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In this post, I’ll be covering a selection of 15 of my best cross country (XC) and marathon (XCM) MTB racing tips to help you ride faster and achieve greater performances in your upcoming races.

Each of the tips are designed to be super practical and actionable, meaning you can start putting them into practice right away and start seeing results in your next competition.

We’ll look at everything from how to perfect your race starts, to how to better pace your races overall and what to do and not to do before and after your key events, as well as many other factors that affect your racing success.

Let’s get started…

1. ROTATE YOUR PEDALS

When you’re on the start line and the gun goes off, it’s really easy to slip a pedal – even the best riders do it!

One simple way to reduce the chances of this happening is to rotate your pedals so that they’re level and the cleat can easily engage as soon as you stamp down.

Even a few missed pedal strokes can be costly in the max effort start of an XC race, so the faster you can get into the pedals, the faster you can get to that narrow first section of singletrack.

Experiment in training with which foot is best to have clipped in ahead of time and which is best to push off with, as this will also affect how quickly you can engage your cleats and get off the line.

Practice these during your trail rides or at traffic lights to dial in that muscle memory.

2. FINGERS OFF THE BRAKES

Another tip for the start line, given that it’s so critical, but try to resist holding the brakes right before the start.

Taking your fingers off the brakes can give you one less thing to think about and allow you to push off the line better.

Even if it just makes a split second difference, this could still mean a few extra places higher up the field in what is often a hectic part of the race.

You’ll also be able to better grip the bars and use your arms for that initial generation of power.

3. NAIL YOUR PRE-RIDE LAPS

Scoping out the track you’ll be racing on is really useful and should always be done where possible, especially for your highest priority races.

Try to get a few laps of the course in, where the first one or two will be at a slow pace.

Take your time getting around and be as observant as possible, stopping at any technical or influential sections of the track to assess line choice, gear selection etc. You’ll also want to include either a lap at race pace, or at least a lap featuring some key sections at race pace, ideally the main climb or combination of climb and descent.

There’s quite a difference in speed and technique needed when hitting parts of the track at full speed compared to just cruising along, so the more familiar you are the better.

4. MOVE WARM UP CLOSE TO THE RACE START

Making sure you’re warmed up for your race, given the XC and even marathon racing is very intense right from the off is important.

But, if you warm up too far out from the start of the race, its usefulness can be diminished.

Warm ups allow the muscles and tendons to be stretched and activated, and also raise the temperature of the main muscles ready for the race. You want to maintain this generated heat by moving the warm up as close to the start of the race as practically possible, and using both passive and active heat maintenance techniques to retain that heat.

Active heat maintenance would be spinning the legs on the road/trail or by using a turbo trainer or set of rollers.

Passive heat maintenance would generally be used for colder races, where you’d wear warmer, insulating clothing like tights and a long sleeve jersey.

5. USE A MINI CORE WORKOUT IN YOUR WARM UP

As well as the muscles typically thought of when it comes to cycling, having a strong and activated core is essential for good MTB performance, given how much is demanded in terms of technique and balance.

So, adding in some of your favourite core strength exercises into your warm up can really help with everything from power generation to balance and coordination. It can also help to ease common discomfort that might arise throughout a race, such as lower back or shoulder pain.

Good exercises to use include planks, side planks, crunches and bird dogs, but feel free to add in whatever works best for you or targets your particular weaknesses better.

Consider doing these exercises before starting to actually warm up by riding the bike, and then if time permits, after you finish a spin on the road or turbo trainer/rollers.

6. GET AERODYNAMIC

Although the effects of aerodynamic efficiency are typically far less influential in MTB racing than on the road, it can still be used to your advantage at certain times.

On exposed sections of a track and/or when the speed is high, such as on a fire road, getting low and reducing your frontal area on the bike can result in a lot of free speed.

This free speed can then be used to get away from riders just behind you, bridge up to a group up the trail, or simply contribute to faster lap times.

Some of the pro XC MTb racers are now catching on to this, and sometimes going as far as holding onto the top of their front forks to get even lower, but just by lowering your chest towards the top tube and bending your arms, you can see fairly significant increases in speed.

Give it a try in your next race…

7. ONLY FILL BOTTLES HALF FULL

This one’s a quick and easy tip, but can help to save a significant amount of weight over the course of a race.

If you have support in the feed zones, consider only putting around 250-300ml of fluid into your bottles, and even perhaps starting without a bottle at all for the first lap, where it’s unlikely you’ll be drinking anything anyway.

With all the weight saving measures XC racers like us seek from our equipment and bodies, saving weight from unnecessary fluid is a mechanically safe and simple way to improve your power to weight ratio when everything is taken into account.

Of course, for hotter races and where support is lacking, this strategy might not be applicable or conducive to improved performance, but is worth leveraging when possible.

8. EAT 3 HOURS BEFORE YOUR RACE

Your pre-race nutrition strategy plays an important role in how successful you can be, and although it might not win you the race, it could certainly lose it for you.

A common mistake that even experienced riders make is eating too much too close to their race.

This is an issue because A) you can experience lower blood sugar levels right when you don’t want them because you haven’t given enough time for them to stabilise and B) you need to allow time for the food to digest, as it hanging around in your stomach when you’re racing as hard as you can is going to be really uncomfortable.

Try to have finished your main pre-race carbohydrate-rich meal 3 hours before the start of your race. Within this 3-hour window, try to only snack on very light foods and in small quantities, taking in these calories as liquid and/or solid form.

What does work well though to top you up right before the race kicks off is a gel, taken on the start line, or with around 5-10 minutes to go.

9. PASS OTHER RIDES STEADILY

Like a few of the other tips in this list which concern using your energy smartly and sparingly, try to use as little energy as you need to when overtaking competitors in a race.

Whilst it might be tempting to lay down a huge spike in power to assert your dominance and flex your superior endurance fitness, usually all you’ll need to do to get past a rider mid-race is a slight and gradual increase in effort.

This will save your legs and preserve your matches for other more important times of the race, such as making an attack in the last few laps or sprinting for the line.

It can also help to avoid cramp and other fatigue issues that can arise in racing due to the body being pushed harder than it ever is in training, even in your most intense workouts.

10. STAND ON THE PEDALS

Most XC races will feature a number of sections where you’ll want to maintain momentum and push hard to get through them as fast as possible, e.g. short, sharp climbs.

Standing on the pedals offers some advantages over staying seated that are quite specific to MTB racing, where you’re not as concerned with efficiency like you might be on a longer climb.

Standing will allow you to use more of your bodyweight to generate force on the pedals, and has the added benefit of making it easier to use the arms for leverage.

Something to watch out for when standing on the pedals is rear wheel traction, which is reduced when the bodyweight is shifted more to the front of the bike, and especially if a jerky pedal stroke is used.

You also want to minimise the time your standing when going very fast but still producing high torque, such as it a hard surge. If your gears slip or the chain snaps, all of that bodyweight can send you flying over the bars in no time.

However, where possible, try to use this pedalling technique and as you build up strength and endurance in the legs with each training session and race, you should find yourself faster over the course of a lap, and particularly in well suited portions of the track.

11. CHECK CLEATS ARE CLEAR

Back to another start line tip and that is to check that there’s no mud or stones stuck around your cleats.

It’s easy for both the cleats and your shoes to become clogged up with dirt before the start as you walk around or do some final riding off road as part of your warm up.As stressed before, even a few missed pedal strokes can be costly and push you down the field only a few seconds into the race, so this little check can be worth its weight in gold.

Try clipping in and out a few times whilst standing on the start to check smooth operation and dial in that final muscle memory before the gun goes or whistle blows.

12. TIME YOUR LAPS

One of the characteristics of experienced racers is the ability to post consistent lap times throughout an XC race, which relates to a wider skill of good pacing.

For those who are less experienced and not yet adept at being able to ride the same speed for the first few laps as their last few, timing your laps in a race can be really helpful. Whilst it can take a bit of getting used to trying to remember to hit that lap button on your head unit at the same point each lap, as well as holding in your mind what time you posted the previous lap, once it becomes a habit, you shouldn’t find it too much of a struggle.

Using the start/finish line can work well as the point you hit that lap button, but equally you can choose a non-technical section of the track where there’s little danger should you need to look down at your head unit briefly.

This isn’t something you’ll need to do forever, since you’ll naturally start to improve your pacing with conscious effort, but will help to accelerate your progression in this important area of your racing.

13. USE HARD SURGES SPARINGLY

Understanding the concept of ‘burning matches‘ is helpful when it comes to being smart with how you use your energy in a race, and basically states that every athlete has a limited number of efforts well above threshold they can produce in a given time.

The fitter and more race-prepared you become, the greater number of matches you have to burn, and the size of those matches (the duration you can perform a certain high power output) increases.

Using these hard efforts sparingly and only at critical times will help you to get an edge of the competition, which likely features a lot of riders who don’t give enough thought to this idea.

One part of the race you’ll see other burning their matches (and that can tempt you to burn your own) is right at the start of a race.

Again, if the field is going to come together when the trail narrows, or you’re about to hit a long climb where the pace will naturally settle down anyway, using these hard efforts can be a waste and mean you don’t have as many available to you in the latter stages of a race, again where there is lots of opportunity to make up time and placings.

