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Our Perspective on Human Performance



The 2016 road-racing and event season is well under way, and some great spectacles have already passed with extremely exciting and closely contested monument pro-races Strade Bianchi, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, Tirrenho-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque, while Amstel Gold and Leige-Bastogne-Liege imminently under way. Winter preparation of strength and endurance should now be starting to exhibit the beneficial effects for some of us less athletically blessed types looking to participate in these open events. However, few may focus on these early races as main events and hope to target slightly warmer dates for their peak cycling achievements this year.

Target event and building fitness.


That means this period of warmer weather should be used effectively for more specific conditioning, with intensity and longer distance endurance in mind under more comfortable conditions. An adequate build rate of long-term fitness is crucial for avoiding over-training, illness and injury and this where the notorious Performance Manager Chart used in Training Peaks (or Golden Cheetah) really comes in to its own, for those with power or heart rate data. The image below shows a text-book chart of a masters athelete targeting the 2016 Leige-Bastogne-Liege (156km, 2,299m climbing) but with a main target event of La Marmotte. There are recommended ramp-rates of Training Stress Scores (TSS) as per the Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan guidelines, although these don’t represent a typical individuals training routine of an amateur, just averages. For instance a full-time worker is probably more reliant on interval training sessions which aren’t captured well at all by TSS values, even the Normalised Power metric tends to fail here as physiology trumps maths. The PMC depicts a relative stress from all performed sessions as a function of that individuals lactate threshold, the closer or further above a cyclists rides for dictates the amount of stress calculated for that session, dependent on duration. Then the accumulation of stress is dependent on the sessions performed over the 42 days prior (blue line and shaded area depicts the CTL or chronic training load and fitness), the pink line depicts the amount of training done in the 7 days prior, relating to fatigue or ATL. The the Training Stress Balance (TSB) is the calculated (CTL-ATL) that determines an individual performance or form/ freshness. The chart shows that this individual has had two significant interludes, one in mid-February for a planned work-trip with forced low-volume, and then in early March due to a mild cold after a short cycling trip before resuming a sustainable weekly volume of training through to a couple of weeks before the target event in order to perform a hard and soft taper period of preparation.



Early season stepping stones


To start peaking for a target event and take advantage of all that hard strength and core conditioning work done in the gym during the week, the time to transfer that to pedal power has long since passed especially if La Maratona (138km, 4,320m) or La Marmotte (174km, 5,184m) in July are your tipple of choice. Limitations of endurance, such as cycling efficiency can be trained over long distance at the sub-threshold intensity of you training zones, ideally a low-mid-tempo target intensity, even on flat or undulating roads, extending this distance week after week will translate very well to maximally paced stamina and even helps to improve power-to-weight alongside a well considered diet if weight loss is desired. However it is the amount of climbing which is the true test of these events, and replicating at least that stress or load on our physiologies must be the main training objective to succeed in our personal goals. As endurance athletes tend to aspire to over achieving, the long distance options of these Gran Fondos or Sportives are considerable, if not excessive distances and amounts of climbing.

Using these early season events are a great way of spring-boarding our fitness with similar, usually continental or Meditteranean topology and terrain but these are one-off for most of us, even if part of a longer training camp stay which allows use to introduce a very effective block of frequent and adequate intensity/ stress rides. But what can we do when we don’t have access to these?…….With limited mountainous terrain in the UK, we need to train smarter and harder. Ideally, we need to train to more than the stress of  the course we will be riding. This means relying on shorter intense climbs and frequency, an interval session or hill repeats in essence. Gaining enough exposure at the right intensities will improve our physiologies to support less demanding exercise more comfortable…fairly logical so far? This is the main reason why random unstructured rides are notoriously full of junk miles generally just sap energy and make us tired with non-descript training benefits.  A polarised, effective training approach can be defined as 20% above current threshold intensity and 70% below (with 10% at Threshold) for a periodised program and means it is difficult to gain enough climbing exposure, work-on power to weight and translate this to practical climbing ability for the gradients and durations necessary. We must use the terrain we have available to replicate this stimulation. As reminder to your physiologically scaled zones (to lactate threshold) they are:


