Monday, February 1, 2016

Work Before Work Rate

by Gordo Byrn

I've touched on the key elements of ironman success in the past in my personal blog. In that article, I shared a favorite benchmarking session, the progressive bike test.

The chart above gives a snap shot of my current aerobic range. Here at EC, we like assessing ranges -- both within a main set (like my test) as well as mean/max analysis with tools like WKO+ or PowerAgent.

If I could pinpoint the main difference between my approach to endurance, and more classical approaches, it comes from a desire to optimize sub-maximal stamina. With the exception of my female and veteran athletes, I rarely focus on maximal performance.


Because maximal performance isn’t a limiter for most of us. The No. 1 limiter is pacing based on a flawed view of our stamina -- we consistently over-estimate the amount of “fitness” we have to use on game day. Or... we simply ignore what we’ve practiced.

Here’s how I quantify my endurance.

First up, I like to do the progressive set that I outlined: five minute steps, start really easy, progress gradually so you see all training zones, keep going until it’s clear you won’t make the next step.

Ideally, you’ll be able to test lactate as you progress but that’s not essential. With experience, you will be able to feel your zones change -- steady is where you feel your breath deepen; mod-hard is where you can hear your breathing; and threshold is where you start to feel a light burn in your legs. Scientifically-disposed athletes can read AC’s description as well as review his table on zone lingo.

If you’re like me then you’ll try to convince yourself that you haven’t felt those feelings until they become really obvious. For this reason, you are likely over-estimate your zones by one full level. That’s where lactate testing helps -- lactate takes our ego out of the equation!

Most age group athletes start every single session too quickly. This makes it impossible to learn the subtle transition from easy to steady endurance training. My training partners know how slow I like to train -- I’m a Jedi-master of aerobic threshold.

Armed with your zones from the progressive test, your next mission is a reality check on your steady training in the field. The progressive test only takes an hour and you’re training for a really, really long event. Given the likelihood that your ego skewed the results, you’d better get into the field for a reality check.

Benchmarking Steady
Roll that steady wattage on your long rides. Seek routes with very few stops on them; or use interval function on your power meter to benchmark long steady state efforts. For IM, I will build the ability to ride evenly for up to six hours per day, and sixteen hours per week. Those are peak duration values I’m talking about. Early season, I will start at 90 minutes and build my duration gradually towards four hours by the end of the base period.

If you find that you’re unable to maintain steady heart rate while holding steady wattage then... it’s not steady!

Heart rate is a sign of stress and if you’re stressed after 90, 150, 210 or 270 minutes... then you’d better figure out why. Generally, the reason is due to what’s happening metabolically and you should dial down your personal definition of steady.

If you’ve ever blown up in an ironman then your definition of steady needs fine-tuning, both in the water and on the bike.

Your results, not a textbook, tell you what’s happening!

Quantifying Work
While you’re improving your stamina, pay attention to the kilojoules of your key rides. Note the total amount of work that you are doing (daily/weekly) and the impact that work has on you.

The goal of work assessment is understanding the feasibility of your Ironman goals. A template for this type of calculation is in AC’s summary of what it takes to get to Kona.

If you’re not the technical type then build your fitness so that you can swim 5,000 meters, bike 120 miles (nice and even) and run 10K. The amount that your steady running pace decays from fresh training pace will give you an indication of where you are at. A very limited number of times, in specific preparation, follow the big day with 15-20 miles of running (the following day) for a further assessment.

Quantifying Work Rate
Once you’re comfortable that you’ll be able to output the total work required for your race, you need to assess the work rate that you want to use. I have three things that I use to assess my work rate:

  • Big Day Training (outlined above) where my ride duration is equal to race bike split and I insert 120-150 minutes worth of effort (broken) that’s 10% over goal race duration. For me, that’s half ironman effort (3 x 45 minutes or 5-6 x 20 minutes).
  • Gas exchange analysis of a progressive bike test to see my fat oxidation rate throughout my aerobic range. Sounds techie and it is! While this is a short test, it offers insight into potential metabolic red zones where I am burning glycogen unnecessarily fast.
  • Big Week Training -- not very scientific but when I throw a lot of volume at myself or an athlete, I get a clear idea of how resilient they are to fatigue. A thirty-five hour training week gives qualitative information that is useful for developing race strategy and trains the athlete’s mind for how they are going to feel at mile fifteen on Game Day.

You’ll see that I haven’t mentioned functional threshold power (FTP) or VO2max performance. Within your training plan, you will do sessions that enable you to estimate these values. However, they aren’t mission critical to ironman success. They are simply bits of data and fun to discuss amongst friends.

The key information that you need to figure out is how many kilojoules you’re likely to have on race day and the best way to apply those kilojoules across the event.

Work Before Work Rate.

Gordo is the founder of Endurance Corner. You can find his personal blog here.

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