Written by: Joe Siegel
A Lot of athletes are starting some work on improving their Vo2max this time of year (Vo2max is the maximal rate of O2 uptake during exercise). It is the limiter in maintaining a primarily aerobic (using O2) energy pathway during intense, above threshold exercise. If one needs more energy than the aerobic energy system can provide, they will start pulling from primarily anaerobic pathways (which don't use O2). Anaerobic energy is very powerful but very short lasting - you cannot maintain it for very long. Therefore, it stands to reason that improving your aerobic capacity and the rate at which you can deliver O2 to your body is very important.
Why do we train above threshold though? For cyclists it is obvious - racing requires a lot of effort above threshold and quite simply, you don't do well in mass start races without the ability to go over threshold (utilizing both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways). For TTers and Triathletes, the need is still there however. Another determiner for athletic performance is FTP - functional threshold power - i.e. the power one can maintain "for a long duration" without fatiguing. Go over FTP and you will fatigue much quicker. Go under FTP and you can maintain for very long times. Please note that FTP is NOT defined as one hour power, this is a common misconception though. The Time to Exhaustion (TTE) at threshold usually ranges from 30 min to an hour or more and it will depend on the athlete's specific training to that point.
Now, before getting too off track - why Vo2 for triathletes, TTers and other athletes who won't go over threshold for racing? Well, there's a limiter in raising FTP, namely VO2max. A typical cyclist can maintain about 80% of Vo2max at threshold. As we peak and really push threshold training, that number can grow to about 90%. At that point we hit a wall, and FTP does not improve as we are limited by the amount of O2 we can deliver. So, raise the Vo2 and you can keep raising FTP! When we do this work and the order is not a rule though. This is part of the "art" of coaching to optimize a training plan for each individual athlete and their specific constraints and goals (That is not the focus of this post).
Ok, Vo2max is important, now how do we make it better? More specific to our needs - how do we improve the power (watts) we can hold at Vo2max? Well, quite simply, we do intervals over threshold, but under the transition to too much anaerobic work. Classically, that means you train 105% to 120% of your FTP, your Zone 5 or Vo2 zone. The classic zones are great when dealing with power at or under threshold. However, athletes will vary greatly at over threshold efforts (and as you go more and more over threshold, that variance increases more and more) - see the picture for a good visual of this phenomena. It's become more obvious that we need an individualized approach! For me, that meant spending a lot of time to look at past efforts, using RPE and HR to gauge efforts and choosing interval targets by a bit of "feel" and guesswork (along with feedback from the athlete). That's the old school way (either just assuming 105%-120% or trying to hone in with a lot of leg work and some guessing/feel) but we're new school now. New modeling and software has given coaches and athletes alike the ability to very precisely target Vo2 intervals.
If we can feed the model good data, the model can very precisely and accurately pinpoint Vo2max and power at Vo2max. Also using the model, it can suggest the optimal power and duration for each interval. Keep in mind (and before you fire your coach because the software does all the work for them) that this is a model and these are still estimates. There needs to be an educated human in the loop to validate all intervals and targets before sending them off for completion. I know my athletes data is good in about 60% of cases and the model would be very misleading at least 40% of the time for example. "All models are wrong, but some are useful" (a quote/idea commonly attributed to George Box) - this one is very useful, but it is still not reality and we must keep that in mind. We need to know what the model is telling us - and what it isn't. We also need to know the model's strengths and weaknesses, and use cases which create known weaknesses and error.
Now, the workouts. Let's say we have good data and the model passes our litmus test for reasonability and feasibility - let's bang out some intervals!! Case one below is me. I was doing 4 min intervals targeting 100% power at Vo2max. The blue line shows Vo2 tracking upwards and then leveling at right around 100%. The data was pretty good, the effort felt very maximal, breathing was pegged and we see a trend of HR rising progressively for each set - a good indication that I was at or very close to 100% of Vo2max.
