Improving Anaerobic Threshold (AT) / FTP

Athletes reach anaerobic threshold (AT) due to their muscles inability to keep pace with the energy demands of activity. When our muscles can no longer meet these demands hydrogen ions begin to accumulate, increasing the acidity within the muscles, and impairing the muscles’ ability to perform, i.e. you get DROPPED. This can happen due to either a lack of available oxygen, or a lack of mitochondrial ability. Through increases in our ability to deliver oxygen and mitochondrial activity, we can increase the muscle’s ability to produce energy. This can be accomplished through the improvement of at least two different physiological variables—increased mitochondrial density and angiogenesis.

Increases in Mitochondrial Density

Our mitochondria, as you probably know from high school biology, are known as:

The powerhouse of the cell.

-Every biology teacher, EVER.
Anaerobic Threshold, FTP.

This means they’re responsible for producing a vast majority of the energy (ATP) we need. This is accomplished through our electron transport chain or ETC. The ETC is located along the walls of the mitochondria and uses hydrogen ions (H) to synthesize ATP. After creating ATP, the H ions need to be removed from the mitochondria—this is where oxygen comes into play. Oxygen combines with two hydrogen ions to form water.

Now these same hydrogen ions can also play a role in the buildup of lactate if the ETC gets “backed up”. The ETC gets backed up when oxygen isn’t present to accept hydrogen ions at the end of the process, i.e. your body enters anaerobic metabolism. When hydrogen ions can’t be moved through the ETC, they combine with pyruvate to form lactate. This lactate formation helps slow the increase of acidity in the muscles. The lactate is shipped off to other parts of the body to be re-purposed. To increase the capacity of a muscle, it must be able to process more hydrogen. This electron transport system respiratory state increases (by 25%) much more in response to HIIT training, whereas typical endurance training shows much less improvement, i.e. a non-significant 9% increase (2). So, if you struggle with repeated hard surges, or struggle with recovering quickly after a very hard effort, your ETC is becoming “backed up” too quickly… More HIIT training for you!

Promoting Angiogenesis

Angiogenesis is the formation of new vasculature due to hormonal and mechanical related signaling.

The mechanisms by which this process occurs are not entirely understood but have been observed after exercise training. As previously mentioned, oxygen delivery is a key component in mitochondrial functioning due to it’s role in the electron transport chain. Without oxygen the ETC can’t function. Oxygen is delivered to working muscle, and subsequently the ETC, through our vasculature. When we breathe, oxygen defuses from our lungs into our bloodstream and makes its way through the body. As it travels through the bloodstream oxygen diffuses into working muscle, allowing it to be used for hydrogen acceptance. Theoretically, if more oxygen can be delivered to the working muscles, then the ETC can function at a greater capacity, delaying the onset of anaerobic threshold. So if the capillary surface area interacting with muscles increases more oxygen will be able to enter the cells.

Research shows that exercise can induce angiogenesis in the capillary beds around skeletal muscles. An increased capillarization has been observed in training studies performed at 70–80% of VO2 Max whereas training at an intensity of 45% of VO2 max has been shown to have no effect on capillarization(1). This suggests that engaging in exercise at or just below threshold will promote angiogenesis. This is one of the many reasons we have our athletes utilize Sweet Spot focused training throughout the course of their season, but especially during their base phase.

Anaerobic threshold, FTP.

Improving Anaerobic Threshold 

Based on the information above it seems as though 2 main specific types of training will promote the adaptations needed in order to improve anaerobic threshold.

  1. Working CLOSE to threshold for extended periods of time, i.e. 2x20s.
  2. Performing HIIT WELL OVER threshold with brief rests, i.e. 30/30s, Tabata sets, etc.

Research has demonstrated that training at higher intensities is more effective than low-moderate training at improving mitochondrial function and the formation of new vessels through angiogenesis. Try to incorporate the following training methods into your program in order to improve your aerobic capacity and delay the onset of anaerobic threshold. 

