Approach to Training

Undertaking a focused, structured, individualized training program can increase an athletes VO2max by 15 to 30% over a 3 month period and up to 50% over 2 years!  Obviously the later figure is based on someone new to the sport.  A world champion cannot be expected to increase their VO2max by 50% unless they resort to the old EPO or other dodgy practices.

So, back to normal stuff.  Focused training also leads to metabolic adaptations, include changes in lactic acid removal, which contribute to your ability to perform at a higher level of VO2max for longer periods of time.  Changes are also made to lipid metabolism which enable extra energy Calories to be provided from fat.  These Calories supplement those from glycogen and glucose, at specific VO2max levels, supporting longer durations of exercise to fatigue.  We'll cover fat metabolism in the next fact sheet.

Training also results in physical changes in the muscles.  These will improve their tolerance for the stresses of prolonged exertion.  Especially the strengthening of the connective tissue between muscle fibers which translates into less microtrauma, or post exercise discomfort to give its less scary term. 

Not every training session in your program needs to stress the cardiovascular system to its limit.  In fact successful programs are balanced with at least two days per week at less than maximal cardiovascular intensity to allow for mental and physical recovery. 

There is obviously a drop off in metabolic adaptations within a few weeks of stopping training, although changes in numbers of muscle capillaries and skeletal and cardiac muscle fiber size probably occur more slowly.  So you can quickly get back to where you were after injury or illness.

Training Intensity
Is more better?  Not necessarily.  Although the exact optimum for training intensity is unknown, and obviously varies between individuals, it is generally accepted that maximum aerobic improvement occurs at 85% VO2max (approximately 90% of your max. heart rate).  Regular training above this level will increase the potential for injury without a corresponding increase in cardiovascular or musculoskeletal training benefits. 

Lower levels of exercise, 60% maximum heart rate for 45 minutes, will at least maintain general cardiovascular conditioning.  The "long slow distance" approach to endurance training where your maximum heart rate is always limited to 60 to 80% VO2max will not optimize your personal performance for high level aerobic events.   A recent study assigned 15 women to either a low intensity (132 beats per minute) or high intensity (163 bpm) group, exercising for 45 minutes, 4 times a week.  There was an increase in VO2max for members of the high intensity group, but not the low intensity one. 

However at this time of the year we are not attempting to boost our VO2max, we are attempting to train our bodies to "spare glycogen" and to get used to three to four hours in the saddle.  Everyone thinks we are riding slow to "burn fat".  This isn't strictly true.  We do burn fat, if we ride slowly enough, but that's because we are sparing glycogen.  It's a bit cause and effect and "semanticky" but there is a difference.  Once you can acknowledge or accept the fact, training principles and why we do what we do, become a little clearer.

Training Duration
There is no easy answer to the optimum duration for a high intensity training session as training is an interaction between intensity and time.  Ten minutes of 80% maximum heart rate will be of some benefit, but 30 minutes are even better.  However, 60 minutes does not necessarily give you a proportionally greater benefit as there is clearly a point at which the negative effects of exercising at such a high level outweigh the benefits.  At some point there is a case for "less is more".

For aerobic training at less than 90% maximum heart rate it makes the most sense to look at the duration of the planned event, and to train at the same level of anticipated performance for a duration equal to that of the event plus, possibly, an additional 10%.  Seeing as for the majority of us, our longest race is 60 miles, there is little point riding longer.  As most of us have already done this on the Anthony Nolan ride it is now a case of riding that distance more efficiently and effectively.  So now we know we have the endurance capabilities, we can SLOWLY, build up the speed necessary to race at this level.

As the first race is about 20 weeks away, and the biggie is about another 16 weeks after that, there is little need to panic.  We have a little time to fine tune our plan.

Training Frequency
It appears that maximum aerobic conditioning (increasing VO2max) occurs with 3 workout days per week.  It is better to take off 2 to 3 days per week to allow for muscle and ligament repair and decrease the risk of cumulative physical stress.  Interestingly, it appears that these 3 days per week will maximize aerobic conditioning equally in any combination - i.e. 3 days in a row with 4 off, alternating days, etc.

Studies on maintaining the benefits of aerobic training revealed that a 66% reduction in training frequency, going from 6 days a week to 2 days a week but keeping the same intensity for each individual workout, maintained gains previously made.  You can cut a 60 minute, 6 per week program to 60 minutes, twice a week, perhaps even to a 30 minute session 6 times a week, and still maintain your aerobic fitness level. 

However, fitness levels cannot be maintained by cutting the intensity of the 60 minute session and keeping it at 6 times per week.  If intensity is held constant, the frequency and duration of exercise required to maintain fitness are much less than the effort needed to attain that fitness level in the first place. 

That's why, once we have established an endurance base we can cut back the distance to maintain it, then go off and do some speedy-power type training.  All we need to do then is to maintain our endurance through the race season by using one day a week to do a long, race-distance type,  ride.

Methods of Training
Training needs to be structured for the intensity and duration of the planned sporting event. Anaerobic (oxygen independent) exercise is generally less than 60 seconds in duration and is fueled by the anaerobic, ATP Creatine Phosphate (CP) energy pathways. 

The classic anaerobic sport is weightlifting.  Sprint activities also use anaerobic pathways.  If the sprint lasts more than 5 or 10 seconds, lactic acid clearance becomes an issue because of the negative effects of lactic acid on muscle performance.  Training focused on anaerobic activities will enhance the ATP and CP energy transfer pathways as well as improving the tolerance for, and clearance of, lactic acid.

