I get questions from athletes daily. Unfortunately, I have to pay the bills (just like you, I expect) so can’t devote my time to answering them all. Consequently, our team of TrainingBible coaches and specialists (Dr. John Post – medicine, Cheryl Hart – sport psychology and Amy Kubal – nutrition) answer almost all of them for me. But from time to time a question comes along which gets at a topic I think lots of athletes may also be asking and so I answer some of them here. The following is one such question I just received from an athlete along with my answer.
Question: I have been spending 10-20 hours/week riding around in heart rate zone 2 for the last 4 weeks. I do 3-4 hour rides on the weekends and 1 hour work commutes twice daily during the week. I have to admit that it is trying my patience, but I have skeptical faith that this is better than riding as fast and long as I can. My challenge is two fold. I don't understand how to measure progress and I don't understand the theory. I have a heart rate monitor and GPS (Garmin Edge 500), but I don't have a power meter, therefore I can't perform the "coupling" measurement you describe in your book. As an alternative, could I measure my speed on a flat windless 2 mile course at a given heart rate and then expect that to increase? Perhaps I could even measure my speed at several heart rates (e.g. 135 bpm (zone 1) 145 bpm (zone 2), 155 bpm (zone 3), 165 bpm (zone 4)). Would that be a useful fitness metric?
Answer: I’m guessing this person is in his early Base period since he seems to be focused on zone 2. I have endurance athletes do lots of z2 early in Base as it helps build aerobic endurance, a very important component of the endurance athlete’s fitness. That’s one of the most important workouts I’ve had athletes do in Base 1 of classic periodization for years. It works well, but I also use block periodization for my advanced athletes and in that case usually make aerobic endurance the emphasis of Block 3 (I’ll write about block periodization at another time). There are some changes occurring in my approach to aerobic endurance training.
Based on some personal training and testing I’ve been doing since last December I’m coming to believe that z3 training is more effective for aerobic endurance training in advanced athletes (I’ll also write about the “N=1 research” I’ve been doing at a future time). So basically, what I have advanced athletes using block periodization do is a z3 workout followed the next day by a z2 and then by a z1/recovery day before starting the 3-day cycle over again. The z3 session on the bike is something such as 3-5 x 20 minutes in z3 with 5-minute recoveries in z2. The athlete’s purpose is to get as much combined z2-3 training within this session as possible with minimal z1 and z4+. The z2 day is just a steady workout with at least half of the time in z2. This block lasts for 3-4 weeks.
For all novice and intermediate athletes training fewer than about 9 hours per week and using classic periodization in the early Base period we get in at least two such z2 workouts each week (1 in each sport if a triathlete) along with speed skills and muscular force sessions. For triathletes, this is all explained in my new book, Your Best Triathlon.
The second part of this question has to do with how one knows if progress is being made in aerobic endurance – when as a cyclist he doesn’t have a power meter (same as no speed-distance device for a runner). The first suggestion I’d make is that he start saving his pennies so he can eventually buy a power meter. Look for someone selling a used one which will be much less expensive than a new one. Basically, without such an output measuring device you are always just guessing at improvement. A power meter removes the guesswork.
In the absence of a power meter, a very basic gauge of how you are doing with these aerobic endurance workouts is how long it takes you to ride a standard course in zone 2. Wind, traffic and other confounding factors will necessitate some guesswork. Another highly subjective gauge is how hard such a ride feels as you progress over several weeks. These are not very good predictors.
The best test I’d recommend is simply a CP30 test on a 3-5% grade hill when there is no wind and no intersections to stop at (be very careful when doing this test by keeping your head up at all times and watching for traffic). Ride (or run) as hard as you can for 30 minutes on this course – by yourself: No training partners and not in a race. Having others with you will screw up the results.
Be aware that athletes nearly always start too fast on this test and then fade badly later on. You’ll get the best result by starting slower and trying to get slightly faster every 5-10 minutes. Also be aware that you should be rested before the test. Take it easy for 2 days prior.
When aerobic endurance improves your CP30 also will improve. Why? Because to go hard for 30 minutes takes a lot of aerobically active muscle (read, “slow twitch” muscle). If your aerobic endurance has improved you’ll have more aerobically active muscle after 3-4 weeks of such z2-3 training than you had prior (when you should have done a pre-test).
Unfortunately, there is still some guesswork involved here if you don’t have a power meter. The biggest issue is weather – wind and heat, primarily. Was it the same the last time you did this test? A power meter eliminates that question as weather has no effect on power in such a test. In this case all you do is compare your pre-test power with your post-test power. If it improved then your aerobic endurance has improved.
I know of some coaches who use a 20-minute test similar to my CP30 test. The problem with this, I believe, is that there is too great of an anaerobic component which somewhat negates the aerobic component which is what we are trying to measure. It’s very hard to hold even a slightly anaerobic effort for 30 minutes when going it alone (you’ll ride or run a lot harder if in a race or with other athletes).
I hope this helps some although I suspect it will generate a lot of follow-up questions. I’ll get at this athlete’s other issue, aerobic endurance-related training theory, in my next post.