Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Corner: Understanding Intensity Part I

Origional posting with pictures and graphs located over here http://www.endurancecorner.com/gblog/understanding_intensity_part_one

This week's article will require you to put on your thinking caps. It looks long but that's because of all the charts.

This series is going to touch on an aspect of my performance philosophy that is best summed up by a recent Kona Qualifier... why train fast if you are racing slow.

The best coaches/athletes in our sport have an inherent understanding of these issues - they might not use fancy charts but their programs/approach take into account what follows.

Part Two will be my article for XTri.com next week -- it is going to be a LOT more straightforward than what follows. If you are able to wrap your head around Part One, I think, you'll get more from Part Two.

Let's go!

Something that I noticed early in my athletic career was a huge difference in my tolerance for different types of workload.

The biggest example that I can remember with my own training was the effect that high intensity and flat steady-state riding had on my fatigue. I would become absolutely whipped.

Athletes have large variability in their tolerance for both workload and relative intensity. Over the years I have had this explained to me as:

Constitution - some athletes have superior constitutions... they can just handle it.

Experience - athletes have been racing fast, or training strong, since they were young kids... they can just handle it.

Mental Strength - the athletes that can't handle it are mentally weak. They could do it if they would harden up. You need to buckle down, toughen up and just handle it.

Part of the reason why I dislike HTFU is the philosophy points many athletes in COMPLETELY the wrong direction. STFD is more appropriate for the majority of people that I coach (slow ... ... down), perhaps Steady ... ... Up (STFU).

All of the above make intuitive sense but may fall apart when we take into account Survivor Bias.

Survivor Bias is when the result is skewed by the fact that many participants died, or quit, or went bankrupt... along the way. The results are skewed because you are only left with survivors to analyze. The victors get to write history.

As a new athlete, you aren't (yet) a survivor. So basing your approach to what works for the survivors could end up being anywhere from great to disastrous. If it is a disaster then you'll probably fade out of the sport and we'll never hear from you again. If it is great then you'll reaffirm the bias that is already built into the data.

If you are a coach, or athlete, that is only operating with heart rate then I'm going to offer up a case study to help you differentiate between your athletes.

In the chart below, we've shown the HR profile of a two members of the Endurance Corner Team... By the way, you can click any of these charts to see them full size.

Using my book (Going Long), the methods on TrainingPeaks, or accessing the (current) capabilities of WKO+ software... you could set the training intensity zones (HR and Power) for these two athletes.

...but would these intensity zones be appropriate?

Let's dig a little deeper... ...and now I ask you to tell me which athlete is more fit.

It's a bit of a trick question, I know. Fit for what?

On the face of it, I would want the curve on the bottom (AC's) and last week's article is explaining how I am trying to get there.

Alan's curve shows less lactate produced for EVERY level of power output. I would expect him to COMPLETELY dominate me and, as a coach, would set his zones well above my own.

Let's add the heart rate profiles and see if there is any additional information...

Hmm... it looks a little different, the roles are reversed, for every level of power output the I am operating at a lower heart rate. But relative heart rate doesn't matter... right?

...I've always had a high heart rate
...I can handle a high heart rate
...it's just the way I am
...I barely move when I train at a low heart rate

Something I learned from Mark Allen is that heart rate could be a more accurate measure of stress, than work. Mark's program is as much about capping stress as it is about building bottom-end endurance. Many athletes are stress-limited in their athletic lives (under recovery being a lot more common than over training).

Something I learned from swimming is that smaller (especially female) athletes can handle a lot more stress than larger (especially male) athletes.

So if you combine larger, with male, with high heart rates then you have a recipe for highly stressful training. I wrote about this in my Training Big Units article.

Stress comes from many sources -- I touched on these in my XTri article a couple of weeks ago.

The chart below shows what may be part of the picture:

Note that I am oxidizing more fat at every intensity level, most importantly for AC... in his Threshold zone he is not going to "feel" much at all. His lactate is so low it will feel similar to his Easy zone. There will be limited difference in perceived effort.

But there are two big differences...

1 - AC's heart rate is over 170 bpm // a pretty clear sign that something is up.

2 - AC's fuel supply is going to be rapidly exhausted -- he's rolling through ~720 kcal of glycogen per hour - at an effort that feels easy and IS easy for him in many aspects. He's going to be rolling well then BOOM he's going to hit a massive wall. This will SERIOUSLY play with your mind, especially if your highly-fuel efficient pals tell you to HTFU.

By the way, AC's fat oxidation is above average - what "kills" him is his fitness!

Keeping It Real
I realize that Endurance Corner is one of the few businesses with a world-class physiology lab in the founder's basement... so here are some real world signs that you might need to adjust your definition of "intensity".

A -- Capacity to generate high heart rates - used to justify higher-than-average heart rate training zones. If you think that you can "handle" zones that are well above Mark Allen's Formula -- then look to your consistency. Can you really handle it?

B -- Sugar - if you crave sugar, or train to eat sugar... odds are... you are not all that efficient at using fat for fuel AT YOUR CHOSEN TRAINING INTENSITY. Depending on your race distance, this may, or may not, be a limiter. It's certainly a long-term health issue for you to consider.

C -- Body Composition - when work doesn't shift the weight - trim your sugar intake and watch what happens. If you bonk quickly then you may need to materially reduce intensity to shift the fat. Many athletes get trapped in a "train-treat-repeat" cycle that results in no material weight loss (despite big training). Are you known for 64-oz Big Gulp stops? Can you calmly eat a liter of ice cream at 10pm at night? I've been known for both at various times in my career!

Putting this in context, AC will need to do 30 hours of 250w training to burn the equivalent a pound of fat. Drop the intensity back to 200w and the time required is 15 hours.

Which weight loss protocol would you give the higher probably of success -- 15 hours of training at 65% effort or 30 hours of training at 83% effort?

If you have 20 pounds to lose then you could spend your entire season working HARD and losing ZERO. Your flat riding will improve but your running and hill climbing will stagnate.

[ED Note: AC doesn't need to lose weight, he needs to gain muscle... but, hopefully, you see my point that...] Many athletes are physically capable of doing 100% of their training at an intensity that results in zero fat being oxidized. In my own training, I know that I can do 30-hours of training per week and GAIN fat.

Next week, I will talk you through practical implications for training these different athletes for a range of distances.