In your next race, try to hold back when you can afford to and see what effect it has on your endurance.

14. RAISE YOUR GAZE

As mentioned in the previous point about getting free speed from being aerodynamic, raising your head and subsequently your gaze will do the same thing.

Lifting your head up will allow you to look further down the trail and spot obstacles further ahead of time, so that you can choose a line without needing to slow down as much or be too reactive. You can then use your peripheral vision to spot trail features close to you.

This is especially key as the race goes on and you get tired, since this is where speed can start to drop off and mistakes can be made.

The other key benefit of lifting your head up is improved breathing, since it will naturally open up the chest and the airways, improving your oxygen intake and potentially the amount of oxygen you can deliver to the working muscles.

Practice this outside of racing, and it should come naturally in competition.

15. MAKE NOTES POST-RACE

The final tip here should help you to learn as much as possible from your racing, whether you posted a less-than-stellar result, or even if all went to plan.

There’s nothing like racing to show you where you’re strong but most clearly where you might be limited and giving away time to your competitors. So, whilst it’s fresh in your mind, you’ll want to make some notes on how a race went and identify a few key areas for improvement.

To do so, you can either write them down in a notebook, use a notes app on your phone, or add the comments to the actual workout file on a program like TrainingPeaks.

As you do this more and more, you’ll be able to constantly iterate your training plan and improve your preparation for your target races, and it’ll also give you plenty to look back on at the end of the season when you’re planning the next on a macro level.

FREE WORKOUT HANDBOOK

Alongside the structure and intensity distribution of your training, balancing stress and recovery and constantly learning and iterating your approach, using the most effective and time-efficient workouts (whether those are interval sessions, foundational endurance workouts or important recovery rides) is really the name of the game. 

Click below to pick up  The Essential Workout Handbook, a free mini-library of 10 carefully-selected workouts proven to generate significant fitness and performance improvements, and some of the exact sessions we’ve used to win multiple national titles with the cyclists we advise:

FREE WORKOUT HANDBOOK

The post 15 XC MTB RACING TIPS TO BOOST YOUR PERFORMANCE appeared first on tombell.co.

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In this post, we’ll look at 7 steps to higher quality cycling workouts.

Click the video below to watch/listen to a talk-through, or read the post in full below!

As a serious cyclist, it’s essential to have a time-efficient training programme to prepare you for the demands of riding and racing.

There’s just one problem…

It’s easy to leave fitness on the table if you’re not focusing on making the quality of your individual workouts as high as you possibly can.

So, to help you get greater adaptations from your training, here are 7 things you can do to ensure your training is consistently high in quality.

Let’s get started…

1. USE AN INTENSITY “RANGE”

When trying to achieve a set power number or heart rate figure in your training sessions, whether that’s for an entire ride or for individual intervals, always try to use a target range rather than a single number.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s certainly worth repeating…

Using a range will almost always mean that you can hit the desired intensity targets easier and that you can perform a session more accurately on average.

With a specific, singular number on the other hand, you’ll often find that you end up overshooting the target because you’re always trying to hit that single number as a minimum.

This means that:

  • you either complete the entire session too hard and carry more fatigue than was necessary or is ideal into your next workout
  • or even worse, you start off too hard and have to curtail the workout before you complete it.

A good rule of thumb:

Use a wide enough range to give you some breathing space (e.g. 60-70% FTP) but not so wide that it extends over into another training zone.

Next tip…

2. TRAIN WITH THE RIGHT TOOLS AND TO THE RIGHT METRICS

Metrics are important both in your post-ride analysis as well as during a workout itself, and having the right tools will provide those optimal metrics.

The last thing you want to do is get home, pour over your data and realise a workout wasn’t done nearly as well as you thought it was!

Without getting into more involved training tools like oxygen saturation monitors and the like, a power meter is going to be your best bet to make your training very precise and calculated.

Whilst once very expensive across the board, even picking up one of the cheaper models on the market will do the job.

Side note:

I even bought a Stages knock-off last year from a Chinese wholesale website out of pure curiosity and it ended up being one of the most consistent and reliable units I’ve ever used!

In absence of a power meter though, try to use heart rate rather than RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) if possible.

For the ultimate setup, combine power, HR and RPE to give you a more informed idea of where you’re at.

Here, your heart rate becomes a qualifier for the power numbers you’re seeing, and RPE does the same thing for your heart rate data.

You’ll also want to know which deeper metrics to look at when evaluating improvements and workout quality.

Some examples include:

  • Look at VI or Variability Index when seeing how steady you kept your power on an endurance ride
  • Check IF or Intensity Factor to judge if your workout was too intense or too easy
  • Examine Pw:HR or “rate of decoupling” to evaluate your aerobic fitness in a steady ride

Now let’s talk about organising your training better…

3. BETTER WORKOUT SEQUENCING

For good training, you’ll need to be rested enough to hit the necessary power or heart rate targets if you want to get the best results from the key sessions in a training week.

If you’ve sequenced your week well, you’ll be able to complete every workout in the week really well.

The result?

You’ll create a better training stimulus to the body from the sum total of your sessions.

If the sequencing of the week is poor, you can find yourself arriving at less critical workouts fresh, higher priority workouts fatigued, or just struggling with a lingering fatigue throughout an entire week.

This being said, it’s important to understand that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to sequence a week that’s better than another. This will all depend on factors like your own training history, current fitness, time availability etc and needs to be individualised.

Try to experiment with some different sequencing at non-critical times in the season.

This will help you find out what particular sequence brings about the best results for you over a week-long period, or indeed an entire mesocycle (block of training weeks)

Onwards…

4. KEEP THINGS SIMPLE

With all the data available and 1000s of variations possible, workout quality can be effected when training sessions are built in a way that’s needlessly complex and hard to follow out on the road or trail.

There’s very little (if any) evidence supporting the fact that complicated sessions that look fancy on paper give superior adaptations to those which are more straightforward and less “sexy”.

So, when planning your own training or using workouts set/created by others, try to dismiss the idea that because a workout looks really fancy, it’s going to produce greater fitness and better adaptations for you.

The key takeaway is to keep things simple wherever possible and this will help increase your ability to execute exactly what is set.

For some straightforward sessions that have proven highly effective for a broad range of cyclists, be sure to download my free workout library, containing 10 structured sessions and some bonus training tips by clicking above.

Now tip number 5…

5. LEARN FROM YOUR TRAINING

Alongside having a good training programme to follow and one that’s designed specifically for your needs and schedule, keeping a training diary alongside it will do wonders to help you constantly learn and improve the quality of your training.

By getting into the habit of leaving a few comments on your key workouts each week, you’ll ensure you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.

You’ll also learn what workouts you prefer, which seem to click with you the best and you’ll be able to look back to see how workouts have gone in the past relative to the present.

This can be done using a paper journal or physical calendar, or via a software program like TrainingPeaks, which is what I use to plan my own training and for the coaching business as a whole.

In these comments, try to note down things like how much you enjoyed the session/felt satisfied afterwards, how your fatigue was coming into the workout and what you felt you did well/not so well.

This will help you to gauge how much you’ve improved in your execution and where you might still need to work a little harder, as well as give you valuable insights into what we talked about above with optimal workout sequencing.

Penultimate tip:

6. LOG YOUR TRAINING LOCATIONS

Does this sound familiar?

You’re excited about a new workout you’re trying (maybe it’s a set of hill repeats), so you’ve ridden out to somewhere you think will work really well for that particular workout, only to find it completely unsuitable…

Maybe there was a big stretch of downhill on the climb?

Or perhaps a series of gates on what you thought was an uninterrupted section of trail?

It happens to the best of us, it’s always annoying and of course it affects your ability to nail a workout well.

The key thing here is that once you do find a good location that works for a particular workout, make a mental or physical note of it so that you can use it again going forward.

This will help you to be sure that nothing from a terrain perspective will get in the way of you completing a workout well and give you somewhere you can go back to time and again to safe in the knowledge you can get done what you need to.

Alrighty, time for the final tip…

7: KNOW THE PURPOSE

This one’s important and why I’ve stressed it here at the end of this post…

Having a clear idea of exactly why you’re doing a certain workout is vitally important to the quality you manage to achieve when performing it.

When you’re clear on it is you’re going to get from the workout in terms of fitness yield and it’s place within your training week or plan as a whole, your enthusiasm and motivation to get it done will be that much higher.

This greatly increases the chances you’ll be able to put 100% effort into the session and you’ll be that much more mentally resilient when things get tough towards the end of a long ride or midway through a set of demanding intervals.

This is why on all the workouts I use for my coaching clients, each and every workout has it’s exact purpose laid out clearly, as you can see in the example below:

So, I hope this was a useful and actionable article with suggestions you can put into practice right away.

Please do let me know how you get on when you apply the tips to your training!

WORKOUT HANDBOOK

Alongside the structure and intensity distribution of your training, balancing stress and recovery and constantly learning and iterating your approach, using the most effective and time-efficient workouts (whether those are interval sessions, foundational endurance workouts or important recovery rides) is really the name of the game. 

