Wednesday, May 03, 2006


After reading the comments from one of my readers, I decided to address his question in a new blog entry, rather than writing a comment like I usually do.

His comment read as follows:

"...Next year maybe going into my second season of racing. Right now capacity isn't the problem, recovering from 2-3 surges per lap in crits is. Riding steady at 10-15 beats over LT isn't a problem, but every crit in my area has a small hill on it leading into a corner at the top, and doing a hard 20 second surge every lap while otherwise riding tempo or right at LT seems difficult to recover from. Any thoughts other than the lame one that occurred to me, which was "improve your endurance base so you can ride at 24-25 in the endurance zone"?"

The single-most important factor in most endurance sports might be speed at threshold. In other words, your max speed without accumulating excess lactic acid. So, naturally, the question is: how to increase this speed?

There are three factors in this equation:

1. Max VO2

2. Threshold (% of Max VO2)

3. Efficiency / work economy

Although all these factors play a role, max VO2 may be the deciding one. Most literature agree that the limiting factor is the heart's ability to pump blood. In other words, the muscles (mitochondria) can process much more oxygen than they receive. So, since we have excess capacity in our muscles (they can utilize much more O2 than they receive), we need to increase the amount of blood (O2) pumped by the heart.

The ideal way to increase this capacity is to train the heart muscle. As you increase intensity, the heart will pump faster (work harder). This increase will continue up to about 95% of the individual's maximum heart rate. After that, we see a slight drop off, due to the fact that the heart is not able to completely fill with blood at max intensity. This leads us to conclude that the most efficient way to train max VO2 is to stress the heart muscle at about 90-95% of max.

We do this best by training intervals at the before mentioned intensity. Recommended length per repetition is 4-6 minutes x 5 times. No reps shorter than 4 minutes, since it takes the heart muscle about 2 minutes to work up to the recommend intensity. This leaves you with 2 minutes of "heart muscle training" per rep. If you can do 6 minute reps, then do that, but chances are 4 minutes is more than enough.

The challenge during these sessions is controlling the intensity. Most people go too hard and as a result, cannot complete the recommended amount of sets. Keep in mind that each rep will make you very "out of breath", but you shouldn't have completely stiff legs. Do the first rep a bit slower, so that you have enough energy to complete the last rep. You should feel as though can go 1 minute longer on each rep and that you could do one extra set when you are finished. Give yourself 3 minutes of active recovery (easy spinning) in between reps.

The hotly contended question these days, is how often do we have to do these? The easy answer is that well-training athletes need at least 2 sessions a week to maintain their current capacity. Any less and you lose performance. 3 sessions would show a slight increase. Individuals with a Max VO2 over 70ml/dl/kg might need 3 sessions per week to maintain their levels.

The good news is that the heart muscle is very "trainable" and responds extremely well to this training. Each session can give you a 0.5% increase in performance. When training hard and doing several such sessions a week - make sure you listen to your body. If you are tired, don't do these sessions. Recovery between sessions is vital.

So - by improving your heart muscle's ability to move blood - you will be able to hold a higher threshold speed and improve your race results. In other words, those hill climbs will not put you as far into the red zone as earlier. And remember that it's never the fastest rider that wins the sprint, it's the rider with the freshest legs. That is a very important distinction.


Blogger servento said...

Hello again, Mags.

I know that you firmly believe in cross-training. But would it be smart to do these kind of intervals by running instead of cycling? Some people think that high-intensity training should be done in your specific sport. How do you feel about this?

Good luck completing your "week of hell". Hang in there.

- servento

Blogger mags said...


Good to hear from you.

Cross training is good for base-training and "mental" freshness, but should not be done when doing intervals.

You need to emulate specific movement patterns during intervals and they should be done on the bike. This is mostly for the muscle-developments that happens.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey mags

Well-written piece on max VO2. I attempted a similar interval training method starting late august for skiing and with wonderful results until the second week of January when my body crashed. By February, a flight of stairs would take my breath away. I guess my point is that it is a very effective and dangerous training method. It requires you to focus on resting and recovering. So rest well and best of luck to you.
ps. I believe that most athletes agree that 2/week is a good frequency. The argument I hear the most is over duration. Do you have any comments on that? ex. 2 per week only in pre-comp or year-around?



Blogger servento said...

Thank you for the answer, Mags. By the way, I read about Ulrik Wisløffs training philosofy today (lots of 90-95% intervals and not many long endurance rides), and it sounds a lot like what you wrote in this blog entry. Is there any chance you've been reading this (Norwegian) article?øff.doc

And, by the way, how should I work in 2/3 zone 5 interval sessions to my training program when I'm training only 14-17 hours a week? It would have been great if you could give me some advice.

- Servento

Blogger mags said...

Anonymous skier - Thanks for the comments. You are right, these extreme interval blocks can be very dangerous, no doubt about it. I have in the past been fairly sceptical to them and have really stuck to traditional endurance training.

After speaking with my DS and a medical doctor, I have been playing with the idea of trying these blocks out in a "light" version starting next season. I say "light version", because I will not do them frequently.

There is no doubt, that with adequte rest and recovery, this type of training leads to tremendous gains in fitness / O2.

I don't know what went wrong for you, but the common mistake when using this type of training is not going easy enough in between the hard periods. In other words, the body needs time to recover after such a prolonged, hard effort.

I believe in having 2 high intensity (I-5) sessions per week year round is a good idea. Of course, when you are competing - a race would take the place of one of these sessions. Also, after the season is over, it's a good idea to stay clear of hard interval training for 2-3 weeks, to let the body re-charge.

Servento - I am very familiar with Wisløff and Hoff's research, but only partially agree with them. I do not, in any way, advocate only interval training. That is, in my opinion, a sure-fire way to wreck your body. You need volume (long rides) as a foundation, regardless of what W&H says. Just look at the training logs of the legends, they all trained lots of volume as well as intervals.

On the other hand, their research is correct with regards to what type of training builds a high Max VO2 value, which is a very important trait in our sport. So, I do agree with them when it comes to the type of intervals to use.

If you are training 14-17 hours per week, you can still fit in 2 I-5 sessions. Build your week around them, in other words. Place 2 or 3 sessions of high intensity work (I-5) and fill in the gaps with the other stuff. Give yourself 2 days in between each I-5 session. For example: I-5 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Place your easy rides in and around that. If you do strength training - try not to do it right before an I-5 session.

I also belive in distance sessions - since this helps you discover a correct race-pace (for TTs). You learn what it feels like to go as fast as you can over a certain distance. So, maybe you can exchange on of the I-5 sessions for an I-4 session that lasts 30-40 minutes without a break. This way you learn how to ration your strength.

Find a course and try to "solve" it better each time.

Hope this helps! Happy training! :)

Blogger servento said...


Thank you very much for your response. I've had a break from my training because of a fever, but when I get back, I'll try to fit in some Z5-sessions.

- Servento

Blogger Tom Stormcrowe said...

Great post, Mags, and sage advice. Now you know why I stop by!::GRIN:: You answer my question before I even ask it!

Blogger mags said...


Thank you very much!


Blogger Tom Stormcrowe said...

Mags, I just linked to this article, I think it'll help a lot of my readers. I did this on both of my blogs and it will wind up a permanent link on MSN this week as well on my Sidebar keeper posts.

Blogger mags said...


Thank you very much! I'm flattered. I'm glad someone finds my ramblings somewhat interesting.


Blogger Tom Stormcrowe said...

Mags, drop by and let me know how the racing is going!

Blogger mags said...


Sure thing. Racing has gone well, doing the UCI European Continental Tour.



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