Perspective of Power


I believe I have explained before that the most relevant physiological parameter to performance and long distance hill events is our lactate threshold. Briefly, this is the turnover point that lactate in our bodies is being produced to buffer and support glucose metabolism of our muscles which have reached or are reaching the limits of their aerobic capacity and where further exercise intensity results in greater anaerobic capacity, here the uncontrollable accumulation of lactate as clearance is overwhelmed by production. At or below this balance point exercise is generally sustainable as long as muscle and liver glycogen is maintained adequately through supplementary liquid or food intake, and the individual doesn’t become dehydrated. This is the important reason why smooth and steady riding is critical to conserve energy especially in a race scenario, as any ‘excursion’ above lactate threshold, rapidly consumes glucose delivered from stored glycogen, which is irreplaceable the closer to threshold and above someone cycles.

In contrast, training, can take advantage of this lactate system mechanism to improve the power at which this point occurs (lactate threshold heart rate may increase, remain the same or decrease depending on the training status of the individual), by increasing the ‘anaerobic’ tolerance or lactate conditioning through repeated ‘excursions’ above lactate threshold and into VO2peak or Anaerobic zones, with necessary recovery sub-threshold recovery. This forms the basis of a simple interval session, and explains the reason why performing interval sessions on a turbo-trainer with a power meter is an extremely effective method where resistance (a surrogate for outdoor gradients) is easily controllable. However, turbo-training like this is convenient for short durations, no more than 90 minutes is endured by motivated individuals as a structured session lasting that long is more than enough. But this ignores the other zones needed to be trained where benefit is derived from longer distance out door riding for cycling economy and efficiency as previously mentioned.

Choice of Terrain


Understanding how to maximise the effectiveness of an outdoors interval session relies on the availability and choice of terrain and how that translates to performance improvement. Shallow long hill repeats (800m-2km, 4-9%) work really well for extending threshold intensity and working slightly above and below it, if pace is kept optimal enough to maximise the number of repetitions you can fit into the session before fatiguing. Low, mid and upper Threshold intervals lasting between 8-30 minutes are difficult to find on UK roads, and why splitting these up into shorter repetitions is as good, if not better if intensity is increased and recovery is kept low (i.e. higher recovery intensity between repetitions, usually 3-4minutes of easy/ moderate intensity pedalling). Generally, moderately trained amateur cyclists with a few years experience may find 5 or 6 repetitions of 8-12 minutes are adequate for a full session, depending if exertion has been adequate to get the most out of each. Having said that, targeting the 4th or 5th interval as the best effort before heart rate takes off and power drops on subsequent ascents, should mean a successful training session. Training the higher physiological zone, VO2peak (3-8minutes) is a more demanding method, but potentially more effective if only shorter and steeper climbs (8-16%) are available…however a greater number of repetitions will be necessary to elevate the lactate threshold, pulling from above, as this zone tends to condition the cardio-respiratory capacity more so, increasing or ‘maximising’ the total aerobic capacity rather than muscular efficiency that longer duration efforts have. Even so, the secondary wave of physiological effect do condition the leg muscles beneficially if performed frequently enough, assuming the individual is fresh and well-motivated.

Two such complementary sessions serve to increase lactate threshold power-to-weight (where increased power is more desirable than reduced weight) considerably that the power increase and endurance directly transfers to more mountainous, longer ascents which otherwise are not immediately available. As training progresses, blending sessions is also a viable option to accelerate further performance gains and achieve peak capacity in time for an event, although such combined sessions require heaps of motivation and much recovery before further effective sessions can take place.


Get out there!


Therefore, for effective final preparation for a summer event it isn’t too late to start interval training, but choose the right terrain and intensity to maximise your exposure and number of achievable repetitions in your target zone. Once a couple of weeks of alternating VO2peak/ Threshold and combined sessions have been done, then it is worth considering conditioning teh anaerobic capacity for the icing on the cake. Again, dependent on experience, anaerobic sessions can be introduced earlier or later pre-event, and will be the subject of my next post. In a nutshell, be mindful of complementary zone training as per your scaled lactate threshold power for recommended duration and intensity on choice of gradients, recovery intensity neither too high or too low and the frequency/ length of sessions and all should be well!…..easy.

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