Click below to pick up your Advanced Workout Handbook, a free mini-library of 10 carefully-selected workouts proven to generate significant fitness and performance improvements, and some of the exact sessions we’ve used to win multiple national titles with the cyclists we advise:

FREE WORKOUT HANDBOOK

The post 7 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WORKOUT QUALITY appeared first on tombell.co.

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This guide is designed to be your one-stop-shop for improving your MTB interval training, whether for riding or racing.

It covers everything you need to know to get more fitness from your MTB training time using structured intervals, and includes tips and strategies used to win national championship titles and achieve multiple UCI podiums internationally.

More specifically, this article will cover:

(If you want to jump to a particular section, just click on the appropriate bullet point above!)

Let’s get started…

DEMANDS OF MTB XC RACING

Here’s one thing that’s true:

Mountain Bike Cross Country (MTB XC) racing in 2019 is one of the most aerobically taxing (and technically demanding) sports in the world!

There are few others (one exception being XC skiing) requiring a higher utilisation of the aerobic capacity throughout the duration of a race, meaning high aerobic and anaerobic fitness is a given for success.

And when we talk about interval training, this is a broad term that refers to any type of training that is intermittent…

i.e. has a work or “on” part, and a rest or “off” part to the workout, where the term “interval” actually refers to the inclusion of the rest part specifically (as in the ‘interval’ part way through a theatre show, for instance) – who knew?

MTB XC riding and racing differs from a lot of the other cycling disciplines insomuch as that whilst the sport is primarily aerobic in nature and races typically last around 90 minutes, it’s uniquely characterised by being extremely “stochastic”, meaning there’s high frequency variation in effort .

These efforts need to be recovered from EXTREMELY QUICKLY, and done so with only a very partial recovery at best.

Here’s a power file from an Elite UCI Category 1 MTB race in Slovenia this year, a field that included some of the world’s best XC racers like Gerhard Kerchbaumer and the Braidot twins and which clearly shows these spikes and recoveries:

If you want to pour over the data yourself, click below to see the race file on TrainingPeaks:
UCI C1 Elite MTB Race File on TrainingPeaks.

Now, depending on how you analyse the data from an XC race, you can draw different conclusions as to what is going on at the athlete level.

Let’s take a look at this file through a number of different lenses, starting with power or wattage:

POWER OUTPUT

When viewing race data through the lens of a power meter, it clearly shows one thing:

There are lots of huge wattage spikes throughout that often reach the anaerobic and neuromuscular intensity levels.

These large spikes are then followed either by:

(i) sustained periods of either pedalling at or slightly below the lactate threshold (on a sustained climb or flatter part of the track for example)

or…

(ii) little/no pedalling at all and a correspondingly low wattage reading when descending.

Normalised power for the entirety of 90 minute MTB XC races is typically 90-95% of threshold power and the actual time spent in each of the training intensity zones (using a common 6 or 7 zone scale such as that developed by Dr. Andrew Coggan) are something similar to the following:

You can clearly see the large contribution of short, high power efforts at or above anaerobic capacity, which add up throughout the course of the race, in addition to a significant time spent at low intensities too.

Overall though, MTB XC race files often show a relatively equal spread across all power training zones, with a slight polarisation of low and very high intensity, supporting the idea that racers who want to be strong in MTB XC competitions need to have a solid fitness across the board.

VO2MAX OR MAXIMUM AEROBIC CAPACITY

The VO2Max, i.e. the maximum amount of oxygen that can be taken in to deliver to the working muscles, is one of the key determinants of performance in MTB XC competition…

…and your VO2 (rate of oxygen delivery to working muscles) is taxed tremendously throughout a race.

Although it’s almost impossible to directly measure in an elite race…

…some studies have indeed looked into the direct demands on the aerobic capacity during such efforts, now that wearable and mobile VO2max monitoring units like the VO2Master are commercially available and sufficiently accurate.

The result?

In contrast to the data from a power meter, where pedalling force is often low to non-existent on descents, the VO2 remains elevated during short downhills, again strengthening the position that MTB XC athletes must try to recover as quickly as possible even though this is only ever a partial at best.

During climbing portions, which are obviously a huge part of MTB XC racing and often where the decisive moves are made, the percentage of the VO2max being utilised gradually increases.

And the reason it stays elevated on the descents is mainly because both the upper body and lower body are being used for balance, stability and steering.

This means the VO2 is consistently high throughout a race, placing a huge demand on the athlete’s aerobic system.

For those interested:

My own relative VO2max was 85.2 ml/kg/min when last tested in a lab, a video of which you can find here where I talk about the results and the test itself:

HEART RATE

Using heart rate (HR) data to assess the demands of MTB XC again presents somewhat of a different picture to power output and VO2max…

Here’s a time in zone chart from that same Slovenian UCI C1 race, so you can see those marked differences from the corresponding power chart:

With MTBing being so stochastic or “choppy” as mentioned before, there’s an inherent limitation in precisely analysing a file like this due to HR lag.

However, what is clear is this:

From looking at the data from a broader point of view, HR rises very quickly after the fast mass start of a race, rising almost towards Max HR, and then stays elevated throughout the entire race, sometimes never dropping below 85% of Max at any point from start to finish:

Average HR for a 90 minute race usually falls somewhere around the threshold HR of the athlete, or about 90% of Max HR.

This is of course a very individual thing and does depend on variables like how well the race was paced, the current fitness of the rider etc.

FUTURE METHODS

It’ll be really interesting to see some other monitoring methods arise over the next few years, where I’ll update this post accordingly.

This might include muscle oxygen monitoring with devices like Moxy, or real-time monitoring of blood lactate concentration would be cool too.

WHY USE INTERVAL TRAINING FOR MTB XC?

So, in preparation for MTB XC events and to develop the greatest amount of race-specific fitness possible, why is interval training such an effective method?

Well, interval training’s primary benefit is this:

It allows you to spend greater amounts of time at a given intensity than would be otherwise achievable if this intensity was ridden continuously without any rest periods.

It’s these “rest” intervals in between the “work” intervals that allow for higher training loads and greater time within the target zone on a per-workout basis.

This results in greater adaptations and a larger supercompensatory response provided that adequate recovery time is allowed.

Here’s how supercompensation works:

The “intermittent” nature of interval training also has benefits in its specificity to the MTB XC discipline, where it helps to train and develop abilities like:

  • high power repeatability (i.e. the ability to surge and sprint over and over without fatiguing)
  • force production, going from slower to faster speeds over and over again
  • ability to handle sudden and random changes in rhythm.

What’s more, interval training, especially HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) can be very time efficient compared to the steadier endurance training elsewhere in the training plan.

Physiologically, interval training can be applied in a number of different ways and for different purposes, so let’s take a good look over what areas of your fitness can be most improved…

INTERVAL TRAINING BENEFITS FOR MTB XC

So, now that we have a greater understanding of the demands of MTB XC racing, as well as the potential of interval training to help you prepare for these demands, let’s get into the more nuanced discussion of exactly how and where interval training can be applied in your plan…

ENDURANCE

Your aerobic endurance provides the foundation that supports all of your high intensity fitness and is incredibly important in a sport lasting for ~90 minutes in the XC format, and up to 6 hours in marathon events.

It ensures that:

(i) you can ride at higher power outputs for longer
(ii) you’re able to use a lower fraction of your lactate threshold and VO2max for a given power, which influences how your body is able to use different fuel and its economy.

Although typical endurance training (also known as base training) seems quite removed from the high intensity demands of racing, the fallacy of specificity (by which I’m referring to the mistaken belief that the best training for a sport is ALWAYS that which most closely reflects its demands) should be considered.

To train your endurance and improve the systems and mechanisms associated with greater endurance, you can use very long intervals to:

  • develop the strength of slow twitch muscles
  • raise maximum power output where fat is primary fuel source (FatMax)
  • build greater mitochondrial density (the power houses of the cell which convert glycogen into ATP – the body’s energy currency)
  • increase in amount of capillaries in the muscle (which allows for greater blood flow to the muscle)
LACTATE THRESHOLD

Perhaps one of the aspects of fitness that can be improved the most through correct application of interval training is the lactate threshold (LT).

As it’s such an important component of performance, I’ve written an entirely separate guide on the lactate threshold and how to improve it.

As mentioned, the LT, also known as:

  • the anaerobic threshold
  • maximum lactate steady state (MLSS)
  • the lactate turnpoint

is the highest point at which lactate accumulation is steady state in the blood, where even a slight increase in intensity then sees the blood lactate levels increase exponentially:

When this threshold is crossed, you’re essentially on borrowed time.

This is where lactate levels will continue to rise (albeit at different rates depending on what % over threshold you’re riding at) until you’re forced to slow down.

The bottom line:

The higher power output you can generate whilst staying at or below the LT, the better.

Interval training to improve LT power is typically performed either at or ideally just above LT for long periods, which will provide greater training stress, but keep accumulation of lactate to a level where you can still perform intervals of relatively long duration at elevated HR and VO2 for sustained periods.

It’s best performed above LT because of the demands that higher-level athletes need to place on themselves to cause meaningful adaptations and to achieve the minimum effective dose.

Training right at this LT and the pain associated with it is very manageable for those with high training volumes or long training history, but the stress on the aerobic system can be risky and under appreciated, leading sometimes to both physical and mental..

