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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interval work email question

I recently received an email from a client I am training this year, that has some basic questions come up as he begins this new training plan.  He isn't a pro, but has good potential to do some damage in regional and even national races as an amateur.  He is new to any structured training, and like many athletes, prior to our working together, he used to go as hard as he could every day on the bike.
"During this phase of training (early -- post base building, and just beginning strength building) what should my intensity/heart rate level be for my spin workouts?  Should I not go anaerobic except for the intervals?  I don't think I was anaerobic at all for yesterdays work out  (I usually go anaerobic every day).   Today shows 2 x 8min intervals (muscle endurance intervals -- strength building), but the total ride is for an hour and a half.  How hard should I go when not doing intervals?  I am assuming the tests (we are headed into the Human Performance Lab next week) will help with target heart rates?
Do you have any recommended reading on that would help me understand your approach?  I would really like to start understanding the method to the madness (assuming it is not overly technical)."
His questions are ones that I see every year, when I take on a new athlete.  Returning athletes, having seen the results of this type of training, don't come back with these questions on their second year.
Here's my response to him:

"The short answer is that you should not go anaerobic or near your  threshold outside of the interval work -- even some of the intervals, like today's (low cadence, strength building, muscle endurance intervals) may not make you fully anaerobic because they are done at a low cadence, so some people feel their legs pushing really hard (which is the point), but depending on how used to this type of effort you are (like if you were a frequent single-speeder) you may or may not be breathing terribly hard.  For the muscle endurance intervals today, I only want you to focus on keeping the cadence low (around 50 rpms), which should keep your muscle contractions very powerful (again, think of it as "weigh-lifting on the bike") and put out as much effort knowing that you have to do  2 of these 8-minute interval.  You probably won't collapse from aerobic exhaustion at the end of the intervals, but you should feel like your muscles did some work -- maybe some of that "crispy" sensation you get after weight-lifting.
For many riders who start my program for the first time, they are disconcerted by the "down time" during the workouts.  These down times are purposeful.  They allow us to warm up and cool down appropriately, as well as give us adequate recovery between intervals and make sure that we don't go too hard cumulatively day to day so that we build up an unwanted level of fatigue.

I don't want you to get tired from fatiguing yourself by working near your threshold for 45 minutes to an hour in 3 consecutive workouts.  This doesn't bump up your upper range power at all -- it really just makes you tired.  I'd rather you go easy, and then when it's time to go hard, you can really go that much harder.  Again, I'd rather your fatigue come from working on wattages that are much higher than your threshold, because by working here, we actually make you more efficient at this super-high wattage and the trickle down effect makes sure that you get more efficient at your threshold, so this power gets bumped up as well.

This particular early stage is all about setting a neuromuscular basis on which we'll build the rest of the program.  That's why we focus early on these "weight lifting" intervals and the progressive increase of your riding time.  
The muscle endurance intervals increase the number of motor units in each of the muscles that are working (when we contract a muscle, the entire muscle doesn't work, just certain parts of it -- we want more of the muscle to work all the time).  Then in a few weeks, when I throw in some high intensity work, you'll have more motor units working and they'll all get more efficient at pushing big wattages.  So it's kind of like we're stacking the deck.

As far as reading up on some things....that would be a little tougher.   I've been a PT for 15 years, so I've been doing this a while and refining things the whole time, from a lot of different sources.  Two of the more accessible books out there that I really like are
The Lore of Running, by Dr. Tim Noakes, and High Performance Cycling by Dave Morris.  I took some of the names of the intervals from Dave Morris' book, but I do differ some in how he sets his programs, but it's a good book, and only about 150 pages.  Noakes book on running is about 1200 pages -- I think it's fantastic, and it really is a pretty easy read, but it can be a bit much hauling around that thing -- it's weighs more than a Bible!  I have both books at the Studio if you'd like to borrow one or the other."
This email exchange brings to light two of the most dangerous scenarios in training:  1.  Going too hard in our time between intervals, which can decrease the overall power we achieve during those intervals, and 2.  going slightly too hard in consecutive days which will add up to a cumulative fatigue that takes longer to recover from.
So, if you have an hour or hour and a half to ride or run each day, don't just go the same "semi-fast" speed every day.  Mix it up between very fast and very slow -- it'll get you better fitness, and much quicker.

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