Getting Less Specific to get More Specific

Warning - rant format post today. Quick one, but important. Training has gotten really advanced in the past few years, or decades. Mostly it’s really awesome, but sometimes I think it keeps us from getting the hard work done, or even the effective work. With the continued development of training metrics, we have so many ways we can “measure” a ride or effort. What I see happening often is that this then leads to a push to more specifically constructed workouts. A lot of athletes and coaches end up doing a majority of workouts where every effort is to a specific duration, a specific power, specific reps, etc. We’ve gotten very good at quantifying the demands of races, and then using that data to churn out workouts that we believe meet these demands.

The fundamental flaw - the one thing that is intrinsically specific to races (unless a TT) - is that you can not with 100% certainty predict how the race will play out. How long the field will ride hard for, what riding hard will mean in terms of power, etc. Of course - you can make really good educated guesses, and then work off those to be really well prepared - thus the value in these specific “nuts and bolts” workouts. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a proponent of specific, measured training. However, I also think in a lot of cases athletes and coaches are doing exclusively very measured training - leaving not much room for efforts where to deal, for example, with the mental strain of not knowing how long the “effort” is going to last as you’re getting rag-dolled on the wheel.

So thus the tag line of “get less specific to get more specific” - group rides, training races, open hard efforts on trail or a segment of road, chasing STRAVA. I see huge value in all of this, in a lot of ways that kind of “non-specific” training stimulus that isn’t planned out by duration and clamped power zones, is actually the most specific to racing. Personally I’ve really started to work more efforts like this into my athletes’ training, especially in the month leading up to racing, and especially if they haven’t been racing a lot.

In MTB racing this is super critical I feel. If there is a push to do super structured intervals, athletes inevitably end up doing more efforts on road where they can meet the plan for the workout. That then means not really being on trail, and not dealing with the demands of the trail. This is no where near revolutionary, but I’ve really come around to the idea that in leading up to a MTB race we should be much less structured and just spend time going hard on trail - so that athletes develop that internal “speed monitor” of the idea that speed across the trail is the only output that matters. Power output on the computer doesn’t matter. And it’s important we get the athlete to the place of thinking less about their watts, and just to intrinsically be oscillating their power across the trail to maximize speed and momentum. This is something that is developed much better doing loose structure efforts on trail than by doing a bunch of nuts and bolts intervals.

Like most of my rants it ended up longer than shorter - but I think this is an interesting point, finding the balance of using our advanced metrics, but also finding the time to ignore them and focus on what I think of as “old school fury” training. Thanks for reading!

The Science Behind Lactate Threshold Tests

Nate and I were recently guests on the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast during which we talked about how research has influenced training and racing (check back later for when it goes live!).  Even after the podcast ended, I’ve still been thinking of the many ways science has helped athletes improve performance.  The lactate threshold test is a great example that we unfortunately didn’t have time to cover during the podcast.  Luckily for you readers though, I’ve got time to cover it now.   

There are all kinds of protocols for a lactate threshold test but the basics are pretty straight forward.  An athlete starts at a relatively easy pace and then the intensity increases every 4-5 minutes until they can no longer maintain the exercise intensity (protocols commonly differ in the magnitude the workload changes for each stage and sometimes also in stage lengths).  During the last minute of each stage, a small amount of blood is taken and levels of lactate are measured. 

The key metrics from the test (lactate and power output) are then graphed resulting in something like this:

LT curve.png

Early in the graph, we see lactate levels remaining relatively stable (as is the case in this example, sometimes we also see a slight decrease in lactate as the athlete settles into the test).  Past a certain workload though, lactate levels begin to increase exponentially.  The primary goal with training is to shift the graph to the right so that you extend the workloads during which lactate levels remain low. 

A number of ideas exist regarding how to train so that you move the graph to the right.  One idea is to train at the intensity just before lactate begins to increase.  For the graph above, this individual would therefore train in the ~270W range.  Others suggest training at a higher intensity beyond the initial inflection.  One answer likely does not fit everyone so it’s important to experiment and find what works best for you. 

It’s also important to realize not every graph will look the same. Here is another example:


The differences here might not be quite as obvious.  One difference is that early in the test the lactate levels slightly increase instead of staying flat.  Although the increase is not dramatic, these levels would suggest the athlete should focus on their aerobic endurance base (those traditional endurance miles).  Building up that endurance ability will flatten out the earlier section of the graph and help with overall performance. 

