During his workshop “Winter Base Training for the Endurance Athlete” conducted at the OA Performance Center on December 12, 2010, Joe Friel addressed the issue of what it takes to be a successful endurance athlete. From this presentation, we can infer that there are only three things a cyclist can do to improve cycling performance.
1. Develop aerobic capacity
2. Improve lactate threshold
3. Improve economy
This article on improving cycling performance will focus on developing aerobic capacity.
According to Friel, aerobic capacity, also called VO2 max, is the volume of oxygen used to produce energy at maximal aerobic effort. The more oxygen a cyclist is able to use, the more energy the cyclist produces and the greater the power output (applied force to the pedals converted to watts.)
Typically, the fastest cyclists in a race have the highest aerobic capabilities. Joe calls aerobic capacity or VO2 max, the “ticket to the club.” He is also quick to point out that aerobic capacity, in and of itself, cannot be used as a predictor of success. VO2 max readings will not tell us how the race will unfold; VO2 max will only tell us who the contenders will be. Aerobic capacity is literally the heart of cycling success - the more oxygen the athlete is able to deliver to the muscle the higher the V02 max will be and the greater the cyclist’s potential to go fast.
Improving Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max)
Improvements to aerobic capacity are largely the result of how much blood the heart pumps to the muscles per beat. Therefore, one purpose of a comprehensive training regimen designed to improve cycling performance is to increase the stroke volume from the heart (more blood per beat).
Increasing stroke volume through endurance training can be accomplished in three ways, according to Friel:
- Increase volume of training above 50% of V02 max. To do this, the athlete seeking to improve cycling performance will need to know their current VO2 max output. This can be accomplished by taking a VO2 max test at a testing facility like the OA Performance Center. Alternatively, a cyclist with a power meter can do an all out, maximal six minute effort on the bike and use the average power from that effort as a proxy for VO2 max measured in watts. (Joe refers to this as Critical Power for six minutes or CP6). Let’s assume that our cyclist did such a power test with a measured output average of 330 watts. Using this figure, our athlete seeking to improve cycling performance would train as much as possible above 165 watts (endurance pace). The problem with this approach, according to Joe Friel, is that improvements to aerobic capacity will take months if not years. And even then, our cyclist may not achieve true aerobic potential.
- Perform high intensity intervals at VO2 max. High intensity intervals are essentially maximal efforts than translate into “strength training for the heart.” An example of a workout featuring high intensity intervals would be 5 x 3 minutes at CP6 with three minutes recovery between each effort. Using the example above, our cyclist would pedal at an average of 330 watts for three minutes, recover for three minutes, and then repeat for a total of five efforts. I suggest doing these types of intervals on a short, steep hill because it is easier to drive power on an incline than it is to do it on a flat. Likewise, I advise not doing these on the trainer, as they seem much more painful! In fact, high intensity intervals are very difficult, and they entail a fair amount of suffering. Using this approach, it will take 3-5 weeks to achieve aerobic capacity. According to Joe, high intensity workouts like this are very potent, but they also come with a fair amount of risk, because of the stress they create on the body.
- Do both - train at 50% of VO2 max + High Intensity Intervals. Most experienced athletes employ both methodologies to achieve their VO2 max potential through focused training. Joe recommends a training regimen that includes both.
Other Physiological Contributors to Aerobic Capacity
During the workshop, Joe identified several other physiological factors that contribute to aerobic capacity:
- Presence of aerobic enzymes found in the muscle. Aerobic enzymes are predominantly found in the large, slow twitch muscle fibers of legs, thigh, trunk, back and hips.
- Blood vessel diameter and ability to dilate. This is often an issue for the aging athlete, as blood vessels tend to constrict with time.
- Blood volume and hematocrit levels, which dictate the ability to move oxygen carrying red blood cells to working muscles. We often hear about professional athletes seeking to improve cycling performance by taking EPO (Erythropoietin). While this is a topic for another time, EPO is used to increase red blood cell counts and thus increase oxygen carrying capacity.
- Choose your parents wisely. Genetics is the single largest determinant of the VO2 max ceiling. There’s not much an athlete can do about this one, but everyone can achieve potential through effective aerobic capacity training.
The next article will focus on improving lactate threshold as a means of improving cycling performance.