Should You Do Threshold Training?
Similarities between blackholes (the ones out in space) and cycling training execution have been made in sports science literature. Why? Mainly because they reflect the idea that training in a moderately hard manner most or all of the time strongly pulls your workout performance into a state of mediocracy. Recovery becomes less than optimal because easy days are too hard and fitness gains dwindle because what are supposed to be highly intense workouts can’t be completed at the level needed to stimulate adaption.
That’s quite simple to understand, but what does blackhole actually training look like?
The wolf in the sheep’s clothing, according to sports scientists examining the training of successful Elite, World and Olympic level athletes is threshold training. So what’s threshold training? Threshold training is an intensity where blood lactate levels are steady state, or in a simpler sense, it's typically defined as your maximum 1 hour power (watts) or heart rate (bpm). Workouts in this zone are typically done for 10-20 minutes in a single interval, and for 25-60 minutes total in a full set of intervals, depending on fitness level, time available etc.
This is controversial because painting threshold training in a negative light essentially means disputing the training practices of a huge proportion of the athletic community, pros included. Even so, threshold training has been described by some top coaches in sports like XC skiing as “the worst of both worlds”, despite this going against the 'specificity' principle, which states that if you want to improve something, you should do that thing. However, theory and practice are two separate things and the empirical sports science research agrees.
Top professionals in a range of different aerobic endurance sports, more often than not, have been seen to organise their training in a way that counters the blackhole effect. This manifests in an alternating or 'polarised' pattern of training that's either very easy or very hard. Athletes using this organisational strategy are then in a position to take advantage of some key benefits:
- Varied intensity and duration in their workouts, which helps avoid burnout and has been shown to stimulate better adaptive responses than unchanging workouts
- The ability to train longer in their long rides because the intensity is not as difficult
- Lower fatigue for a given fitness gain, given that easy or low intensity does not accumulate lactate in the muscles
- Possession of freshness going into the harder session which spike fitness gains
Training longer at lower intensities (below the lactate threshold) increases the mitochondrial density in the muscle cells and training harder (up to V02max intensity or your 5-6 minute max power/max heart rate) improves your ability to transfer oxygen to the working muscles. The former yields gains as a function of time spent training and the latter, the intensity of the training. What both of these types of training do is shift the lactate curve to the right (i.e. the boost lactate threshold) whilst allowing for recovery and progressive cycling training in the long term. Over emphasis on threshold training on the other hand, can result in a weaker boost of the lactate threshold whilst still dropping a fair amount of fatigue onto the athlete. The result is that threshold training FEELS hard, but is actually not hard enough to promote significant gains at a cellular level.
Could this be why you’re not progressing as fast as you’d like, despite feeling like you’re training hard all the time?
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