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You’ve probably heard of the term lactate threshold and there’s a reason for that – it’s a huge deal when it comes to your cycling fitness!

In this post, we’ll look at why the lactate threshold is so important and how increasing it can have dramatically positive affects your cycling fitness, where we’ll cover:

(You can click on the links above to jump to each section)

First off then, let’s get a grip on what the lactate threshold (or lactate itself for that matter) actually is…

UNDERSTANDING THE LACTATE THRESHOLD

The lactate threshold is also rather confusingly known by a number of other terms such as Maximum Lactate Steady State (MLSS), Anaerobic Threshold (AT), Lactate Turnpoint (LTP) and Lactate Inflection Point (LIP). Despite a number of definitions of the lactate threshold, for the purposes of clarity, let’s agree here that it refers to something resembling the following:

“the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood and achieves a steady state, where any increase in exercise intensity will exponentially increase this lactate accumulation and a reduction in intensity would see lactate accumulation drop”

Think of it as the maximum intensity you can ride at before lactate begins to rapidly build up in the blood, where riding even slightly beyond this point puts you on borrowed time and a quick path towards exhaustion and having to slow down.

The “threshold” part is fairly simple to  grasp then, but what exactly is that “lactate” part then?

Lactate itself gets a bad rap, since it or its closely related chum lactic acid are commonly thought of as having an exclusively negative effect on endurance performance and fatigue resistance, responsible for that burning in the legs you get when you exceed your lactate threshold whilst cycling.

However, it’s important to understand that lactate, an organic molecule and an ion with a negative charge, is present in the blood at all times, even when you’re simply sat there on the couch doing a whole lot of nothing.

Far from being a hinderance, when cleared at a rate that exceeds production, lactate is actually being used as important fuel (or substrate) for the body in the form of glucose (this process being called glycolysis) after it’s been oxidised in either the muscle fibres where it was produced or in other muscle fibres.

More specifically, lactate is first converted into pyruvate, which in turn can be converted into glucose to be either metabolised by the working muscle or stored for use at a later date.

When it comes to the lactate threshold then, it’s not the production of lactate we’re concerned with here, but the accumulation.

At this point, it makes sense to understand that it’s neither lactate nor lactic acid that causes fatigue in and of itself, contrary to the common fallacy that’s perpetuated.

Why these feelings of fatigue and the burning sensations in fact arise is, as far as we understand, due to ‘acidosis’ or an increasingly acidic inter-cellular environment, which concerns the build up of hydrogen ions.

These hydrogen ions come from pyruvic acid (the end product of glycolysis mentioned above) being converted into lactic acid and it’s then the build up of these ions that cause this acidosis, in turn negatively affecting the muscle’s ability to contract and function.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to methods for finding out or estimating what your lactate threshold is…

HOW TO DETERMINE YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD

As mentioned above, the lactate threshold is often confused with FTP or Functional Threshold Power, and whilst the two are linked, they’re not quite the same thing.

The former is a biological marker (with an associated wattage – lactate threshold power) and the latter a practical, non-invasive field-based means of estimating the power you can hold for 1 hour (which helpfully is likely to be relatively close to your lactate threshold, but not guaranteed to be the same).

Here’s a slightly longer explanation of the difference between the two: https://tombell.co/ftp-vs-lactate-threshold/

I’ll start by briefly covering some of the main ways to find your FTP, since this is going to provide you with results that can be used in much the same way as your lactate threshold, i.e. for the setting of training zones and as benchmarks for measuring fitness progression, and is most practical for many cyclists…

20-MINUTE FTP TEST

This standard and most common FTP estimate test protocol involves performing a 20-minute maximum effort interval, but one that is paced evenly throughout (as distinct from something like a CP3 test, where you go all out from the beginning and hang on for dear life with no concept of pacing).

In this 20-minute effort, you want to ride consistently throughout at the highest power you can sustain from beginning to end, recording the average power for that effort and multiplying the result by 0.95, the thinking being that this 5% accounts for the anaerobic contribution to an effort that is still somewhat short in the context of the endurance athlete.

Whilst every rider is different in the way they actually produce this 20 minutes of power (meaning it’s hard to directly compare the results of one rider to another), on an individual level, this should give you a good benchmark with which to set up your training zones and repeat the same test after a block of training to gauge your rate of progression in this area of your fitness.

There are a few different approaches to this test, including doing a 5-minute all-out effort before the 20 minute interval (to again null the anaerobic contribution) which deals with the fact that this protocol often exaggerates what someone can put out for a whole hour.

Whether you choose to do this 5 minute effort, a standard warm up procedure or something different again, what’s key is to find the best protocol for you and then use your experience in your training to fine tune the FTP figure you base your workouts on.

Just make sure to repeat the same test protocol under as similar conditions as possible each time for standardised results.

2x 8-MINUTE FTP TEST

The 2x 8-minute estimate test is another means of finding the same result as above and a proxy to your power at lactate threshold.

The reason this test was developed was to go one step further than the 20-minute test in terms of creating a practical, repeatable protocol available to just about any cyclist.

Even using a 20-minute test, if you’re wanting to ride outdoors (which you should if you can, rather than doing so on an indoor trainer) it can be tough to find an uninterrupted road or trail without any downhills, corners or anything else that might affect your ability to produce steady power.

To perform this estimate test, perform 2x 8-minute intervals as hard as you can, but as an average over the two, i.e. don’t go out and blow yourself up on the first one and perform the second 50 watts lower. Try to perform a very hard effort in the first and get as close to repeating it in the second.

Take around 10 minutes of active recovery between the two 8-minutes intervals.

To find the result, take the average of the two 8-minute intervals and multiply that number by 0.9. Again though, there are inherent limitations with how accurately this result reflects what you can do for an hour, and so carefully assessing your experiences and capabilities in training at different percentages is key to landing on the right FTP for you.

FTP RAMP TEST

Fairly recently and due to a fair amount of publicity, cyclists of many disciplines have been donning their smart trainers (and dumb trainers too using a regular on-bike power meter) and using TrainerRoad’s FTP Ramp Test.

This estimate test, which has similarities to traditional lab lactate threshold and VO2max testing in its stepped or ramped design (but crucially without any direct, invasive measurements), was created to not only be simple to conduct, but also to avoid the lengthy suffering that comes with the other test procedures above.

In this ramp test, you’ll typically only experience significant discomfort for a couple of minutes towards the end of the test.

From reading reports and conversing with the athletes that I coach, there have been mixed experiences with this test, with some reporting the results to be accurate compared to other testing methods, and others finding the numbers are overly generous (i.e. giving a higher FTP estimate than expected).

What I’d recommend ultimately is to try and do more than one of these FTP estimate tests (ideally all of them over a longer period of time) to see how the results compare and to provide you more data you can use to corroborate your sensations in training, race results and other metrics.

As a place to start though, this test can be useful and is certainly one of the least stressful and therefore easier means of estimation.

1-HOUR FTP TEST

Ok, not much to be said here other than if you are able to do an entire 1-hour effort under conditions that allow you to push as hard as you can, this will be the very best FTP result you’ll get!

These conditions could constitute a race (e.g. a TT) or a very hard group training session.

Take this opportunity if it arises, but be careful not to try to do this too often, given that it involves a huge physical and emotional investment, that when paired with a voluminous training programme, can risk burnout and non-functional overreaching.

LACTATE THRESHOLD TESTING

Moving on from all of the means of testing your FTP, which again is an pseudo-estimate for your power at lactate threshold and not necessarily the same thing, let’s look at some of the ways you can measure both your lactate threshold and more usefully your ‘lactate profile’ across the board.

A lactate profile test can be done in a laboratory or at home on an indoor trainer, ideally with someone assisting you. In both scenarios, small blood samples will be taken as you ride, where you’ll start from an easy pace with your blood lactate levels at baseline, and work your way up to a high level of intensity in a step-wise fashion.

A typical testing procedure would have an athlete start riding at about 50% of their anticipated lactate threshold power, where the wattage would then be increased by something like 20 watts every 2 minutes.

At every 2-minute step or ramp, a blood sample is taken using a lancet to pierce the skin and a lactate monitor to measure the lactate concentration (like the popular LactatePro devices) and plotted on a graph.

The athlete rides either to failure or simply until blood lactate concentration is in excess of 4 mMol/L and/or it’s clear that blood lactate accumulation is rising exponentially, depending on what exact test you’re doing and what you’re trying to find.

A standard measurement that is commonly used (but again needs to be taken with a grain of salt due to individual variance) is measuring power at 2 mMol/L of blood lactate to determine the athlete’s aerobic threshold (in other words, where they transition from the primary use of fat for fuel to carbohydrate) and 4 mMol/L as mentioned before, to determine their lactate threshold.

Of course, in the testing, measuring where these actual thresholds are by looking at lactate concentration is key, since this may be below or beyond 2 and 4 mMol/L for the aerobic and lactate threshold respectively, but these make for good standardised markers of improvement to test against if looking at the same person and under the same test conditions.

After a few of these tests have been completed to build up a broader picture of one’s lactate profile and thresholds, it’s then possible take portable kit (typically including a lancet and needles, a lactate testing device and strips, nitrile gloves and alcohol swabs for cleaning the skin) and do different efforts out on the road or trail and measure blood lactate levels.

