A 35-year-old category 1 mountain biker — we’ll call him Joe — wanted to make a huge leap in his racing fitness over the course of one year. He had never worked with a coach before. He sought the expert advice of Ryan Kohler, the manager of sports performance at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center, to guide him during a 12-month period of regimented training. When he began this period, the 6-foot-3 athlete averaged approximately eight hours per week of riding.
Joe’s case study presents an opportunity to answer the question: How much can you improve in 12 months, and what does it take to get there?
In October 2015, after the racing season ended, Kohler conducted a full physiological test. Joe displayed good baseline lactate values (around 1mmol/L) through 200 watts, and he showed a significant change in lactate accumulation at 266 watts (3.5 W/kg). Maximal blood lactate concentration values were 6.6 mmol/L. It was late in the season, and his body’s capacity to store glycogen was compromised, his aerobic function trended marginally downward, and his lactate accumulation was high at race pace. His threshold power was 247 watts (3.3 W/kg) at a heart rate of 160 beats per minute.
Kohler concluded that, after a full season, Joe was over-trained and in need of rest.
Using a heart-rate distribution model composed of three zones, Kohler reduced the quantity of Joe’s high-intensity workouts. Zone 1 involved purely aerobic work. Zone 3 was above threshold. Zone 2 was everything in between. In this model, about 75-80 percent of Joe’s time should have been spent in zone 1, and just 15 percent in zone 3. Effectively, Kohler wanted Joe to do more base training, tying HR to lactate production. Over the next 12 months, Joe spent nearly 10 percent more time riding in zone 1, where his lactate level was below 2 mmol/L. Joe spent just one percent less time in zone 2 (between 2mmol/L and 4mmol/L of lactate) between his aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.
Kohler’s plan consisted of three main periods, the first of which consisted of eight weeks of base training with an average of six to eight hours per week. Rides were 45 minutes to three hours in length, always within zone 1. Only a few sessions included intensity.
The second period comprised 12 weeks of sweet spot training, broken up into three build periods. These included blocks of overload followed by rest to provide an intensified training stimulus. They were paired with recovery and base rides. Workouts included two-by-20-minute, three-by-20-minute, and one-by-15-minute intervals to progressively increase time at intensity. Subsequent blocks progressed to higher intensity sessions, in zone 3, that included four- to six-minute intervals with total work times ranging from 15-25 minutes. This period led into Joe’s race season. Then, Kohler had Joe complete short, intense intervals to simulate race demands as part of a maintenance period.
Finally, a third period of eight weeks was used to provide specific race preparation. Joe’s long rides increased to between five and seven hours. Workouts were utilized to mimic the demands of racing. After this last block, which concluded at the end of June, Joe’s threshold power increased to 306 watts following a series of races.
All training after this point followed a race/recovery method.
Kohler performed a second test in October 2016. Joe’s baseline lactate production was down, and he had made significant improvement to his lactate clearance capacity at threshold. His baseline threshold rose significantly to 280 watts (3.7 W/kg) at a heart rate of 165 bpm.
Joe’s lactate metabolism improved across the board. He showed a lower lactate response through 2.5 W/kg. The lower concentrations of lactate seen at 3 and 3.5 W/kg allowed for improved sustainability at these workloads and reduced the perception of his efforts. He also improved his maximal capabilities, as indicated by higher lactate production at 4 W/kg. Finally, his heart rate showed a reduced response throughout.
Joe’s fat oxidation improved greatly, and was sustained through 2.5 W/kg, allowing for improved performance at moderate intensities. While the point at which his carbohydrate oxidation dominated occurred at 2 W/kg in 2015, it rose to 3.5 W/kg in 2016. This will allow Joe to slightly reduce carbohydrates per hour at these intensities.
Joe accomplished all of this by only slightly altering his total training hours. He increased his weekly mileage from 79 to 90 miles, and an increase of 27 total hours for the year, or just 2.25 hours per month and 11 additional miles each week.
Joe’s case is applicable to athletes across a range of sports. With a slight increase in the duration and distance of his riding, combined with a re-formatting of his training, Joe saw improvements in his fat oxidation, lactate metabolism, and endurance capabilities over a 12-month period. Much of his performance increase was a function of the off-season preparation period when he focused on building aerobic fitness at appropriate intensities.
“This shows how you can improve training distribution and recovery without massively changing volume and still see some great gains,” Kohler says. “But it takes focus to do this. There is good reason to have a coach to guide you.”
“Diagnosis” is a collaboration between VeloNews and the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center.