Sometimes though, the model isn't right - we need to move the model. That's why in over threshold work, it's important to realize that if you can do more, you should do more. That's what I told this athlete for this set (note, he is an experienced cyclist and familiar with the feeling and intensity of maximal aerobic work). Watch - he's exceeding 100% of Vo2max for each interval. Through all but the last interval, he's progressing just like my workout in holding steady power for each and holding similar %Vo2max for each. His model was just under reporting capability a smidgen. Well, this workout just fed the model new data for future workouts - he moved his model. Models are representative of what you've DONE, not necessarily what you CAN DO. As we train and improve, we constantly are setting new goalposts and moving the model. Quick note on the last interval though - he screwed it up. Being the last interval, he decided to go for "hero watts", which turned out to be unsustainable. He went so far over Vo2max that he recruited much more anaerobic energy which does not provide for the sustained energy he needed to complete the interval. As such, his power dipped way off, Vo2 dipped way down and he needed to recover, before surging for the tail end of the interval. What's interesting is that overall, his power average for the interval was in line with the rest - he hit the power number. However, by being able to track VO2, we know he didn't hit the INTENT of the interval, he did not do the best work to improve his Vo2max. That's ok - it was one of six - he still did great work. However, it's an important note that going "off script" too much in our intervals, even if the end result seems good, it may be sabotaging the specifics of the work we are trying to address. Note that exact preciseness in wattage is fairly impossible and not expected, especially with riding outside on the road. There is no magic switch where a watt over is the wrong work and a watt under is the right work. It's a range and a transition between zones of adaptation. Variation is OK, within reason.
For a summary - Vo2max is the maximal rate of O2 uptake during intense physical exertion. It represents a power over threshold and it is unique to each individual athlete. We train our Vo2max and power at Vo2max in order to perform better in aerobic supra-threshold efforts AND to provide additional "room" for subsequent growth in threshold. Using a classic metaphor if VO2max is the roof of a house and the ceiling is FTP - you will reach a limit to ceiling height if one does not also raise the roof.
Written by: Brandon Bahlawan
Most athletes are in the thick of their training for early season races, while others are getting started on their journey for their mid-year competitions. As training progresses, athletes can sometimes become robotic and only focus on what is on the schedule that day or the numbers they are to target in a specific workout. Don’t get me wrong, numbers are great! Today’s athlete is able to measure almost everything imaginable during a training session. This allows the athlete and or coach to look at data and measure gains over time or even look at how much an athlete lost while recovering from an injury. It highlights weaknesses to improve on and strengths to further develop to put the athlete in the best posiiton to succeed on race day. It will allow you to compare an effort, training session, or race against previous efforts. All of these are great and are an important part of a training. However, becoming 100% dependent on these things can cause many problems, i.e. injury, burnout, or loss of interest. Training plans (programmed by a coach or purchased online) are meant to be a guide to help you achieve your goals, they should be dynamic and not set in stone. Unless you are a professional athlete and your only job is to train and race then you will need to be flexible and adjust based on the demands the rest of your life throws at you. It is important to remember that while we all want to work hard in order to achieve the best results; this is a hobby and is supposed to be fun. I want to give three examples I encountered recently with athletes that are examples of robotic behavior:
Training plans and numbers are great. They help keep you in check and on track to achieve success. The important thing to remember is that they are there as a guide/reference and you do not have to hit every single workout exactly as written. In fact it is not realistic to think you will get through a 4-6 month training cycle without adjusting on the fly. You should not be scared to go off plan from time to time in the name of recovery, unexpected changes in your daily schedule, or just to have some fun with friends. Remember you are playing the long game and consistency is what will ensure your success on race day. So don’t be consumed by the numbers and what is written on the training calendar for that day but challenge yourself as an athlete to understand why you are doing specific things during the different points of your training so that when something comes up you can make an educated decision on if and how to adjust.
As cycling and triathlon season ramps up, many athletes have races that may be their focal point for 2017. Many athletes want to peak fitness for best results and trust in their coaches to get them there. While a coach can help peak an athlete for optimal race day fitness, there is still some responsibility on the athlete to understand limits. Without understanding how a peak works, an athlete is at risk for becoming stale or plateauing after the race.