This helps to give you a greater understanding of what’s happening when you’re riding in your normal environment at different intensities and provides more information to work with to strengthen the accuracy of your thresholds and lactate profile.

IMPROVING YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD

Alrighty, so now we know quite a bit more about what lactate threshold is, how to go about estimating FTP (a closely-related metric to lactate threshold) and most importantly directly measuring what your lactate threshold and full profile looks like.

Now, let’s get into the really useful and practical stuff, which is how to go about improving the lactate threshold, where I’ll lay out a best practice training strategy as well as five actual workouts you can use within your programme to develop your threshold power.

THE “PUSH-PULL” TECHNIQUE

Already in this article, we’ve touched on a few fallacies that have been perpetuated around the topic of the lactate threshold, and here we’ll address another one that is perhaps the most important, and that is that effective training to improve your lactate threshold should NOT involve a lot of time spent at this intensity.

Let me explain…

It’s all about the P’s, these being a Polarised Intensity Distribution and the use of the “Push-Pull Technique“.

The polarised method, which I’ve written and spoken about a fair bit on my YouTube channel and on the website, is a way of distributing training intensity so that the majority of training time is spent below the first ventilatory threshold (VT1) and a smaller but still significant amount of training time spent above the second ventilatory (VT2), avoiding the middle ground and especially time close to your lactate threshold.

Depending on how this training time in each of these zones is measured, that could be 80-90% below VT1, and 5-8% above VT2, with that small remaining time between the two.

The push-pull technique then is the idea that you improve your lactate threshold by “pushing” it up from below (by riding at a lower intensity for long periods of time) and “pulling” it up from above (by spending focused time at higher intensities).

Why is this?

The exact reasons why this has more often than not proven to be an optimal strategy for improvement isn’t 100% clear, but likely is due to the interaction between the intensity of riding at lactate threshold and the duration needed to be spent at this intensity to cause the necessary adaptive signalling to the body to provoke meaningful..

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Your lactate threshold, and the higher your lactate threshold is as a % of your VO2Max (your maximal ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles) plays arguably the largest physiological role in your race day performance (where I say physiological to acknowledge the role of mental strength, skills etc which of course all combine to create this performance).

In other words, if you can ride at a higher power output at your lactate threshold than your competition and utilise the largest fraction of your oxygen uptake as possible whilst doing so, you’re looking at a recipe for success!

If you’ve been a follower of mine for any length of time, you’ll realise the emphasis I place on developing the aerobic capacity, meaning everything from your basic endurance right up to your VO2max.

This goes against the advice of those ubiquitous ill-informed, “swayed-by-the-sexiness-of-high-intensity” coaches and athletes, but not so much the informed coaches who follow the science, observational studies and real world practices of those who are successful over the long term.

The reason I’m so bullish on this is for one overarching reason: that you can never really have too much aerobic capacity.

It’s something you can consistently work on with purposeful yet low-stress training and that has the potential to be almost infinitely developed, and there’s never a situation where having a higher aerobic capacity will be of a hinderance to you as a road cyclist, MTB XC or marathon racer, or really any other endurance discipline or sport.

But hold your horses…

It is however important to say (in a slightly contradictory way) that if there’s too great a focus on aerobic capacity training than causes you to ignore or dismiss other forms of training and important aspects of your fitness, you can be limited in being able to achieve your full potential and peak performances.

What you need to know when preparing for your target events then is what is demanded of you and your fitness by these events, so that at the appropriate time (a periodised approach), you can ensure that you have what I like to call the optimal “aerobic-anaerobic balance” that’s perfectly matched to these demands.

Now, the difficulty arises because different parts of your fitness (and the training of them) interact with each other, where an increase in one can often lead to a decrease in another.

This is especially true in the relationship between your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, where by and large spending lots of time training the former will inevitably lower the latter and vice versa.

In essence, these two capacities are competing against each other in the sense that you’re seeking to produce lower levels of lactate at higher power outputs in the aerobic capacity, but where training the anaerobic capacity will increase the production of lactate and ultimately lead to elevated blood lactate levels across the board at any intensity.

So, it’s not about training one or the other per say, but about striking the optimal balance for both your own unique physiology (i.e. how you’re naturally predisposed to be strong in one capacity and limited in another) and then again what the nature of your competition requires from this standpoint.

For most of you being endurance-based cyclists (where here I’m referring to road, MTB, cyclocross, gravel etc) and not competing in very short-duration events like many of those on the track, there’s going to be a need to train both at some level.

So, how should this be approached?

Well, a solid strategy doesn’t have to be overly fancy or complex, and by and large should involve training the aerobic capacity first as a matter of priority, and then when approaching these important events and competitions, adjusting the training plan to sufficiently develop the anaerobic capacity whilst minimising degradation of the aerobic capacity.

As mentioned, many of the workouts you’ll use to build your aerobic capacity are lower-intensity, longer duration sessions, i.e. low stress, low risk training.

Even when looking at the interval training and higher-intensity workouts that should also form part of the aerobic capacity-maximising training carry far lower risk of non-functional overreaching, injury and mental burnout than those that train the anaerobic capacity, and so forms a very good basis for long-term, sustainable training that fosters that all important consistency.

In contrast to the training involved to improve aerobic capacity, your anaerobic capacity and your W’ (watt prime) are inherently limited, largely genetically determined and cannot be indefinitely improved.

In fact, to the best of our understanding, this aspect of your fitness can be maximised with appropriate training in a matter of weeks, where further (read ‘excessive’) training beyond this point will prove detrimental in all kinds of ways, including reduced ability to recover sufficiently, limited training time/energy to keep up with maintaining the aerobic capacity etc.

Therefore, for us endurance cyclists, it really is true that the anaerobic capacity is the icing on the cake; the final finishing touch that brings everything together, and with just the right amount added on at the right time, it’s possible to get as close as possible to that perfect preparation (at least from a physiological point of view).

One important note is that different disciplines and races/events will require a specific approach and their own optimal aerobic-anaerobic balance.

If we use some extreme examples to illustrate the point, a track cyclist is going to need to focus most of their training on their anaerobic capacity because this is what will be leveraged the most in their event to achieve success. An ultra-distance, multi-day event cyclist on the other hand will hopefully never have think about let alone use their anaerobic capacity, so would obviously do well to focus on maximising their aerobic capacity.

It’s likely that you as a reader fall somewhere in the middle (like me as a MTB XC athlete primarily) and so there will need to be close attention paid to the contribution of both capacities and your training structured to reflect this in the build up to your high priority events, always keeping in mind your natural strengths and weaknesses in this realm too.

For reference, here are some aerobic-anaerobic guides for different common disciplines:

  • Road racing: Mostly aerobic, but requires adequate anaerobic capacity
  • Criterium racing: Mostly aerobic, but needs developed anaerobic capacity due to large accelerations and shorter duration
  • MTB XC: Mostly aerobic, but requires developed anaerobic capacity for fast starts, attacks and finishes
  • MTB Marathon: Overwhelmingly aerobic, average anaerobic capacity required (likely for fast group finish)

And just to end with the predictable recommendation from Mr aerobic-lover over here, remember that your aerobic capacity does bolster and support your anaerobic capacity from the bottom (a foundation if you will) so never neglect it, no matter how short and intense your events may be -even track cyclists do plenty of low intensity, understand the value of it and leverage it for success.

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One of the biggest determinants of your cycling performance is your lactate threshold, which is also rather confusingly known by a number of other terms such as Maximum Lactate Steady State (MLSS), Anaerobic Threshold (AT), Lactate Turnpoint (LTP) and Lactate Inflection Point (LIP).

The lactate threshold likely something you’ve heard when it comes to cycling training, given that it’s a bit of a buzzword and closely related to the even more ubiquitous FTP or Functional Threshold Power.

In this post, we’ll look at why the lactate threshold is so important and how increasing it can have dramatically positive affects your cycling fitness, where we’ll specifically cover:

(You can click on the links above to jump to each section)

First off then, let’s get a grip on what the lactate threshold (or lactate itself for that matter) actually is…

UNDERSTANDING THE LACTATE THRESHOLD

Despite a number of definitions of the lactate threshold, for the purposes of clarity, let’s agree here that it refers to something resembling the following:

“the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood and achieves a steady state, where any increase in exercise intensity will exponentially increase this lactate accumulation and a reduction in intensity would see lactate accumulation drop”

Think of it as the maximum intensity you can ride at before lactate begins to rapidly build up in the blood, where riding even slightly beyond this point puts you on borrowed time and a quick path towards exhaustion and having to slow down.

The “threshold” part is fairly simple to  grasp then, but what exactly is that “lactate” part then?

Lactate itself gets a bad rap, since it or its closely related chum lactic acid are commonly thought of as having an exclusively negative effect on endurance performance and fatigue resistance, responsible for that burning in the legs you get when you exceed your lactate threshold whilst cycling.

However, it’s important to understand that lactate, an organic molecule and an ion with a negative charge, is present in the blood at all times, even when you’re simply sat there on the couch doing a whole lot of nothing.

