There’s more to training than MAX

As we head into winter training, most triathletes are planning their schedules and hoping to reach spring in a strong position. This will be your year!! This will be the season it all comes together!!

It’s common at this time of year for people to test themselves and establish a benchmark. About now, triathletes everywhere are considering their 20 minute FTP test, incremental ramp test or something similar. But one of the biggest issues with selecting testing protocols, it how it then potentially impacts your subsequent training.

VO2 Max
Max aerobic power
Max 20 minute power
Max 3 minute power
Max sprint test

Most people are probably picking one from the above list to set their fitness benchmark for the winter ahead. In case you haven’t noticed the obvious… all of the above tests include the word MAX.

Let’s now consider how trying to improve a MAXIMUM SCORE over winter, may impact your choice of training. If MAXIMAL 20 minute power is your chosen target, are you likely to choose steady zone 1 / 2 aerobic riding as a means of achieving your goal or are you perhaps be more likely to choose more high intensity interval type workouts?

The FTP test for cycling has become the universal standard for cycling ability. It has become the gold standard by which everyone is judged. If you want to know how good someone is, then you ask them “what’s your FTP?” It’s no surprise then, that if we judge people by their FTP, most people aspire to improve it. They will tend to focus their training around the type of workouts they believe are required to enhance FTP. In simple terms, they do lots of intervals at 20 minute power output or above.

FTP is not as important as you’d think

Of course, the power you can push for 20 minutes will influence performance, but it’s certainly not the only thing to consider and it’s probably not the most important. Most people racing Ironman distance triathlon events have enough power to ride at the pace they’d like to. The issue is they can’t hold it for 112 miles and they certainly can’t run a marathon after it. Once you can push a fairly decent amount of power for 20 minutes, your ECONOMY becomes far more important for Ironman performance.

How do we measure economy?

From a sports science point of view, economy is the amount of oxygen you need to swim, bike and run at any given pace. For example, if your aim is to cycle at 16mph for 112 miles, how much oxygen do you require each minute to do so. The amount of oxygen you require is linked to how many Kcal you’re using (if you need more energy, you’ll use more oxygen) and your heart rate and breathing will also be an indicator. People who are very economical use less energy and less oxygen and therefore have a lower heart rate and breathing rate.

When we complete VO2 testing with our athletes, we can measure all of the above accurately. For most people racing Ironman (I’d say as much as 80% of athletes), it’s economy that they need to develop over the winter period. They can already push reasonable power, they just can’t do it for 112 miles and can’t run a marathon to follow. Based on that fact, if their goal is to develop economy over coming months, then a test for ECONOMY is far more ideal than a MAXIMAL test and they should focus their training on improving their ECONOMY score.

So, let’s re-word our earlier comments about choice of test this winter. If you are trying to improve your ECONOMY SCORE over winter, are you likely to choose steady zone 1 / 2 aerobic riding as a means of achieving goal or lots of maximal intervals? Has the answer now reversed? So by simply changing your test, you’ve now changed your training ethos?

This is very simple, your training should be based on your personal physiological strengths and weaknesses, not the choice of your benchmark testing. Just because everyone else is doing a 20 minute maximal test doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Ask yourself the questions:

  1. What is it that I need to develop the most this winter?
  2. What kind of training will achieve that?
  3. How can I test that to give myself a benchmark?

It’s becoming ever more common for people to be infatuated with FTP, which has lead to a highly skewed training program for most people. They’ve become overly focused on 20 minute output and the bulk of training is geared towards that cause, 52 weeks of the year. They’re constantly signing up to the “12 week FTP builder program” and drilling themselves into the ground, with no real long term progress. It’s easy to be driven by ‘needing to compare numbers’ with other people. Asking someone “what’s your FTP or maximal output?” is a regular conversation, whereas asking someone ‘what’s your economy figures?” is very rarely heard.

Let’s consider endorphins…

There is of course another key player here which is the endorphins or the ‘feel good factor’. Most people feel far more satisfied and get far more ‘reward’ from pushing themselves hard and falling off the bike, than they do riding at a moderate intensity. If you finish ‘in pieces’ then it must have been a great workout. When you couple that with the fact that most people find it extremely difficult to compute how riding at a moderate intensity can be beneficial, you can understand why people prefer high intensity workouts. It’s difficult to have faith and play the long game, when you know you can instant short term benefits from harder workouts. It’s difficult to trust a long term schedule, if you can’t ‘measure’ the benefits. If you could see your ‘economy scores’ improving each session, you’d be more tempted to follow that path of training. Measuring and seeing improvements in economy are just not as simple as measuring ‘maximal output’, so we naturally gravitate to what we can clearly see and measure.

So intervals don’t work?

They absolutely do work. Interval training can give you a real boost in performance, that’s been known for many years, but there is a limit. For most people the benefits peak after 6-12 weeks, followed by a plateau and then often a dip. You get instant gains in the first 6 weeks which gives you a mental boost, but by the time you’ve reached 12 weeks, the progress has halted and the performances are getting worse.

“This is so frustrating, how can a training session that was clearly working 6 weeks ago, not be working now??” The answer? It’s limited to 6-12 weeks, there’s a cap on it. You can’t just do it for 52 weeks. You need to work on your personal key basics such as economy or maximal strength (which can continue to progress for months / years) then add the intervals 6-12 weeks before your key races, that’s how it works. It’s call periodisation.

So here’s your take away message…

1. Accept that there’s far more to performance than MAXIMAL scores
2. Understand which of those things are your personal weaknesses
3. Know how to improve them
4. Select a test / benchmark which accurately measures them
5. Remember that the benefits of hard intervals plateau at 6-12 weeks
5. Just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s right

Racing triathlon in 2022? Join our coaching group for £40 per month and receive sports science testing every 2 months to monitor progress, a structured plan and ongoing support. To read more about our coaching services, open water swimming, sports testing and bike fitting GO HERE

Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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