A reader asked me a few days ago if aerobic capacity training, which is what I suggest you probably need a bit more of in your training if you’re a typical senior athlete, means you should aim to reach your VO2max heart rate – which is near maximal heart rate – every time you do such a workout. In short, the answer is “no.” Here’s the details.
If you’re training with a heart rate monitor (which is the least effective way to do intervals due to heart rate lagging effort early in the session and within each rep) you should aim for heart rate zone 5b with each interval. You may not be able to achieve that on the first two or three interval reps due to HR lag. The 5b zone starts 3 beats per minute above your lactate threshold heart rate (which is the intensity at which you begin to “redline”) and tops out short of your max HR (see my Training Bible or Total Heart Rate Training books for zone details by sport). For the first few intervals when using a HR monitor, base your effort on perceived exertion – above your perceived redline.
If you’re a cyclist or triathlete using a power meter, use Coggan’s zone 5 which also starts just above FTP (similar to LTHR – when you begin to redline) and rises to about VO2max power. As a runner or swimmer doing intervals based on pace, use my pace zones 5b. These zones do not require that you achieve your max HR or even max effort with every interval (also recall that I suggested this could be fartlek or hill work, or even a fast group workout). Your effort should exceed your redline to be affective in achieving the goal we are seeking here – to boost your aerobic capacity.
Power and pace are by far the most effective ways to do intervals.
As a quick review, the intervals I’m suggesting here are 30 seconds to 5 minutes long with equal recovery durations after each. Do a total of 5 to 15 minutes of combined interval time within a session. Start with the low ends of both – 30 seconds and 5 minutes. As the season progresses you should be able to do longer intervals with more total interval time. Again, these can be done as fartlek (meaning unstructured and based entirely on “feel” for durations and intensity), as hill repeats or even as a group workout that includes several fast portions.
As I’ve mentioned before, intervals increase your risk of breakdown. The most common is injury. But one of those risks may be related to heart disease. If you have reason to believe there is something cardiovascularly risky for you in doing high-intensity intervals (for example, a history of heart disease in your family), see your doctor before starting such a program. In fact, as a senior athlete, it’s probably a good idea to get a check up regularly regardless.
Now back to periodization for the senior athlete.
In the last aging post I discussed how to customize a short period of your training, such as a week or a few days – a “microcycle” in periodization-speak – to match your personal rate of recovery. You may recall that I suggested training in nine-day cycles if you can fit it into your lifestyle. That’s not possible for many so I also offered suggestions on how to use a more common seven-day cycle in such a way as to reduce your risk of breaking down.
Let’s do something along the same line for the next longer period of time in your training plan – the “mesocycle.” This is typically a grouping of two or more microcycles. For example, the Base and Build periods are mesocycles.
In traditional periodization, Base and Build are generally four weeks long – 28 days – with the last few days intended for rest and recovery before starting the next mesocycle. But as a senior athlete I’d suggest making these shorter – about 19 to 23 days. This allows for more frequent rest and recovery, which is what you do in the last few days of a mesocycle.
Nineteen to twenty-three days would be the combination of two microcycles of either 14 days (2 x 7-day microcycles) or 18 days (2 x 9-day microcycles). Then add five days for R&R on to the ends of both of these. That makes for 19 (14 + 5) or 23 (18 + 5) total days in the senior athlete’s mesocycle. So now your R&R will occur more frequently than if you were doing a 28-day mesocycle. And since recovery is one of the major obstacles to senior performance, this has the potential to boost your training quality and therefore your race performace.
Five days of rest and recovery are usually adequate to shed the built-up fatigue of the last mesocycle before starting the next. But it could be that you need more or less time at the end of a mesocycle to recover. In that case adjust the total number of mesocycle days to match your needs. This can be done “on the fly,” depending on how you feel at the time. Still a bit tired after 5 days of R&R? Take another day to rest up. Feeling great after 3 days? Start the next mesocycle with a longer-than-usual microcycle.
How long you take to recover mostly depends on how challenging the preceding microcycles were. The senior athlete usually knows that the more high-intensity training that was done, the more R&R that is needed. For example, you may find that R&R after a Base mesocycle requires less time than after a Build mesocycle. Adjust the number of R&R days accordingly. If unsure, allow for more to get rested up. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in training is to start the next mesocycle slightly tired. It just snowballs from then on.
If you’re doing seven-day microcycles in a 21-day mesocycle and need only five days of recovery at the end (few athletes, even seniors, need seven days for R&R), that leaves you with two “extra” days (7 + 7 + 5 = 19, 21 – 19 = 2). This means that the first microcycle of the next mesocycle would be nine days instead of seven. So you could, essentially, increase the density of your training by adding one more high- or medium-dose workout at the start of the next period. Another option is to use one of those days to measure your progress with a field or lab test (these are described in my Training Bibles). Then, after a day of rest, return to your normal, seven-day training microcycle.
I hope that this and the previous post on microcycle design are helping you plan your training to better match your individual dose and density needs. I know all of this periodization stuff is a bit tedious, but time devoted to such planning now will pay off with better training later on because you will work on what’s important while getting adequate recovery. Quality training and recovery are the two keys to effective training. And recovery seems to be the greatest challenge we have as senior athletes.
In the next aging post I'll touch briefly on flexible periodization.