Far from being a hinderance, when cleared at a rate that exceeds production, lactate is actually being used as important fuel (or substrate) for the body in the form of glucose (this process being called glycolysis) after it’s been oxidised in either the muscle fibres where it was produced or in other muscle fibres.

More specifically, lactate is first converted into pyruvate, which in turn can be converted into glucose to be either metabolised by the working muscle or stored for use at a later date.

When it comes to the lactate threshold then, it’s not the production of lactate we’re concerned with here, but the accumulation.

At this point, it makes sense to understand that it’s neither lactate nor lactic acid that causes fatigue in and of itself, contrary to the common fallacy that’s perpetuated.

Why these feelings of fatigue and the burning sensations in fact arise is, as far as we understand, due to ‘acidosis’ or an increasingly acidic inter-cellular environment, which concerns the build up of hydrogen ions.

These hydrogen ions come from pyruvic acid (the end product of glycolysis mentioned above) being converted into lactic acid and it’s then the build up of these ions that cause this acidosis, in turn negatively affecting the muscle’s ability to contract and function.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to methods for finding out or estimating what your lactate threshold is…

TESTING YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD

As mentioned above, the lactate threshold is often confused with FTP or Functional Threshold Power, and whilst the two are linked, they’re not quite the same thing.

The former is a biological marker (with an associated wattage – lactate threshold power) and the latter a practical, non-invasive field-based means of estimating the power you can hold for 1 hour (which helpfully is likely to be relatively close to your lactate threshold, but not guaranteed to be the same).

Here’s a slightly longer explanation of the difference between the two: https://tombell.co/ftp-vs-lactate-threshold/

I’ll start by briefly covering some of the main ways to find your FTP, since this is going to provide you with results that can be used in much the same way as your lactate threshold, i.e. for the setting of training zones and as benchmarks for measuring fitness progression, and is most practical for many cyclists…

20-MINUTE FTP TEST

This standard and most common FTP estimate test protocol involves performing a 20-minute maximum effort interval, but one that is paced evenly throughout (as distinct from something like a CP3 test, where you go all out from the beginning and hang on for dear life with no concept of pacing).

In this 20-minute effort, you want to ride consistently throughout at the highest power you can sustain from beginning to end, recording the average power for that effort and multiplying the result by 0.95, the thinking being that this 5% accounts for the anaerobic contribution to an effort that is still somewhat short in the context of the endurance athlete.

Whilst every rider is different in the way they actually produce this 20 minutes of power (meaning it’s hard to directly compare the results of one rider to another), on an individual level, this should give you a good benchmark with which to set up your training zones and repeat the same test after a block of training to gauge your rate of progression in this area of your fitness.

There are a few different approaches to this test, including doing a 5-minute all-out effort before the 20 minute interval (to again null the anaerobic contribution) which deals with the fact that this protocol often exaggerates what someone can put out for a whole hour.

Whether you choose to do this 5 minute effort, a standard warm up procedure or something different again, what’s key is to find the best protocol for you and then use your experience in your training to fine tune the FTP figure you base your workouts on.

Just make sure to repeat the same test protocol under as similar conditions as possible each time for standardised results.

2x 8-MINUTE FTP TEST

The 2x 8-minute estimate test is another means of finding the same result as above and a proxy to your power at lactate threshold.

The reason this test was developed was to go one step further than the 20-minute test in terms of creating a practical, repeatable protocol available to just about any cyclist.

Even using a 20-minute test, if you’re wanting to ride outdoors (which you should if you can, rather than doing so on an indoor trainer) it can be tough to find an uninterrupted road or trail without any downhills, corners or anything else that might affect your ability to produce steady power.

To perform this estimate test, perform 2x 8-minute intervals as hard as you can, but as an average over the two, i.e. don’t go out and blow yourself up on the first one and perform the second 50 watts lower. Try to perform a very hard effort in the first and get as close to repeating it in the second.

Take around 10 minutes of active recovery between the two 8-minutes intervals.

To find the result, take the average of the two 8-minute intervals and multiply that number by 0.9. Again though, there are inherent limitations with how accurately this result reflects what you can do for an hour, and so carefully assessing your experiences and capabilities in training at different percentages is key to landing on the right FTP for you.

FTP RAMP TEST

Fairly recently and due to a fair amount of publicity, cyclists of many disciplines have been donning their smart trainers (and dumb trainers too using a regular on-bike power meter) and using TrainerRoad’s FTP Ramp Test.

This estimate test, which has similarities to traditional lab lactate threshold and VO2max testing in its stepped or ramped design (but crucially without any direct, invasive measurements), was created to not only be simple to conduct, but also to avoid the lengthy suffering that comes with the other test procedures above.

In this ramp test, you’ll typically only experience significant discomfort for a couple of minutes towards the end of the test.

From reading reports and conversing with the athletes that I coach, there have been mixed experiences with this test, with some reporting the results to be accurate compared to other testing methods, and others finding the numbers are overly generous (i.e. giving a higher FTP estimate than expected).

What I’d recommend ultimately is to try and do more than one of these FTP estimate tests (ideally all of them over a longer period of time) to see how the results compare and to provide you more data you can use to corroborate your sensations in training, race results and other metrics.

As a place to start though, this test can be useful and is certainly one of the least stressful and therefore easier means of estimation.

1-HOUR FTP TEST

Ok, not much to be said here other than if you are able to do an entire 1-hour effort under conditions that allow you to push as hard as you can, this will be the very best FTP result you’ll get!

These conditions could constitute a race (e.g. a TT) or a very hard group training session.

Take this opportunity if it arises, but be careful not to try to do this too often, given that it involves a huge physical and emotional investment, that when paired with a voluminous training programme, can risk burnout and non-functional overreaching.

LACTATE THRESHOLD TESTING

Moving on from all of the means of testing your FTP, which again is an pseudo-estimate for your power at lactate threshold and not necessarily the same thing, let’s look at some of the ways you can measure both your lactate threshold and more usefully your ‘lactate profile’ across the board.

A lactate profile test can be done in a laboratory or at home on an indoor trainer, ideally with someone assisting you. In both scenarios, small blood samples will be taken as you ride, where you’ll start from an easy pace with your blood lactate levels at baseline, and work your way up to a high level of intensity in a step-wise fashion.

A typical testing procedure would have an athlete start riding at about 50% of their anticipated lactate threshold power, where the wattage would then be increased by something like 20 watts every 2 minutes.

At every 2-minute step or ramp, a blood sample is taken using a lancet to pierce the skin and a lactate monitor to measure the lactate concentration (like the popular LactatePro devices) and plotted on a graph.

The athlete rides either to failure or simply until blood lactate concentration is in excess of 4 mMol/L and/or it’s clear that blood lactate accumulation is rising exponentially, depending on what exact test you’re doing and what you’re trying to find.

A standard measurement that is commonly used (but again needs to be taken with a grain of salt due to individual variance) is measuring power at 2 mMol/L of blood lactate to determine the athlete’s aerobic threshold (in other words, where they transition from the primary use of fat for fuel to carbohydrate) and 4 mMol/L as mentioned before, to determine their lactate threshold.

Of course, in the testing, measuring where these actual thresholds are by looking at lactate concentration is key, since this may be below or beyond 2 and 4 mMol/L for the aerobic and lactate threshold respectively, but these make for good standardised markers of improvement to test against if looking at the same person and under the same test conditions.

After a few of these tests have been completed to build up a broader picture of one’s lactate profile and thresholds, it’s then possible take portable kit (typically including a lancet and needles, a lactate testing device and strips, nitrile gloves and alcohol swabs for cleaning the skin) and do different efforts out on the road or trail and measure blood lactate levels.

This helps to give you a greater understanding of what’s happening when you’re riding in your normal environment at different intensities and provides more information to work with to strengthen the accuracy of your thresholds and lactate profile.

IMPROVING YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD

Alrighty, so now we know quite a bit more about what lactate threshold is, how to go about estimating FTP (a closely-related metric to lactate threshold) and most importantly directly measuring what your lactate threshold and full profile looks like.

Now, let’s get into the really useful and practical stuff, which is how to go about improving the lactate threshold, where I’ll lay out a best practice training strategy as well as five actual workouts you can use within your programme to develop your threshold power.

THE “PUSH-PULL” TECHNIQUE

Already in this article, we’ve touched on a few fallacies that have been perpetuated around the topic of the lactate threshold, and here we’ll address another one that is perhaps the most important, and that is that effective training to improve your lactate threshold should NOT involve a lot of time spent at this intensity.

Let me explain…

It’s all about the P’s, these being a Polarised Intensity Distribution and the use of the “Push-Pull” technique.

The polarised method, which I’ve written and spoken about a fair bit on my YouTube channel and on the website, is a way of distributing training intensity so that the majority of training time is spent below the first ventilatory threshold (VT1) and a smaller but still significant amount of training time spent above the second ventilatory (VT2), avoiding the middle ground and especially time close to your lactate threshold.

Depending on how this training time in each of these zones is measured, that could be 80-90% below VT1, and 5-8% above VT2, with that small remaining time between the two.

The push-pull technique then is the idea that you improve your lactate threshold by “pushing” it up from below (by riding at a lower intensity for long periods of time) and “pulling” it up from above (by spending focused time at higher intensities).

