly 45 years across swimming, triathlon and now cycling, and have been coaching for 25 years. So, I have a pretty good idea of when I hit pay dirt. I feel I have here. Your mileage may vary.
First, a note about training cycles. I typically follow a 6-week cycle plan -- 5 hard week followed by a recovery week. With the right balance of work, recovery and rest, there's no reason to default to the lazy 4-week cycle. That said, you know your body better than I do. So, if after 3 hard weeks you tend to start declining, then you need a recovery week sooner. That's perfectly fine. Adjust this to your own situation.
Obviously, the very first thing to do is conduct the CP and Tmax tests. Also, I started this protocol in mid-September, so I had plenty of time to get to where I am today. Depending on how much time you have before your key races, you will need to adjust accordingly. Cycle 2 can be considered optional if you are calendar-crunched. You can also shorten each cycle to 4-5 weeks in order to better fit them into your current progression.
Cycle 1: LIP. 2-3 days a week. Given the lower intensity of these sessions, you can do more of them with little negative effect. I oscillated between doing a 2-day block with a potential late-week third day, and doing them 3 days apart (typically on Monday and Thursday so my legs were still fresh for my Saturday long ride).
Cycle 2: LIP/MITO combo. One of each every week. In this case, do the harder MITO workout first. I would typically block these workouts on a Mon-Tues if my Tuesday warm-up signaled all systems go. Otherwise, I would push the LIP workout to Thursday. Sometimes I would combine into one workout by doing a 30min LIP effort then straight into 10-15 x 1min MITO with 30sec recovery.
Cycle 3: MITO. Once a week and make it count. To augment this, I would either do a dynamic long ride on the weekend (meaning hit all energy systems) or do a Zwift race to simulate a criterium.
Cycle 4: CP. By now, you've done enough hard work where the 100% CP intervals won't cave you in. In past iterations of this, I would do the CP workouts earlier and would need mid-workout extended recovery periods. This time around, I hit 50-60min straight of the 30sec on/off protocol without issue. Yes, it was quite uncomfortable, but my body settled in rather than buckling. At 60min, I felt I could have hit 70-75min before caving in; but no need to test it!
Cycle 5: SPAM. I start this one tomorrow! I will be curious to see how these feel now that I am doing them at the apex of my CP rather than while I'm still trying to build it up. I may find that I cave in here, but I don't think this will happen.
Lessons Learned ... So Far
One thing I would adjust next time around is when the tests are conducted. I've tested 3 times, so clearly not after every cycle. I think that is too often and unnecessary. And too masochistic. These tests are frickin hard. You have to go to a darker and darker place the more fit you become. At first, you will anticipate these tests because you know you're going to show some awesome improvement. Eventually, you will fear them; I do. I really feared my test yesterday. But I let that fear motivate me rather than consume me.
Test 1, beginning of September
I was going to do another test right after the LIP cycle, but couldn't due to being sick for a few days that week. I decided to press ahead with the LIP/MITO cycle on schedule rather than push everything back a week. But, I had my guinea pig athletes test after their first LIP cycle. Not one of them improved CP watts, but they did improve Tmax. Unanimously. So, while LIP is fundamental and foundational, there's no reason to test again at the end of this first cycle. Peppering in the MITO work during the second cycle starts the adaptation process toward raising CP. Hence, the big jump from Test 1 to Test 2 for me (I had been riding prior to Test 1, so while not race ready, I was pretty fit overall).
Another quite shocking adaptation has been to that of recovery during a key workout. Whether I or my athletes are finishing a hard interval or have just completed a really hard workout/Zwift race, within 1-2 minutes we all experience a sharp, quick drop in HR into the 120-130s and we feel fine. Personally, I might be collapsing over my bike at the end of the hard work, but fairly immediately I feel fine. It's really strange. In the past, my HR would stay elevated even as I forced my watts down but it was nearly impossible to get my HR to drop below 140 during cool down after a particularly tough ride, which tells me I was pretty fried at a deep level. Yet, today, it's nothing like this. My HR drops and my watts are still recovery level but substantially higher than in the past. And, later in the day as well as the next day, I also feel a lot less latent fatigue. So far, so good.
Looking ahead, I will not re-test until late-June to early-July. Why? I've been doing this long enough to know that I've hit a barrier -- physically, mentally and emotionally. After yesterday, my CP is high enough where testing again may result in a worse result because to improve yet again will take too much investment. After this upcoming SPAM cycle, I will head back to another LIP/MITO cycle and then another MITO cycle. I will complement these with a session of 150% CP intervals or 10-second all out sprint sessions. My long rides will be outdoors, longer and include a lot of climbing. My big goals this year revolve around hill climbs and culminate with Hill Climb Nationals in mid-August. In late-June, I'll take some downtime, recharge the batteries and then gear up for the final assault into August. I will be curious to see what the first half of racing plus a nice period of "unplugging" does to this test protocol come late-June.
So, there you have it. About as transparent and informative as I can make it. If you give this a try, I hope you enjoy the change and find it as effective as I have.
An ideal test to determine power training zones on the bike occurs in a lab and in no way mimics the generic "gold standard" 20-minute FTP test. Which begs the question why it is considered the standard for testing; it shouldn't be. Many of us do not have access to a lab or cannot afford the cost of the testing. I've started using a more effective test protocol for myself and my athletes, which I outline here. It better mimics the latest, effective and accurate lab testing protocol and removes all the caveats of the 20-minute FTP test which render it less than accurate.