Aerobic training on the other hand provides its benefits by improving the cardiovascular and oxygen delivery systems to the muscle cell.  These include improvements in both cardiac output, the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute, and at the muscle fiber level there is an increase in the extraction of oxygen from the blood cells in the capillaries.  In addition, there is an improvement in the efficiency of the cellular metabolic pathways which convert glucose into ATP.  Which is why we ride slow in the winter.

As the level of exertion increases, there is a slow transition towards anaerobic metabolism in the muscle.  There are always areas of relatively lesser perfusion within the muscle that are functioning anaerobically.  So even at 50 to 60% VO2max some anaerobic conditioning is occurring.  At 85% VO2max, the "anaerobic threshold" for most individuals, there is an abrupt increase in anaerobic metabolism throughout the entire muscle.  Even though some cross training of the anaerobic systems takes place during exercise at 60 to 80% VO2max, a sprint performance training program needs to include exercise sessions above 85% VO2max.  We do these once we are into the racing season.

Obviously, long slow distance work is good training for aerobic, endurance events, but it will not improve your sprint performance.  Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise sessions need to be included in a training program.  It is the balance of the amount of each type of exercise which determines its suitability for the competitive event for which you are training.  We'll cover this in another article.

Interval Training
Interval training refers to sandwiching periods of intense physical activity between periods of recovery, to allow longer periods of training time at your peak performance levels.  One study in runners demonstrated that continuous, maximal performance levels could be sustained for only 0.8 miles before exhaustion occurred, while a similar level of peak exertion could be maintained for a cumulative distance of over 4 miles when intervals were used.

In training for sprints, which do not involve significant lactic acid build up and basically are training the ATP and CP systems, it is recommended that the duration of the training interval should be increased by 1 to 5 seconds over the usual sprint distance.  The exercise intensity or maximum effort should remain unchanged and the recovery period should be at least three times longer than the training interval.

Training for longer intervals, up to several minutes, produces significant lactic acid build up along with stressing the anaerobic metabolic pathways.  To train for these several minutes of maximum output intervals, it is suggested that the distance being trained for be subdivided, and the training interval effort focused on that shorter distance. 

So, if you are training for a personal best 10 mile ride, and your best time for the ride is 30 minutes then if you can't ride one mile in three minutes, how will you ever do 10 in thirty.  So ride one mile in three minutes, well within your capability, have three minutes rest, then ride another.  Then build up from there.  We'll cover this later, we are only showing concepts at this early stage.  And on no account do intervals unless you really understand them.  Pleas ask someone first!

Training program drop out rates can double when intervals are used, so they should be used judiciously.  They are only to be used at specific times.  Consider them twice a week during your peak season, and separate each session by at least 48 hours to allow adequate recovery.  If your long ride is on the weekend, Tuesday and Thursday make the most sense. The goal should be 10 to 20 minutes of hard pedalling per training interval session, not counting warm up, recovery, or cool down.

If you have a heart rate monitor, an alternative is to key intervals to your maximum heart rate. Ride your intervals at 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate and spin easily until your heart rate drops to 60 to 65% of maximum.

Continuous Training
Continuous training refers to aerobic activity performed at 60 to 90% VO2max for an hour or more.  When done at the lower end of this range, it is often referred to as long, slow distance (LSD) training.  This level of training is ideal for those starting off an exercise program, those wishing to maximize Calorific expenditure for weight loss purposes, and as an option for an active "rest" day in a weekly aerobic training program.

This level of exertion can be maintained for hours at slightly less intensity than used in competitive events in the past, and is particularly suited for endurance event training.  It is thought to have a preferential beneficial effect on the slow twitch muscle fibers (as opposed to the fast twitch fibers used in sprint interval training). 

Fartlek Training
This form of training is a combination of interval and LSD training.  It is not as structured as an interval program being based on the personal perception of exertion rather than specific time or distance intervals.  It mimics the "sprint to the line" that is part of many road races.  While there is little scientific proof of its benefits it makes sense physiologically, and psychologically it adds a feeling of freedom to those long slow days.  Best done with mates, but it is almost impossible to stop it becoming a race and it often screws up your planned training ride.

To summarise, here are the key points for an aerobic training program:

Training needs to be structured for the intensity and duration of the planned event

Long slow distance training forms an important base at the beginning of the training season

Maximum aerobic improvement occurs at 85% VO2max (90% max. heart rate)

Maximum aerobic conditioning (increasing VO2max) occurs with 3 workout days per week at or above 85% VO2max

Additional training days should be at a slower pace to allow recovery and build musculoskeletal strength

Exercising at less than 85% VO2max will improve general cardiovascular conditioning and overall musculoskeletal tolerance

In training for endurance events train at the level of anticipated performance with a ride equal to that of the event + 10%

The message
Running a Max Heart Rate Test to find your optimum training zones is extremely useful but only if you do something with the information you have.  Devising a training plan with the specific requirements of developing your strengths and limiting your weaknesses  is a fantastic investment in your training time.  But only if you know which areas need addressing and operate in the correct training zones to improve them. Without a test how will you know how hard to go and how will you know if you've improved?

Through increasing your cycling economy, lactate tolerance and power output you can make significant improvements in the efficiency of your aerobic engine thus allowing you to cruise at a faster speed.  We may not be able to make your heart beat faster but we can make each beat more oxygen efficient and help you deliver more oxygen to your muscles.  And that's what wins races.