Why is this?

The exact reasons why this has more often than not proven to be an optimal strategy for improvement isn’t 100% clear, but likely is due to the interaction between the intensity of riding at lactate threshold and the duration needed to be spent at this intensity to cause the necessary adaptive signalling to the body to provoke meaningful improvements.

Whilst on an individual workout-by-workout basis, there’s nothing..

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When it comes to effective training, the workouts you use in your programme make arguably the biggest difference to how prepared you are for the demands of your chosen cycling discipline(s).

However, it’s easy to leave fitness on the table if you’re not focusing on making the quality of these workouts as high as you possibly can (“quality” here meaning completing your workouts in such a way as to stimulate the greatest adaptations from your time and energy investment).

So, to help you raise this quality, here are 6 steps that you can take to improve how you train. This advice should in turn help you be more productive with your training and carry greater confidence and fitness into your events and racing.

Let’s get started…

1. TRAIN TO THE RIGHT METRICS

Metrics are important both in your post-ride analysis as well as during a workout itself, and arguably more so in the latter case. The last thing you want to do is get home, pour over your data and realise there were several aspects to the workout you just completed that were less than optimal.

Without getting into more involved training tools like oxygen saturation monitors and the like, a power meter is going to be your best bet to make your training very precise and calculated.

Whilst once very expensive across the board, even picking up one of the cheaper models on the market will do the job. I even bought a Stages knock-off last year from a Chinese wholesale website out of pure curiosity and it ended up being one of the most consistent and reliable units I’ve ever used!

In absence of a power meter though, try to use heart rate rather than RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) if possible, as again, it’s just a step up in what it can tell you about what you’re doing in the moment and what you eventually did when retrospectively analysing a session.

For the ultimate setup and move towards workout quality, combine all three to give you a well-rounded picture and a more informed idea of where you’re at. Here, your heart rate becomes a qualifier for the power numbers you’re seeing, and RPE the same does the same thing for your heart rate data.

2. USE AN INTENSITY “RANGE”

When it comes to trying to achieve a set power number or heart rate figure in your training sessions, whether that’s for an entire ride (e.g. 3 hours at Zone 2) or for individual intervals within a workout (e.g. 4x 8 mins @ Upper Zone 4), always try to use a target range rather than a single number.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it certainly bears repeating…

Doing so will almost always mean that you achieve the desired intensity targets more closely and that you can perform a session more accurately on average.

With a specific, singular number on the other hand, especially when training with power (which is famously stochastic and choppy), you’ll often find that you end up overshooting the target, because you’re always trying to hit that single number as a minimum.

This ultimately means that you either complete the entire session too hard and carry more fatigue than was necessary or is ideal into your next workout, or even worse, you start off too hard and have to curtail than particular workout before you complete it.

A good rule of thumb is to use a wide enough range to give you some breathing space (e.g. 60-70% FTP) but not so wide that it extends over into another training zone (e.g. in a 7-zone model where at one end of the target range, you might be starting to work a different system of aspect of your fitness).

3. BETTER WORKOUT SEQUENCING

In order to get the highest quality from the key training sessions you have in a training week, you’ll need to be rested enough to hit the necessary power or heart rate targets or to ride for the entire specified duration in something like an endurance ride.

If you’ve sequenced your week well, in the sense of allowing for adequate recovery and placing certain workouts that don’t require you to put out high amounts of power after more demanding ones, you’ll have the ability to complete every workout in the week and thus score a better training effect and stress from the sum total of your sessions.

On the other hand, if the sequencing of the week is poor, it’s easy to find yourself arriving at less critical workouts fresh, higher priority and more important workouts fatigued, or just struggling with a lingering fatigue throughout an entire week.

This being said, it’s important to understand that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to sequence a week that’s better than another. This will all depend on factors like your personal training history, current fitness, time availability etc and needs to be individualised.

Try to experiment with some different sequencing at non-critical times in the season to find out what particular sequence works best for you and results in the highest quality training over a week-long period, or indeed an entire mesocycle (block of training weeks)

4. KEEP THINGS SIMPLE

With all the data available and 1000s of variations possible, workout quality can be effected when training sessions are built in a way that’s needlessly complex and hard to follow out on the road or trail.

There’s very little if any evidence supporting the fact that complicated sessions that look fancy on paper give superior adaptations to those which are more straightforward and less “sexy”.

So, when planning your own training or using workouts set/created by others, try to dismiss the idea that because a workout looks really fancy, it’s going to produce greater fitness and better adaptations for you.

The key takeaway is keep things simple wherever possible and this will help increase your ability to execute exactly what is set.

For some straightforward sessions that have proven highly effective for a broad range of cyclists, be sure to download my free workout library, containing 10 structured sessions and some bonus training tips by clicking above.

5. LEARN FOR YOUR TRAINING

Alongside having a good training programme to follow and one that’s designed specifically for your needs and schedule, keeping a training diary of sorts alongside it will do wonders for constantly improving the quality of your training.

By getting into the habit of leaving a few comments on your key workouts each week, you’ll ensure you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again, and learn what workouts you prefer, which seem to click with you the best and you’ll be able to look back to see how workouts have gone in the past relative to the present.

This can be done using a paper journal or physical calendar, or via a software program like TrainingPeaks, which is what I use to plan my own training and for the coaching business as a whole. In these comments, try to note down things like how much you enjoyed the session/felt satisfied afterwards, how your fatigue was coming into the workout and what you felt you did well/not so well.

This will help you to gauge how much you’ve improved in your execution and where you might still need to work a little harder, as well as give you valuable insights into what we talked about above with optimal workout sequencing.

6. LOG YOUR TRAINING LOCATIONS

Tell me if this sounds at all familiar:

You’re excited about a new workout you’re trying (maybe it’s a set of hill repeats), you’ve ridden out to somewhere you think will work really well for that particular workout, only to find it completely unsuitable…

Maybe there was a big stretch of downhill on the climb or perhaps a series of traffic lights on what you thought was an uninterrupted road?

It happens to the best of us, is always annoying and of course affects your ability to nail a session in a high quality fashion.

The key thing here is that once you find a location that works for a certain type of session, make a mental or physical note of it so that you can use it again going forward.

This will just help you to be sure that nothing from a terrain perspective will get in the way of you completing a workout well and give you somewhere you can go back to time and again to safe in the knowledge you can get done what you need to.

BONUS TIP: KNOW THE PURPOSE

This one’s important and why I’ve stressed it here at the end of this post…

Having a clear idea of exactly why you’re doing a certain workout is vitally important to the quality you manage to achieve when performing it.

When you’re clear on it is you’re going to get from the workout in terms of fitness yield and it’s place within your training week or plan as a whole, your enthusiasm and motivation to get it done will be that much higher.

This greatly increases the chances you’ll be able to put 100% effort into the session and you’ll be that much more mentally resilient when things get tough towards the end of a long ride or midway through a set of demanding intervals.

This is why on all the workouts I use for my coaching clients and within my Complete Workout Library, each and every workout has it’s exact purpose laid out clearly, as you can see in the example below:

So, I hope this was a useful and actionable post with suggestions you can put into practice right away to get more out of the training you’re already doing.

As stressed in this article, the importance of having the right workouts in your programme and a training plan that is bespoke and individualised to your specific needs and goals is really important in you seeing the greatest return from your time and energy investment, manifested in race results and fitness improvement

Click here to visit the coaching page if you’re at all interested in improving your cycling performance further with my various training products and services or check out some of the athlete case studies here to see learn from and see how I’ve worked with a range of different athletes to do just this (coming soon).

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More and more performance-orientated cyclists are now at least peripherally aware of Dr Stephen Seiler’s polarised intensity distribution model (affectionately known as “polarised training”) as an effective approach to training planning and execution in relation to long-term fitness improvement.

A common question and hesitation for many of this cycling population though goes something like this:

“Does this approach to training planning and structure give similar results and benefits for the time-crunched cyclist who doesn’t have upwards of 15 hours a week to train?” (not to mention the oft-forgotten hours to devote to recovery, which could arguably be more pivotal to this improvement than the actual training time)

At the risk of oversimplifying things, from my own experience as a coach working with likely close to 100 athletes that fall into the time-crunched camp, as well as Dr Seiler’s own research and observations, the evidence certainly seems to suggest that a polarised model is indeed an effective way of training to improve cycling performance when training time is limited (in the region of 5-8 hrs/wk).

As has been pointed out by myself and others previously, there’s a certain irony that surrounds the fact that many time crunched cyclists are actually in greater need of a polarised approach to training than those with more training time.

The reason is simply because these cyclists tend to be the ones who most commonly see their training intensity cluster around sweetspot/Zone 4, and arguably are most likely to fall into what’s described as the “grey zone” or “blackhole”, where the stimulus provided by their training is neither strong enough to cause significant adaptations, nor easy enough to foster recovery.

So, given that we can be reasonably confident in saying that a polarised approach to intensity distribution can produce favourable training results for a wide variety of cyclists in different disciplines, what are some of the ways this model can be applied well to a time-poor training programme?

Let’s take a look at some actionable tips and strategies that can be implemented into a time-crunched cycling training programme to take full advantage of this approach.