Another difference between the graphs is the peak lactate levels.  In the first example, the athlete gets to ~7.5 mmol/L while in the second example, the athlete gets to ~11 mmol/L.  Some of these differences can be attributed to variability between athletes (and in some cases differences between protocols).  However, if an athlete is unable to reach their typical peak levels, this can indicate fatigue and a need to take some extra rest. 

One thing I have yet to touch on so far is the actual threshold for each athlete.  One reason for this is that there are many (many, many, many…) ways to define the threshold from a lactate threshold test.  Some common definitions include: power at 4mmol/L (in the first example that would equate to ~345W), power at 1mmol/L above baseline (~310W), and power at the first inflection point (~280W). Many of these definitions depend on what you are trying to predict – in other words, the length of the event.  The definition you use though, is not as important as keeping your definition consistent when repeating tests and looking at performance improvements (we won’t judge if you pick the definition that gives you the highest value…). 

The lactate threshold test is one of the great tools for measuring fitness and helps to highlight weaknesses that need to be trained.  While a field test (e.g. 20-minute test) is easy enough to do, visiting the exercise science lab provides you with that little bit more physiological knowledge. And as any G.I. Joe fan will tell you, knowing is half the battle [to maximizing your performance gains].  Thanks for reading!

What Does the Science say on Pacing?

In previous blogs, we’ve covered ways to pace time trials, but for this week we’ll take a look at what the science says.  A number of studies have examined various time trail pacing strategies in a number of different sports. These studies aren’t always perfect (a lot of tests are conducted within the lab where it can be tough to get that competitive atmosphere that elicits strong performances) but there’s still great information out there for you to use on race day. 

First things first, a quick disclaimer.  All the studies we are going to discuss today are based around the idea of a level time trial.  Obviously, a course profile that includes some hills can change things up a bit.  Now with that in mind, let’s talk ideal pacing strategy. 

What should come as no surprise is that the ideal pacing strategy depends on the race distance.  For short events lasting less than ~10min, a fast start strategy appears optimal.  One of the main reasons for this is that it’s advantageous to spend more energy getting up to speed as quickly as possible since the start represents a greater proportion of the race. 

With that being said, things thought up in the lab don’t always translate to actual improvements in performance.  Theoretical modeling in a study on speed skaters suggests the optimal strategy is to start faster than athletes would normally choose to.  However, when this strategy was imposed on athletes, performance actually decreased. Part of this may be that athletes did not have enough practice to fully learn this new strategy. 

As race duration increases and the start represents a small proportion of the race, evidence indicates a fast start is not the ideal strategy.  With longer duration events, the optimal pacing begins to have a more even look to it.  Again though, this even-pacing recommendation needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Imposing an even-pacing strategy on well-trained cyclists decreased performance.  

Since most bike race time trials are of longer duration, we’ll focus on that and discuss the ideal strategy.  In the well-trained cyclists study, the ideal pacing strategy looked a bit like a flattened “U”: athletes started slightly fast, settled into a steady pace, and then finished strong.  This pacing strategy has also been observed in fast 10k runners (10k in less than 35.6min) providing additional support to adopt this strategy.

All of this science is great but how can you incorporate it into improving your own performance?  To paraphrase the poets Cypress Hill, “So you wanna be a time trial superstar and live large? Better practice, so you’re in charge.”  Find a spot where you can practice a time trial and try out different pacing strategies.  The U-shaped pacing strategy sounds easy enough but practice starting and finishing at different intensities to see what helps you finish the fastest.  Everyone is different so do a bit of experimenting and find what strategy is fastest for you.  Thanks for reading!

Staying Fit While Shutting Off

This one is going to be a quick one, but as a coach, it is a topic that I find myself constantly thinking about this time of year. If an athlete’s race season starts in March and ends in September, we are about halfway through the season right now. We’ve probably built up for some big spring goals, and hopefully they went well, from a physical perspective a lot of things are still good. When I look at the files the numbers are good, maybe even best, but there’s just something going on lurking in the background and you can start feeling - both as an athlete and the coach - that you’re on a precarious edge. Inconsistencies start to lurk in, maybe mental mistakes add up in races to translate to results that aren’t what the athletes are capable of.