Working CLOSE to Threshold

One method of improving your anaerobic threshold will come from training at or near your threshold. This level of intensity is also referred to as maximum lactate steady state (MLSS), and should be CLOSE to your FTP.
At this intensity, you’re putting a significant amount of stress on the system without going over the lactate tipping point. Depending on your training status, you can estimate the heart rate range, or power output, right around your threshold. Typically, this is equivalent to 70-80% of your VO2 Max.

REMEMBER, a 20 minute FTP test is an ESTIMATE of your anaerobic threshold, and you may need to modulate the % FTP you’re working at to ensure you’re working close your MLSS. In my opinion, most FTP tests OVER-estimate anaerobic threshold, and the Sweet Spot range (88-95% FTP) is actually closer to MLSS.

If you want a more accurate method of establishing your anaerobic threshold, I recommend utilizing software like INSCYD, or getting a true lactate threshold test at a lab.

HIIT

Interval workouts comprise of alternating short, high-intensity bouts followed by periods of active recovery. Typically, the high-intensity portion of the workout is performed at levels above lactate threshold. For well-trained individuals, this level will be close to their max effort. For untrained people, intervals should typically be performed between 120-150% of your FTP. This method of training is well documented to improve the lactate thresholds of both trained and untrained individuals.

A word of caution though, if you are relatively untrained, err on the side of caution with HIIT training as the power output required can lead to injuries and burnout if overdone.

However, if you are VERY well trained, taking a polarized approach can help you get to that ‘next level’. This typically entails an ’80/20′ approach where 80% of your training is performed at very low intensities (Zone 1/2) and the remaining 20% is performed at an all out intensity (Zone 6+). You also need to have a ton of training time available to squeeze the most out of this approach.

Conclusion

Hopefully this helps to shed some light on what is happening at a physiological level when you’re training, and what a good training program should be composed of that is focused at improving FTP. However, just like anything, every athlete is different and will respond better or worse to training stimuli. It’s up to the athlete, and coach, to utilize historical data and make educated decision on what works best for them. The more individualized you can make your training, the further you’ll progress in less time.

References

  1. Jensen, L et al. “Effect of high intensity training on capillarization and presence of angiogenic factors in human skeletal muscle” Journal of physiology vol. 557,Pt 2 (2004): 571-82.
  2. Lundby, C et al. “Adaptations of skeletal muscle mitochondria to exercise training” Journal of Experimental Physiology 101.1 (2016) pp 17–22

What are the power training zones and what do they mean?

Power training zones can be broken up into many or few depending on who you talk to and what “kool aid” you are drinking.  For this blog, we will be using the 7 zones developed by Dr. Andy Coggan as they are the zones I train with and prescribe to my athletes with great success.  Before reading further though, please go back and read my previous posts “What is power and why do we use it?” as well as “What is FTP, how do we test it, and why do we use it?“.  This will save you a lot of confusion reading this article 🙂

Without further ado…

Zone 1 – Active Recovery – <55% of FTP or <81% of LTHR

This is the easiest zone on the continuum and is employed for times when you want to keep your legs open, but do not want to add any fatigue to them.  During times of intense training, active recovery workouts can help athletes recover faster because you are mobilizing blood-flow to the muscles and joints which will help deliver nutrients to them faster versus just taking a rest day.  Active recovery can be very hard for some people to adhere to however and I will sometimes prescribe a day of rest instead of active recovery if the athlete cannot keep their wattage output <55% of their FTP.  So, if you are one of those athletes who can’t just spin the legs easy and need to crush every workout, active recovery days would not be of benefit to you.

Zone 2 – Endurance – 56-75% of FTP or 81-89% of LTHR

This is the “all day zone” where you could literally spin forever as long as you have enough water, fuel, and chamois cream…Zone 2 is the zone I tend to spend the most amount of time in and heavily prescribe it to my athletes in the volume and endurance building phases (base I and base II).  I like this zone because you can spend a ton of time in it, increase base fitness, and be able to recover in <24 hours to be ready for the next workout.