Building Into a Race
To be honest, the race specific demands of a race should make up the final two-four months of a training cycle before an athletes race. During these last couple months, the idea is to stress the athletes body with training demands that mimic the race setting. In order to continually build to a peak, the athletes training demands should build each week until recovery is needed. While there are specific ramp rates to target for athletes (amount of training stress added each week) The better indication of adaptation comes from the actual performances that athletes are putting out in training. Are run times/distances getting better? Are watts on the bike higher for longer? Can the athlete hold swim pace for longer durations?
The Dreaded Last Month
The last month of a training plan before a peak is always the hardest. Fitness is generally strong, but now we tend to go into a slight over-reach phase to get those last bits of fitness/speed out of the athlete. This can generally be a 1-2 week block where the athlete will generally feel like garbage and question if they will ever be strong enough to race the event. This is needed though. The human body is amazing at adapting to the stress in its environment. In this last piece of training, the athlete is maximizing the stress that they can handle in order to maximize their adaptation when they recover. Without this key 1-2 weeks of training, the athlete would be maintaining fitness. When athletes start to maintain fitness for longer than 3-4 weeks, they begin to plateau and become stale. Therefore, if you’re an athlete going into a peak race, without this over-reach period, you risk going into the race stale and flat.
There is a time to do this and a time not to. If you are going into a race or coming out of one, there is no benefit to maintaining fitness for prolonged periods of time. You will either become stale, overtrained, or burned out. The only time I ever see a maintenance of fitness work is if an athlete is at roughly 50-70% of their peak form. This period of time is generally in the off-season or early in the training year as they get ready for their build.
When an athlete tries to maintain high levels of fitness, I have found through several athletes that around the 2 month marker is the max for this tactic of training. For any athlete I’ve coached that has maintained high fitness for longer than 2 months, their results have suffered drastically after that 2 month mark. This is most likely due to the high level of fatigue needed to sustain such fitness without any further adaptation being added in to make the body stronger. Even when the metrics support a fresh body, athletes performance will suffer as they report no “pop” in the legs and an overall feeling of staleness.
Post Race Tactics
This is going to depend on your yearly calendar and how you set it up. If you have two large events coming up within a small window of time, then you will most likely use the same fitness for both. However, when your events are spaced out throughout the year, it is extremely important that you take some time off after your first big event. Remember, any time you try to maintain high fitness for over 2 months, you are going to start suffering in your performance.
Let's use an example that a few of our athletes at Mind Right Endurance are doing.
“A” Race #1 Galveston 70.3/IMTX (April)
“A” Race #2 Ironman Chattanooga (Sept)
So this athlete has two large events that they want to peak for. Even with one in April and one in September, they will be taking a majority of the month of April off structured training. They will slowly ease back into things in May and then start to get specific for Ironman as they build for September.
What you shouldn’t do: You should not aim to maintain fitness from April to September in this situation. By the time July rolls around, you will be burned out and hating training. You will start to see the training volume says the same thing, but your performance and results are getting slower. You’ll start to have anxiety over training due to the lack of performance you’re seeing and then you’ll go into a downward spiral of hating training and the sport.
As you go into a peak build for your race, training needs to be hard. The reason it's so hard is to ensure you don’t plateau too early in the process. Once you get through the last hard push, you get to experience a peak level of fitness for roughly 2-4 weeks. Once the race is done though, its important that you take some time away unless you have another large event coming up shortly. By trying to maintain high levels of fitness for longer than 2 months, you are at a high risk of plateauing fitness, becoming stale, and declining in athletic performance. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section!
Written By: Ray Delahoussaye
In this blog, I will briefly discuss the five pillars of swimming and their importance.
Swimming is hard. I get it. It requires, work, focus, patience and dedication but it also requires one to self-assess, identify with one’s weakness and fight those head on instead of being afraid of them.
So many athletes focus on their strengths 95% of the time. Why? Because failing scares us. Can I do this? You can! Turn that fear into excitement about learning something new and the chance to be better at something. So, let’s look at the pillars and hope they shed some insight on your swimming.
