This concept in a nutshell: “Play” at high-intensity training to avoid the drudgery of intervals.
I’ve made the case before that lactate threshold (LT) is a magic number. Generally defined as the heart rate (or wattage) you can maintain for an all-out effort of 30-60 minutes, LT is key to performance on a bike. The power you can generate when going as fast as you can in a time trial or on a long climb dictates your cycling ability.
The other physiological measurement that’s often invoked is maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max). However, this is not very trainable because genetics imposes a “ceiling” on every person’s ability to improve. Also, the limiting factor in cycling ability isn’t the amount of oxygen your tissues can process. Rather, it’s the amount of power you can generate at a given percent of oxygen consumption.
Some great cyclists have had relatively low VO2 max numbers. But their ability to generate significant power allowed them to compete very successfully against riders whose oxygen uptake was higher but whose efficiency was less.
LT, on the other hand, is highly trainable. Using the proper workouts, you can improve the percent of maximum heart rate you can sustain, and improve the amount of power you generate at a given heart rate. You can also boost your body’s ability to process lactate. This lets you venture over the threshold where lactate is accumulated, but rid it from your tissues quickly. These improvements mean big gains in useable speed and power.
Fine—so how can you boost your lactate threshold and reap these wonderful benefits?
The answer, as you know by now, is hard work. There’s an emerging consensus that endurance athletes should spend large amounts of training time—some say as much as 25 percent of total on-bike time—at heart rates (or power production rates) ranging from 10 percent below LT to slightly above.
That’s a lot of time to dwell in painful territory. And it’s made even tougher by the mental demands of pushing yourself to such an extent. Imagine spending 1 hour in every 4 riding as hard or harder as you do in a time trial you really want to win. Ouch!
Fortunately, there’s an easier way to reach LT levels in training. It changes pain and suffering into something closer to fun. All you need is to find ways to go hard without goading yourself to go hard. Sound like a contradiction? Not really.
Let’s take running as an example. Suppose your coach orders you to run 6 miles with 40 short sprints scattered throughout. These sprints must be nearly all-out. You’ll go anaerobic and then recover only enough to sprint again. This workout doesn’t sound like fun. You may be able to handle it occasionally—but 2 or 3 times a week for the whole season, or your whole career? Forget it.
Now let’s suppose that instead of doing the grueling workout, you were told to play a game of full-court basketball. The effort would be similar to the loathsome running workout. Studies show that NBA players run about 6 miles during a game and accelerate dozens of times while maintaining heart rates at or above their lactate thresholds. But guess what? Basketball is fun. You’d have such a great time that you’d barely think about how hard you were working. The game would fly by.
In the same way, you can design workouts on the bike that elevate your heart rate to LT and above without the physical and mental ordeal of structured intervals. Next week, we’ll show you some ways to get this “basketball effect” on the bike.