Zone 3 – Tempo – 76-90% of FTP or 90-93% of LTHR

Tempo is another one of those buzz words in cycling that can have different meanings based on who is saying it.  To me, tempo is the pace in which you ride while sitting in the peloton getting to the more exciting parts of the race.  You aren’t exactly spinning easy, but you definitely aren’t crushing it either.  You can also spend a lot of time in this zone, but you probably wouldn’t want to either.  Tempo is  the black sheep of power zones; it’s not easy enough to spend a lot of time in, but it’s also not hard enough to generate a decent amount of training stress and the fitness gained is usually not worth the fatigue generated.

Zone 4 – Threshold – 91-105% of FTP or 94-99% LTHR

Now we are getting to the fun stuff!  The threshold zone is where most TT, cyclocross, and crit racers spend the majority of their time.  A highly-motivated and well-rested athlete can maintain threshold for upwards of 1 hour.  This zone is usually prescribed during the build through peak phases of periodization and is almost always broken down into intervals with periods of rest between.  This is a crucial zone for the “time-crunched” athlete and can generate a high amount of training stress in a short amount of time.  Be aware though that rest periods are required after multiple days of threshold work to avoid over training and injury.

Zone 5 – VO2 Max – 106-120% of FTP or 100-105% of LTHR

The track pursuiter zone!  Now we are talking short, but very intense efforts.  This zone is also a little misleading because you can’t improve upon your VO2 max once you hit your genetic ceiling.  That is to say each one of us has a different amount of oxygen we can utilize at a maximal effort based on our genetic makeup.  We can train to increase this up to a point, but eventually it will reach a ceiling where it will not increase any more.  Unsurprisingly, professional cyclists have crazy high VO2 Max’s and usually come from an ideal gene pool where the family has other professional athletes in it, i.e. Taylor Phinney.

Zone 6 – Anaerobic – >121% of FTP

Even harder, but reduced efforts here.  Think of a short (<3 minutes) final climb in a road race or a kilo effort on the track.  In this zone we are working to increase an athletes anaerobic capacity (duh!) and functional reserve capacity by doing short but very hard efforts with a lot of rest between to allow for full recovery.  As an athlete’s anaerobic capacity increases, so will their lactate tolerance and ability to push harder for longer above their FTP.  This is the difference between making the race winning break or summiting the climb with the front group versus being shelled.

Zone 7 – Neuromuscular – ALL OUT!

This zone is where you are literally improving the neural connection between your brain and muscles, plus increasing the density of your ligaments and tendons.  You are doing maximal intensity effort for <10 seconds.  Think of a track cycling sprint race when the athletes are winding up the gears for the final lap.  They are going from ~30 RPM to well over 120 RPM in a huge gear in a very short amount of time.  Being able to produce this amount of effort requires a tremendous amount of muscle, tendon, and ligament strength as well as excellent brain->muscle connection, a.k.a. neuromuscular power!

What is FTP, how do we test it, and why do we use it?

FTP, what?  FTP, who?

FTP has been the buzz word in cycling for the past few years now and can mystify, irritate, and exhilarate athletes (and their coaches) all at the same time.

FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power and can be defined as the maximum power output an athlete can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for 1 hour.  A good example is to think of the red line on your car’s tachometer…

Tachometer 590x590

The red line represents your FTP.  You can push up to the ride line and hold this output for an hour (if your fitness and freshness are good and you are extremely motivated mentally), but push just a little bit over the red line and you run the risk of fatiguing early.  So, now that we have a basic understanding of what FTP is, how do we test it?

The gold standard of FTP testing would be to ride for 1 hour ALL OUT and whatever your average power is for the hour would equal your FTP.  Simple, right?  Ha!  This would obviously be awful both mentally and physically for any athlete and you would need to be super motivated to be able to sustain the abuse of a full gas effort for 1 hour.  This also would take a substantial amount of recovery afterwards and may even decrease your fitness in the process because you would not be able to resume normal training for a couple of days.  So, the 1 hour test is very accurate, but not the best for repeated tests and may not be appropriate for all athletes.  The good news is people way smarter than me (yeah right!) have developed other ways of testing athletes’ FTP in a better way.