MANAGING TRAINING INTENSITY

Despite the fact that low intensity training forms the largest part of a polarised training plan, generally speaking, the less time you have to train, the higher the average intensity of your training should be in a given week, even if this increase is subtle.

Principally, the reason for this is to bump up the TSS or Training Stress Score you produce with your limited training time.

What you want to do is try and get the largest amount of fitness benefit from the relatively short training time you have, cutting out any wasted time that isn’t pushing you towards your performance goals and racing demands.

Since manipulating the duration of training sessions to any great degree is largely out of the question for most time-crunched cyclists, this is why we’ll make training slightly harder by increasing the intensity to compensate.

INTENSITY BALANCE

Just as important as the point above, it’s vital to remember that even if training intensity is to increase, a successful plan still needs to have:

A) a balanced approach to intensity throughout the week and
B) to develop and progress the nature of the higher intensity training as the target race/event gets closer.

It’s the higher intensity sessions that will provide the most opportunity for variety, and much as it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking “the harder, the better”, it’s also vital to not let your training become too lacking in variety when it comes to low intensity too.

Adding variety will help to challenge your body in different ways and thus contribute to greater fitness improvement and more well-rounded fitness to boot.

PERIODISATION BEST PRACTICES

The term “periodisation” is a victim of being used in multiple ways and for multiple meanings, and this is something I too am guilty of, where I’ve used it to reference long term training planning in general.

Here’s a video as evidence of that: Cycling Periodisation – Macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles explained

In this post’s context though, I’m using periodisation to relate to how training within a polarised model can and should progress over time to adequately prepare a cyclist for their goal race or event, when the intensity distribution of 80/20 low to high respectively is seemingly rigid.

The key takeaway from both science and experience is that the overall intensity distribution should remain similar through the macrocycle (meaning the same overall split of low and high intensity) but that the nature of how that split is created and the exact details of the workouts should change in a logical way.

For most road cyclists, mountain bike racers and cyclocross riders, this will manifest in low intensity sessions becoming slightly easier (i.e. lower still in intensity) to allow for the higher intensity sessions to become harder or more intense, whilst at the same time reflecting the demands of competition more specifically.

PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS

To balance out these broader concepts above, here are some more implementable tips for successfully training with a polarised model in spite of low training time availability:

  1. First, trying to find time for a long ride somewhere in the week so as to not neglect aerobic fitness is extremely helpful. Practically speaking, it makes sense for most time-crunched cyclists to do this kind of ride on a weekend, either alone or as part of a group ride, since this is the part of the week you’re most likely to have a few hours to string together. Endurance training will help maintain a foundation of fitness that underpins higher abilities like threshold power, VO2Max and anaerobic capacity.
  2. Next, you’ll want to be doing the most potent and stressful training sessions with the hour or so you have here and there throughout the rest of the week. The high quality sessions should include training at or above your lactate threshold. When scheduling these workouts, you want to try and make sure you’re rested before each hard session, where using a hard/easy approach to your week can work very well.
EXAMPLE MESOCYCLE (WEEK)

At the risk of being too generic, here’s a practical weekly structure that you might want to follow (or at least use as a basic framework) for your training if you’re looking at roughly 5-8 hours/week to train.

Of course, these days can be switched around to suit your own unique circumstances and should be thought of as a guide rather than a rigid structure, with the high intensity sessions especially needing to evolve over time as discussed above:

  • MONDAY: Rest day (since you probably trained the previous day)
  • TUESDAY: 1 hour: VO2Max – 5-7x 3mins @ Zone 5 heart rate or power, or paced like a 5min TT with 3-4mins recovery between each. 20min warm up/warm down either side of intervals @ Zone 2.
  • WEDNESDAY: Rest day or light 30-40min spin @ Zone 1
  • THURSDAY: 1 hour: 10sec sprints – 6-8x 10sec sprints, with 3-4mins between each. 20min warm up/warm down either side of sprints @ Zone 2
  • FRIDAY: Rest day or light 30-40min spin
  • SATURDAY: 2-3 hours: Endurance ride – 2-3 hours @ Zone 2 HR or power, or 2-3 on RPE scale.
  • SUNDAY: 1 hour: Threshold intervals – 3-4x 8-9mins @ Zone 4 heart rate or power, or 7 on RPE scale. 3-4mins recovery between each interval and 20mins warm up/warm down either side of intervals.
FINAL TIPS AND CONSIDERATIONS

Many of the workouts outlined above can easily be ridden on an indoor trainer and if you’re trying to maximise your time, this could be a great option for training throughout the working week.

Stay on top of your recovery so that in the days off between your hard sessions, you can recover well and hit the next workout ready to go hard. It’s then that you’ll really see your fitness start to take off.

Here’s a link if you’d like to see a bit about my own cycling recovery routine.

If you’ve any questions at all about your training or if you’re interested in a longer term structured plan to build your fitness, please get in touch via the contact form or leave a comment below this post.

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Periodisation has long been a best practice approach to creating progression in a cycling training program.

It’s a fancy term, but simply means to change certain characteristics of your training plan depending on what stage of the season you’re in.

The purpose of this change is to create a logical structure to build fitness sustainably towards a particular date or goal.

Seems fairly simple, right?

Well, an interesting concept that’s arisen recently is block periodisation, which takes regular periodisation even further to create an organisational strategy that can have a big positive impact on your cycling fitness and performance progression.

If you’re looking for an edge, using the latest training observations, this should be right up your street.

Let’s dive into what it is, as well as some of the benefits and drawbacks…

WHAT IS BLOCK PERIODISATION?

Block periodisation is a way of organising your training to focus on one specific ability for a given period of time.

The aim is to induce an large concentrated stress to provoke an adaptive response by the body.

After this concentrated overload period, this specific ability is then maintained with a reduced focus.

It’s distinct from a linear periodisation model, where many abilities are trained at any given time and the number of weekly workouts for a particular ability are relatively constant.

The thinking is that in each period of the training cycle, you’ll want to develop only a few distinct abilities as effectively as possible before moving onto the next macrocycle.

By focusing on overloading one or two specific abilities, you should theoretically be able to achieve a greater specific fitness improvement which can then be carried forward into the next block.

Here’s an example to illustrate…

BLOCK PERIODISATION VS LINEAR PERIODISATION

Let’s say we have a hypothetical athlete called Jo.

Jo wants to improve their VO2max (their maximum oxygen uptake level) in the final weeks coming into an important race.

Using a linear periodisation model over a typical 4-week block, their VO2Max training might look like this:

LINEAR PERIODISATION

As you can see, the number of training sessions that focus on VO2max don’t change from week-to-week in a 4-week block.

Each of the four weeks contain 2 workouts.

If Jo opted to use a block periodisation model, the organisation of these workouts would look more like this:

BLOCK PERIODISATION

Here, you can see that the first week in the block is front-loaded with 5 VO2max workouts.

It’s then reduced down to just 1 workout for the following 3 weeks of the block in order to maintain this specific fitness.

In both examples, the same amount of VO2Max training is performed, but organised differently.

Jo’s training in the first week would almost entirely be composed of VO2Max sessions.

However, the following 3 weeks would feature 1 VO2Max workout for maintenance, but mostly be made up of low intensity training sessions to act as recovery and to maintain aerobic endurance.

BENEFITS OF BLOCK PERIODISATION

So what are the key benefits of this type of organisational approach?

1) Firstly, block periodisation might induce a more effective stimulus for adaption when it comes to key abilities.

This organisational model could be applied to any ability that is key to performance so that specific fitness is maximised leading into a goal event.

In this way then, it may be used effectively as a pre-peaking strategy.

2) Secondly, it’s arguably easier to manage mentally for some athletes.

It can be difficult to back up several demanding workouts week after week…

Certain cyclists may find they can dig very deep for a 5-6 day period in a way they wouldn’t be able to do for a full training block.

They can then take advantage of the reduced focus in the following weeks to refresh.

DRAWBACKS OF BLOCK PERIODISATION

So what might be the downfalls of block periodisation?

The first is that block periodisation may induce overtraining in some cyclists. Particularly vulnerable are those with lower fitness and training history.

The concentrated weeks at the start of a block are both mentally and physically challenging.

Even a string of 5-6 hard workouts in a row may be too much for some cyclists to handle…

If you were using this periodisation model before a major event and pushed things too far, it could easily ruin a big focus of the season.

Block periodisation isn’t always a practical model either.

Let’s say you were an endurance cyclist who wanted to use this approach to overload your endurance ability.

Bad weather and other variables can make it very difficult to perform such a concentrated string of workouts.

In contrast, a more traditional, linear approach might allow you to shift sessions around as needed.

This may well result in greater fitness improvement.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

As with most training theory, all cyclists should weigh up their individual circumstances and decide whether a particular approach works with their schedule, goals and abilities.

I’d recommend cautiously experimenting with different ideas at non-critical times of the year if an approach seems to have value.

Any model that offers the opportunity for big reward will always be accompanied with big risk. These ratios should always be weighed up and approached sensibly and conservatively.

Having said that, block periodisation has been shown to induce superior adaptions compared to linear periodisation.

I’d say it’s certainly a model that should be examined closely by competitive cyclists.

For a great paper on block periodisation, click here.

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