Endurance Athletes Train Too Hard
Before heading into this blog post, you can get a quick 90-second primer on the ORION Training Systems YouTube channel.
Endurance athletes, especially Masters athletes, train too hard. I’ll define “endurance” as any event lasting an hour or more. So, this encompasses a broad range of athletes, from cyclists to half-marathoners and marathoners, to every triathlete on this planet (not to mention all the other endurance sports out there, like cross-country skiing). We have been done a disservice on multiple fronts, not the least of which is by the vast majority of coaches out there who espouse repeated bouts of interval training per week or prescribe a large volume of interval training on their athletes’ hard days. The premise is that we get faster by training harder. This is true – to a very finite point. In order to better understand how we can extract more from our training and how to best balance aerobic with anaerobic efforts, it’s first important to understand how the body works.
At a high-level, there are 3 energy systems from which the body draws during any exercise of any duration and any intensity – phosphate, lactate and aerobic. Phosphate is mainly leveraged in all out efforts lasting up to 30sec but typically falling in the 3-10sec range. Lactate gets produced in greater quantities the closer we get to our LT (Lactate Threshold) and when we exercise above it. Lactate is a fuel source, a byproduct of our effort that our body processes more quickly than it is produced until such time as we hit and cross our LT. The aerobic energy system is when carbohydrate burning is slowed (but not stopped) and we recruit some stored fat as fuel because we are training or racing at an effort that is well below our LT.
Even 5k runners use predominantly the aerobic energy system -- as high as 93%. We really don’t elicit a high anaerobic utilization until we dip below 2min in effort, and leveraging a higher percentage of lactate for fuel instead of aerobic energy does not even occur until a 400m all out effort – something that lasts well under a minute. O2 is the fuel of muscles, and it takes about 30sec for the O2 we breathe in to be put to use. People think the O2 is used immediately because when they hold their breath for a long time and the lungs start burning, they take another breath and feel instant relief. But that relief actually comes from expelling CO2, not inhaling O2. A build-up of CO2 -- because we can't inhale enough O2 to replace it -- is what becomes the limiter with higher intensity performance. When CO2 production outpaces our ability to intake fresh O2, there’s a cascading effect with higher lactate production and other internal triggers that tip us further into an anaerobic state.
So, on the one hand, it is imperative we become aerobically efficient. We do this by tuning our aerobic system so we have a turbo engine rather than a lawnmower engine. By focusing on fat utilization, aerobic training, we can push out metabolic triggers that start tipping us toward anaerobic system/fuel utilization (lactate, phosphate). When these triggers are ultimately pulled, carb utilization speeds up and we burn through muscle glycogen faster. Hence, the more aerobically efficient we are, the longer our muscle glycogen lasts. Also, the less our muscles fatigue, the longer our muscle neurons fire properly and spare us from potential cramping (IMHO, cramping isn't dehydration or salt loss; it stems from fatigue that keeps the muscles from firing properly).
Here's the rub. Part of our ability to become more aerobically efficient (more O2 to the working muscles) gets stimulated by bouts of high intensity training, especially VO2max efforts (lasting up to a handful of minutes). Higher intensity training forces the body to create more plasma and red blood cells, which in turn saturates the blood with a higher amount of O2. Think of a VO2max training block when the first workout of 3min intervals leaves you heaving and out of sorts. After a few weeks, the 4-5min intervals are hard and very taxing, yet there is also a sense that the body is settling in to them. This is due to the adaptation I just mentioned.
The key is to stimulate thru high intensity enough, but not too much. Too much high intensity disrupts your ability to make that internal metabolic shift to being more aerobically efficient. Bike racers can dig deep and throw down attack after attack at the end of a 5+ hour race not because they do a lot of anaerobic training but rather because they are so aerobically efficient that when it's "go time", they have the muscle glycogen reserves to support those efforts and their muscle neurons are not too fatigued so cramping typically isn't an issue either. Next time you watch a bike race or mountain stage of the Tour, instead of focusing on the strongest rider, instead focus on those in the front group who inevitably start to fall away. Watch the change in their body language as steam and smoke start to inevitably pour out from under their hoods like a car overheating on the side of a desert road.
The aerobic focus -- and strict adherence to the parameters of those workouts (L2 watts, HR maxed at 70-78%) is what allows you to compete in a multi-hour race at a very consistent effort and pace. That's aerobic efficiency. It is the complement of the high intensity work -- a little but not too much -- which allows your finish time to be considerably faster than they would otherwise be. The body is a potpourri of response to stimuli. This training stuff would be so much simpler if it weren't, if instead it was more the case of pulling one lever or another to elicit the precise response we want. But, then, I'd be out of a coaching job. :-)
So, when you think about your own training or the training program your coach has you doing, what percentage of time is spent doing intervals at SST or greater intensity? If it is consistently more than 10% per week, it’s too much. When we look at our lactate production curve, the biggest limiter to performance is how fast we can go before the curve starts to steepen up and to the right – meaning, when lactate production starts trending toward a greater amount being produced than can be processed causing the body to pretty quickly shut down. The longer the “tail” of our lactate curve, the more aerobically efficient we become and, thus, the faster we also become.