Breathing - This one is huge and one people struggle with the most. Breathing is a natural function. It is how we survive every day. It is natural when we bike, when we run, when we walk but when we get in the water it is not. Mistake #1- You hold your breath when you swim. Most think holding your breath while you swim will keep you afloat more efficiently and therefor swim easier. If only! Next time you go running take in a deep breath and hold it and continue running…. Doesn’t work, well does it?? Same with swimming. Don’t hold your breath. Holding the air in causes a build-up of carbon dioxide in the lungs, which causes tightening of the shoulders, chest and entire upper body and creates panic. It also increases your upper body to sit higher in the water which in turn causes your hips to sink in the water and add more drag to your body. Take in only the air you need, as the head goes back into the water breathe the air out immediately out of the nose/mouth and then continue to roll to the side to take your next breath. As practice, take a normal breath, push off the wall in a prone position and kick, then rotate to the side and take a breath. Continuing practicing just this until you are comfortable and then add 1-3 freestyle strokes in with it. You can also do this drill with a kick board. Use the warmup to do exercises like this, they will pay off in the end!
Body Position – Where your head is in relationship to your spine makes a big difference. Some swim with an aggressive head up position-looking forward, which causes the hips to sink, water hitting at almost eye level. You see a lot of sprinters employ this technique but your kick must be very efficient and powerful to overcome the drag that it creates. Some have a head down position-looking directly at the bottom of the pool. This can cause excess frontal drag as the water is now hitting your shoulders and not rolling off the head properly to create a bow wave. With the head being this low it makes it very difficult to take a breath. So, what is a good position? You are essentially looking to remain neutral, somewhere between the two above mentioned positions and the water should be hitting the crown of your head. When done right this creates a bow wave off the front of your head. In doing so a pocket of air is formed between the surface of the water and the person’s head. It takes some practice but once you find that sweet spot, taking that breath becomes easier.
The Kick – To have a good kick one must work on it. If it’s a weakness don’t shy away from it, embrace it as a weakness and truly put in the time and quality work to get it done. Don’t just do endless laps of kicking drills without knowing why it is being done. Know the focus of the drill. Most triathletes employ a 2-beat kick. Timing; when the left hand enters the water and begins pulling the right leg/foot should be performing a kick. This should happen naturally with most but it is something to pay attention to as this helps balance counter rotation and driving the hips for propulsion. Also, having good flexibility in the body especially at the hips and feet is very important for a strong efficient kick. Being able to keep your feet in plantar flexion is a must to have propulsion from your kick. The other issue I see is swimmers trying to kick from the knee. This is common in those who have either been cyclists or runners their entire life and try to drive power from the knee. The leg remains straight with a soft bend in the knee. Focus on the heel of the foot breaking the surface. The kick should be vertical, not horizontal. Having an effective kick allows one to engage the core and hips as part of the full swim stroke. I won’t get into SD (Shoulder driven), HD (Hip-driven) styles of freestyle. I’ll save that for another blog.
The Arms/Hands – Propulsion, the arms and hands are a swimmers main source of propulsion, so naturally we want to take care in making sure this is efficient and effective. Hands should enter the water with fingers pointed down and relaxed. The arms and hands should also remain on the outside of the body; meaning they should not cross your centerline. What’s my centerline? Thing of an imaginary line that runs from your head to your feet through the center of your body. Anytime your hand or arm crosses this line during swimming, you are creating frontal drag, reducing angular velocity and force on the water, misalignment of the stroke and shoulder injury. The elbow should remain at or close to 90% as possible. The closer the elbow is to the surface of the water the better to an extent. This depends on one’s flexibility a great deal. Working on flexibility with yoga and functional strength can be very beneficial for a swimmer. Also, allowing one’s shoulder to drop in the water can also cause frontal drag and efficiency problems in the water.
Technique - So how do I fix all this? Ah, the 5th pillar and probably the most important. Technique! Whether you do a self-analysis or have a swim coach analyze your swim stroke, this is a perfect way to get an idea of and visually see what you are doing incorrect. Drills and technique exercises can be put in place to help all the systems align and work together as an efficient system through the water. The warmup and cool down is a perfect way to focus on technique and drill work, and slow everything down and focus on 1 or 2 areas at a time. If you are doing drills make it a priority to know “Why am I doing this Drill?” “What is the focus of this drill?” Focus on feeling the water and how you move through it. Separate each system and pillar individually each swim session. For the warmup focus on kicking technique and drills, for the cool down focus on breathing or hand entry.
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