Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
"Ah, push it. Push it real good."
- Salt 'N Pepa
We just wrapped up a fun weekend at Endurance Corner with our Coaches Clinic. We had coaches travel in to a frigid Boulder from all corners of North America to learn about all aspects of coaching, from streamlining business processes to the finer points of applied exercise physiology for endurance athletes. As you might guess, I got pretty excited about some of the discussions that arose from the latter. J
One of our presentations involved a demonstration of how to both perform and analyze a lactate test for an endurance athlete. One of the coaches brought along a (semi) willing guinea pig (in full flight in above pic) and we had a lot of fun chatting through his data. One of the suggestions that I made after looking at his data was that, he was anaerobically very strong and aerobically a little weak for his current category; local Cat 3 cyclist (probably equivalent to a Cat 1 anywhere else in the U.S. J )
From this conclusion, I had some great discussions with the various coaches about what this means from a practical (training) perspective. In order to talk “apples and apples” with the field based coaches, one of the aerobic markers that we chatted through was the OBLA and its field equivalent FTP. After identifying FTP as a potential area for improvement, the knee-jerk response seemed to be that this athlete would most benefit from a staple diet of 2x20’s in or around their FTP.
The assumption seemed to be that an athlete would most (only?) benefit from work that is specific to the training intensity that we’re looking to improve. This is simply not the case. In fact, the work rate that we see at this lactate balance point is a function of both the lactate being produced by all muscle fibers up to that point, along with the ability of these muscle fibers to ‘take up’ & use the lactate being produced. The fibers that are best suited to this task are the slow twitch muscle fibers that are best trained with long, voluminous efforts. The ability to train muscle fibers that, by nature want to use carbohydrate as an energy source (& consequently, want to produce lactate) is limited at best.
This discussion reinforced the benefit of blood lactate testing as a comprehensive ‘snapshot’ of all aspects of an athlete’s physiology at a given point in time. In my opinion, for the information they provide, they are significantly under-utilized by current coaches.
A good example of this ‘snapshot’ and the implications on our ‘guinea pig’s’ training prescription can be seen in the example below.
However, despite this low intensity focus, the athlete’s OBLA (& FTP) actually went up by ~25W! (via the modified Dmax method-scroll to bottom) If we drill a little deeper into the 2 curves, we can see why. The ‘fork in the road’ between the early base and late base curves occurs way early (at the 200W point!). In fact, the gradient of both curves beyond the 225W point are very similar in both curves, but the benefit that the athlete gets by flattening out that 200-225W point, gets carried all the way up to FTP!
More good news… these muscle fibers are sustainably trainable. In other words, the ‘upside’ for mitochondrial proliferation & capillarization in the slow twitch fibers from untrained to well trained is a multi-year proposition! The improvements at this point on the curve can continue for a VERY LONG period of time. For example, Coyle et al. (1990) found 41% greater capillarization in the slow twitch muscle fibers for those athletes who had 10 years of consistent endurance training under their belt vs those who had ‘only’ been endurance training for 5. In fact, most of the difference in aerobic capacity between these 2 groups of athletes, came down to differences in the slow twitch (Type 1) muscle fibers. This would gel with my own experience: While the ‘curvy bit’ of the lactate curve is somewhat malleable, the big difference over the years comes by pushing the whole thing further and further to the right (along the wattage axis). As we do this, year after year, all points of the curve (including FTP) move to the right.
Take home points….
· Incorporate regular lactate testing into your training to get a comprehensive snapshot of what’s going on (go in on a portable machine with your buddies – it’s money well spent!)
· Focus your long term training at the ‘fork in the road’. All points north of this will benefit.
· A little bit of specific work to flatten or raise a specific point on the curve close to your event goes a long way. For most of the year, in the immortal words of Salt & Pepa “Push it” (to the right).
And above all….