My personal favorite is the 20 minutes ALL OUT test.  This test was developed by Dr. Andy Coggan who has evaluated literally thousands of athletes ranging from cyclists, to rowers, to XC skiers and has also produced many journal articles on the topic.  The test goes like this:

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • Ride ALL OUT for 20 minutes
  • Record what your average power was for the 20 minutes
  • Multiply that number by .95
  • Voila!  You have your FTP
  • You can also use this above test to determine your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), just record your average heart rate for the 20 minute test instead.

I like this test best because it is easier (read less painful) than the 1 hour test, it has greater repeat-ability, and will not require a long recovery afterwards so the athlete can resume normal training immediately.

Why do we as coaches and athletes use FTP?  Simple!  Because it makes our training more precise and enhances the functionality of the power meter we invested in.  Be aware though, your FTP in June will not be the same as in January and your FTP outdoors will differ from the trainer.  This is why testing should be done throughout the year and ideally before each phase of periodized training.  This ensures you are getting the most out of your training and the best return on investment of your time.

Further Reading:

What are the training zones?

For more information on GC Coaching and how we can help you increase your fitness using power, please visit www.gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

What is power and why do we use it?

What is power?

First things first, let’s go back to Physics class…

Power is a measurement of work and more so the rate at which said work is done.  To make this specific to cycling, power is force (how hard you are pushing the pedals) multiplied by velocity (how fast you are spinning the pedals).  This equation will result in a wattage output.  So, to produce more wattage you either need to increase your cadence (Chris Froome) or churn a larger gear (Andre Greipel).

Why do we train using power?

Training with power is currently the most objective and immediate measurement of what your effort is on a bike.  Said another way, power trumps all other training tools (RPE, heart rate, etc.) because it gives instant and precise analysis of how hard you are working physiologically to propel yourself forward.  Power also does not change based upon stress (both emotional and thermal), hydration status, or altitude.  These factors will all drastically affect RPE and heart rate however.  Power is always what it is!

Another thing to consider about training based on heart rate, especially for the competitive athlete, is heart rate takes around 3 minutes to respond and level out when producing a given effort.  So, if your coach or training plan instructs you to do “3 times, 2 minutes at Lactate Threshold”, but you only have heart rate, you really won’t be sure if you are indeed training at your LT zone.  Whereas if you have a power meter, you can simply hit the lap button on your computer, and keep your average power in your LT zone, simple!

However, the biggest advantage to training using a power meter is the amount of data it provides all about YOU.  This data can also be translated into much easier to understand graphs and charts via Strava and Training Peaks as compared to years past.  Training with power gives you insights into:

  • Current fatigue, fitness, and form.
    • Yes, heart rate can provide this too, but power data is far more precise.  This monitoring tells if you are providing your system with enough stress to cause a training response, but also when you need to rest to decrease your fatigue and to prevent overtraining.
  • Objective progress.
    • Is your FTP improving?  Can you produce more power at a lower or the same heart rate?  Are your watts/kg improving?
  • Goal achievement.
    • Goals and achieving said goals are made easier with a power meter as you know what your body needs to be able to do simply by looking at others who have competed in similar events.
  • Pacing of events/races
    • Hello IronMan!
  • Race analysis.
    • Were you dropped on a certain hill?  Did you bonk at a certain point in the event?  A power meter, and a coach, can give provide you with the “why”.
  • The list goes on!  You get the idea though.

Disadvantages of power

With that being said though, power meters are expensive, complex, and can be unreliable at times (batteries dying, forgetting to calibrate/zero out before each ride, producing huge spikes in power occasionally, etc.).  Plus, few people actually understand how to utilize one to the best of its abilities and they can be very overwhelming initially.  Fortunately though, the price of power meters decrease each year along with their reliability and accuracy increasing alongside it and, besides working with a coach, nothing will enhance your training more than a power meter.

What do you think?  Is power worth the investment?  Have you experienced an increase of fitness using one?  Or is it all just some sort of sorcery!?

Interested in taking the leap into training with power?  Check out our partner, PowerTap!

For more information on GC Coaching and how we can help you increase your fitness using power, please visit www.gaffneycyclingcoaching.com