Competitive cyclists are not patient people. They tend to go directly to the pain, work too hard too early, and mistakenly overlook the real limiter of their performance simply because it doesn’t hurt enough to satisfy their addiction to pain.
Overwhelmingly, the most damaging error committed by developing cyclists, from a methodological point of view, is spending too much time training aspects that do not efficiently contribute to the athlete’s potential. This is a double whammy for the aspiring cyclist, because it takes energy from the systems that contribute the most. The error compounds in that energy is being wasted working systems that aren’t effectively maximizing the rider’s output.
The most common example is cyclists that cripple themselves with an overdose of excessively depleting work (zone 5/ VO2). The systems involved in races of an hour or more are primarily aerobic, and the focus of the training for these events should also be aerobic. If an athlete is forced to go anaerobic in order to make a selection, then the racers in the selection that are able to maintain aerobic status are clearly in an advantageous position. Going to VO2 (lactate accumulation) against riders who are at or below LT, is usually a losing proposition.
Yet, consistently, the misguided athlete will spend a disproportionate amount of time at intensities over LT, thinking that there is gold waiting in the ensuing lactate induced burn. No pain, no gain, right? This is certainly true, but in the endurance game, it is the longer-term pain of patiently planned progressive training strategy — and metered control of the naturally destructive human behavior of type A people — that wins. The anaerobic work certainly needs to be there, but it needs to be metered carefully for best results.
Think of it this way. In an event an hour or more long, how long can an athlete accumulate lactate before he/she blows? In the aerobic state, an athlete can pretty much go until the fuel is gone. Doesn’t it make sense to develop power in the aerobic zone where the majority of the race will be spent? Think of making the opposition go into a state of excruciating lactate induced burn while you cruise along semi-comfortably at threshold. That is the essential element of training the physiology of an endurance athlete.
First a well-built base is critical, which by this time should already be done. Then, establish baseline levels of where your perceived LT is and get a feel for what the critical zones feel like when you’re training. Home in on your present LT output by ramping gently into intensity and taking note of where you noticeably load up. You can tickle VO2 in each of your intensity workouts, but do not hang out there. This is where you get into trouble. For every minute you spend at VO2, you cost yourself exponential amounts of LT training. Tickling VO2 will allow you to note when you have increases in levels, which you should expect if you are training right.
When you tickle VO2 to observe aerobic status, you will simultaneously stimulate and develop anaerobic energy systems, in the proper proportions they deserve in your endurance world. Racing and hard group rides will provide many opportunities to develop lactate tolerance and go anaerobic, so rest easy knowing that you will get your lactate fix. Don’t volunteer your body for more zone 5 punishment when your needs are best served by zone 4 discipline. Don’t avoid zone 5 completely, just don’t kill yourself with it.
It is critical to understand the load that VO2 training creates and the recovery it requires from the body. One of the main detriments of VO2 training is that it burns down the central nervous system (CNS), which can effectively shut down your whole body when it’s depleted. It take a ton of CNS resource to do structured VO2 intervals … you leave a lot of mojo out on the road on a training day that would best be used in a race … when the CNS mojo is gone, you will not have the oomph to push your hard-earned fitness. Moreover, it takes time to heal from the chemical wasteland that anaerobia creates at those incendiary levels and that is time you could spend increasing your power at LT which is the gold standard of endurance performance.
If you’re the kind of rider that depends on a good sprint for results, view this progressive strategy as insurance that you will bring that great speed to the line more often, being fresher for having had to deplete less of the precious reserves it requires to make the selection. Sprinters are typically born not formed. Patiently build your program from base to the top. Don’t fail to spend enough time and energy building power at LT. When it’s time to wake up the speed mechanism, it will be there with dividends. Racing, and hard group rides will quickly prod dormant genetics to life. A little patience go along way.
Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is Director of Coaching and COO of Colorado Premier Training. He is also the head coach for the Fort Lewis College cycling team in Durango, Colorado.