In blog #4, I outlined periodization and when you should be doing unfocused (non-specific) and focused (specific) training for your goals. It is important to understand there are periods of the season for both and that prolonged periods of time spent specifically training can result in overtraining or burnout. The purpose though of this blog will be to focus on specific training and what it means for each discipline.
Aerobic Exercise and its Many Forms
Aerobic exercise (exercise with oxygen) is what most of us think about when we think of endurance events. The biggest limiter for athletes in any endurance setting is their aerobic engine which consists of a base, threshold, and capacity (V02). The higher or more miles an individual has in their aerobic base, the better overall fitness, the higher the threshold means the athlete is getting faster, and the higher the capacity means the higher the ceiling for success (speed and fitness). All of these things work together but yet different races have different specific demands. This can get confusing but I’ll do my best to break it down here.
If we go back to our zones that I discussed in blog 4, we can see what percentage of lactate threshold (1 hour max power output) is associated with which specific training:
Z1: Recovery 0-60%
Z2: Aerobic Endurance 60-75%
Z3: Tempo 75-90%
Z4: Threshold 90-105%
Z5: Aerobic Capacity (V02) 105-120%
Z6: Anaerobic Capacity 120-150%
Z7: Neuromuscular 150%+
So lets break down specific training in the form of Ironman training. Ironman is interesting because it will actually utilize Z2/3/4/5 in its training to maximize the aerobic engine, but actual race day demands should all be in the z2/3 range. So here is how training would look for that in a specific manner.
#1 The biggest limiter to speed for the Ironman athlete is their threshold levels. The higher the threshold level of an athlete, the more watts they can put out in Z2/3 specific race day performance. The more watts they put out, the faster they go. So the strategy from the start for Ironman racing is to build their z4 levels as high as possible before race day.
#2 While building z4 numbers are a focus, we still need to remember that specific training results in optimal performance. Again, for Ironman this means Z2/3. So while we have been working on their Z4 for overall ability, the last 2-3 months of specific training needs to have a heavy dose of Z2/3 in order to prep the body for these long rides in the aerobic endurance/tempo zones.
#3 these long rides are doable for an athlete from an aerobic standpoint and energy production platform, but their muscles may not be used to 4.5 hours in the saddle of consistent work. This is why specific work is critical for both aerobic development but also muscular recruitment and conditioning.
To summarize everything from an aerobic engine standpoint. you can have a phenomenal engine in place, but if you aren’t being specific in the lead up to the event, you are risking a poor performance due to limited abilities to recruit the same demand on muscles as your aerobic engine can produce.
Anaerobic Exercise (exercise without oxygen) is z6 in the scale above. This type of exercise is tricky because it can be beneficial to help pull the string upwards for aerobic capacity, but a ton of anaerobic training isn’t going to help increase your specific ability to work at aerobic levels. Anaerobic training for the Ironman athlete above could pop up for quick bursts to help round out the athletes form, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of his/her training plan. That wouldn’t be specific to the demands of the race.
Where anaerobic does get very specific though is in the example of a cyclist. Most cyclists have to have a well-rounded aerobic and anaerobic engine for race day performance. Many races come down to the last 5 minutes of the race and more specifically to the last minute. With your anaerobic engine being responsible for efforts ranging from 15-90 seconds in length, a specific training program focused on these efforts will go a long way in helping a cyclist perform well in the final key moments of a race.
In training for a cyclist, anaerobic training may look something like this:
Warm up spin
90 minutes at z2/3 with 4x3 minutes of z4 mixed in
5x30 sec hard attacks (z6+)
2 minute recovery between.
This would be a set that would resemble the first part of a race with short bursts of threshold followed by the final part of the race with the hard attacks leading up to the sprint.
It is critical that you as an athlete understand that training isn’t all the same all the time. Things need to be focused in different manners to create a well-rounded athlete that is capable of the demands needed for optimal performance. It is a good idea to think about the race or events that you are targeting and break down what specific demands are needed to perform well. Once you understand the requirements of the race, then it is just about putting together a training program that maximizes the athletes ability to handle all situations they may find themselves in. Again, you can’t be specific year-round, but you should be very specific in those 2-3 months leading up to the event. By having a solid plan in place, you are maximizing your opportunity to have the race day that you want and deserve.