Monday, December 9, 2013

Newsflash: You don't need to train at FTP to raise FTP!

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.

This chart shows 2 lactate tests from one of my own guinea pigs J after 8 weeks of pretty much exclusive base training. With the exception of some short (30s) efforts at ~vVO2 intensity & a little unstructured intensity in the form of hill work, this period was almost exclusively base focused (less than 80% of max HR). Looking at the athlete’s power histogram from that time period, only 8% of the work was at greater than 275W.

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….
Train smart,


Tony O'Keeffe said...

AC, many thanks for your efforts and enthusiasm over this past weekend. I came to learn, now I look forward to reflecting on the material and challenging my own experiences and understanding. Thanks very much, questions to follow... Tony.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks for coming Tony!

I truly welcome thoughts, questions, experiences etc.

There isn't a lot of sharing between coaches in this coaching game. That's what I love most about these sort of things. Meeting folks with a mutual passion but their own experiences, is, for me, a very high value proposition. I look forward to continuing dialogue!



Michaela said...

We do this type of lactate testing and graph it versus heart rate as well, so it translates to an environment where we don't have wattage information (i.e. in the boat vs on the erg). Super helpful—we do all of our training based on heart rate zones from lactate testing. It takes all of the guess work out of intended intensities.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Michaela,

Good point on the HR. I record that as well, just didn't include on the charts displayed to keep them less 'busy'.

All endurance athletes owe a debt to you rowers. The German row teams were among the first to really embrace the value of lactate testing and the data we have from their programs is still among the most useful out there.



Josh said...

To clarify the second take home point. You're indicating that following the first test, the best estimate for targetting long term improvement was the first uptick at 225 watts. Following the second test the best estimate is 250.

(Or am I already 25 watts high and the targets would have been 200 and then 225).

I seemed to benefit last year by riding a lot of my prep miles relatively harder than I previously would have. Early season camps were the reason and a desire to 'make fatigue while away from work'. Retrospectively I'm wondering if that was short-term beneficial or something I should try and recreate this coming season again. The difference is below first uptick vs above.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Josh,

Based on what I've seen to date, the 'sweetspot' intensity for improving aerobic capacity (assuming equal load) is right on AeT (first uptick), with an inverted U relationship falling off either side. Their isn't a significant 'cost' to riding bottom steady vs easy & you'll accumulate more load in a given time. I'd advise just trying to hover around this point, with some steady when you feel good and sticking to easy when you don't.