To me, this is a big mental fatigue issue - both from racing and training. Physically the athlete might be handling the load well, but they’ve done a ton of specific intervals, they’ve done a ton of races that are really mentally taxing for a multitude of reasons - travel logistics, juggling time off work and family, then in the race battling for position and going to their max repeatedly. It’s something we all love, but it also wears us down. But the crux of the issue is we have big goals in August and September, and if we’re feeling a little run down in June how are we going to hold on until August?

The answer is we don’t hold on. We have to shut off. I find that one of the key points though is to shut off, while also not losing significant fitness. A month off the bike may feel great, and yield a ton of excitement come July, but it won’t yield a ton of fitness to go with that excitement. So we need to stay fit or even build fitness - but perhaps a different kind than what we’ve been building over the past 3 months, which is very specific race work - while also getting a bit of a mental breather. The answer - SUMMER BASE. In my mind late June and early July is all about the summer base. Taking a break from a ton of intervals, doing some long rides, ignoring your power meter, exploring new roads, riding with friends. Athletes inevitably end up doing a lot of quality work in this period - but they don’t always realize they’re doing it. And after 3 months of racing, and a lot of high intensity focused training - the base they built up all winter is shriveled up. So taking 4-6 weeks and going back to basics, but now it’s warm out, is the best thing an athlete can do to prepare for big goals in August and September.

Of course what the “summer base” should consist of is a whole other article in and of itself, and of course depends on the athlete, their races, what the first part of their season looked like, and the list goes on. The idea in general, I feel is applicable across a spectrum of athletes and scenarios. Thanks for reading!

The Workout: Capacity LT

Jim and I always have fun arguments about the use of LT work in training prescription (by the way, Nate writing here). I laugh about it, because at the end of the day we both have a good handle on when, how, why, and how much LT work to implement into an athlete’s training. However, everyone always has their own philosophies within certain principles. I always think of Jim as a big LT guy, and Jim always thinks of me as a light LT guy. Truthfully I think a lot of this is molded more by what worked for us personally as athletes, in our banter with each other, rather than how we prescribe LT work to athletes we coach now. When it comes to training prescriptions we’re pretty much on the same wavelength!

Before I get too far down a rabbit hole of coaching philosophy I want to get into today’s featured workout. The workout is a bread and butter LT workout. By LT workout, I’m talking about lactate threshold - but realistically the way most of our athletes determine the power they’re doing LT efforts at we are not really talking about lactate threshold. I say that because most of the athletes we’re working with, we’re not working off of lab derived power zones that have been derived off of related blood lactate values. Really when we’re saying “LT” we are more talking about FTP - or around the power, HR, or effort that an athlete could sustain at maximum effort for around 60 minutes. Realistically that’s probably pretty close to that athletes LT, but there are also a ton of ways to define that and depending on the protocol it could definitely vary. FTP may be quite close to an athlete’s MLSS, or maybe absolute 4mMol lactate power, but maybe quite a bit higher to other definitions of LT. Shoot, this paragraph ended up being a training philosophy talk more than about the workout. I think the next paragraph is going to be better.

OK! The workout today is a twist on a bread and butter LT workout. If you’ve been around a power meter for a hot minute someone has talked to you about 2x20’s @ LT. I really like this workout as a variety on that workout, that is great to implement once you’ve done some tempo and LT work, have a pretty good base of strength in those workouts and now we’re taking those workouts and adding some sharpening to them for some race specificity. I call the workout “Capacity LT”. The workout is deadly simple, and deadly effective. Here it is:

  • Warm up with Z1/Z2 riding - this is a good time to work in some technique work like focusing on 100+ rpm

  • 10-20 min low zone 3 / tempo effort - just an effort to warm up a bit and add some aerobic economy work. If doing this workout in a time crunch you can shorten the tempo or cut it altogether

  • 2 x 20-25 min efforts - first 2 min ride @ 5 min maximum pace, then ride 3 min @ high zone 3 / tempo, then the rest of the way ride steady in LT. Make sure to keep ample recovery between the reps and have a goal of doing the most power you can do without dropping on the 2nd rep. So the first should feel hard but in control.

What’s it look like?

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 7.21.45 AM.png

That’s a picture perfect “Capacity LT”! Try the workout and let us know what you think. This is a hard workout, so you want to set it up well in your training week and month. There’s not that much point in doing it, if you’re not in a good place to do it well. I like to give it to athletes as the second training day after a recovery day, so that they’ve done a bit of work to get the legs going but haven’t really knackered themselves. For example I might have someone do a moderate workout like some tempo or sprints the day before. Then hit this one at quality!

Thanks for reading!