When I was racing as a junior my Lactate curve was terrible. Just riding down the road made lactate seep from my eyeballs. I never knew how any of the older athletes could do it. They would just ride and ride impossibly fast without fatiguing. I would watch them climb after climb ride their bike effortlessly, while I was a slobbering mess. It wasn’t until later in my cycling career that the training techniques of the elites were explained to me.
It wasn’t a difficult concept to train for, but it was able to provide incredible results rooted in some really solid science.
Your lactate levels at any chosen power output or speed are going to be a good indicator of how long you will take to fatigue. This is what separates a Professional athlete from an Amateur.
This is what the difference looks like on paper. And yes, this is real data.
Substrate (fuel) utilisation. Fats, Carbs or Glucose? Lactate is produced when you start to demand more power than you are used to making. The enzyme hardware that chops up the Carbs and Fat in your muscle and blood into something usable by the cells isn’t operating fast enough and your body starts shortcutting the operation. It rips glucose from the blood stream and tries to burn it. (Lactate can only be produced when blood glucose is used). When your body takes these shortcuts a Hydrogen ion is left over (H+). The Hydrogen ion is what causes you all the pain and sore legs; these guys go around wreaking havoc and ultimately stop you from putting down the power. Lactate is the good guy that comes in and neutralises the Hydrogen burn. There is always an equal amount of Lactate and Hydrogen+ ions and that is what makes Lactate the perfect measure of what is going on inside your body.
To become a better athlete you need to teach your body to use the clean burning fuels, Free Fatty Acids and Muscle Triglycerides, to prevent any excess Hydrogen damage at lower intensities; and to do that you need to increase the hardware available to burn those fuels.
It’s all about substrate (fuel) utilisation, and the good thing is that, every ride over 1.5hrs in length is working on your substrate utilisation. You store most of your energy in little batteries called Lipid droplets. If you pinch your waist, these are the little bubbly things under you skin. When these Lipid droplets are exposed to catecholamines, like adrenaline, they drop their bundle of Free Fatty Acids (FFA) into the blood stream. These are then picked up by your mitochondria and chopped up into the right type of energy. You basically have an unlimited supply of FFA; enough for between 60 to 100hrs of continuous riding. This is compared to Muscle glycogen with which you only have about about 1hrs worth. As with all adaptation you need to stress the system, you need to ride at an intensity that will stress the energy converting hardware but not overload it. The ideal type of stimulus for these energy converting enzymes it to keep them operating at their maximum turnover rate for the longest period of time. You can't just ride harder, because your body will switch over to glucose, so you must ride longer!
The most effective Lactate block I have ever done was prescribed to me by one of the old head coaches at British cycling. What he had me do was ride between 75% and 85% of my max Heart Rate for between 2 and 4 hrs per day, for 10 sessions. This was the program:
The above block is the exact training program he gave me and one I have used ever since. This block gave me a massive boost. The amount of power I could produce for the same amount of Lactate lifted by 30w in 10 days!!
If you are planning on racing any events longer than 2 hrs you need to try something like the above. It is essential that you optimise your substrate utilisation. By teaching your body to burn fuels cleanly you can ride the first half of the race with no fatigue in your legs, saving your batteries for the points in the race when it matters most.
For the biggest improvements you need to be training at between 75% and 85% of max Heart Rate or 65% of Vo2 max Heart Rate. This heart rate zone is the point where the highest amount of FFA and Muscle Triglycerides are utilised (see Fig. 2). We use heart rate and not power for this prescription because of the length and type of effort it is. Lipid droplets, where you store most of your energy, only release their bundle into the bloodstream in response to catecholamines like Adrenaline. Adrenaline is also what causes your heart rate to increase and liver to start outputting more glucose. By paying close attention to the heart rate, we can tune in and monitor our catecholamines and stop ourselves from burning too much Glucose, and therefore produce Lactate. For the training to have effect it’s essential to keep in the correct zone and not get too excited and push too hard. Not only that, but once you start training your body to burn fats over blood glucose, the fat mobilising responsiveness to Adrenalin is further enhanced, such that the fat will start to mobilise at a much lower concentration of Adrenaline when compared to a non-endurance trained individual.
In Figure 4 we see that both
athletes start to burn more blood glucose as their heart rate passes 85% of max.
The only main difference between the 2 athletes is that the professional
athlete is able to utilise a higher amount of Fats when he is riding,
allowing him to get to a higher power output before switching to Blood Glucose.
The only way to increase your consumption ability is to ride at the target
heart rate zone for long uninterrupted periods of time. Your body will respond
by up-regulating the enzymes required to chop up the energy. The great thing about training the body to burn fat at ever increasing rates is that it spares your stored carbohydrates which are needed later in the event for operating at higher intensities.
A word of warning: just as quickly as you have gained these massive improvements they can be lost again if you fail to do maintenance sessions.
While the above training prescription (Fig. 3) was an extreme example, every athlete can benefit by including Lactate training into their program. Building up from 1hr per week of steady state intensity will bring about solid improvements in how you handle your energy.
The most important part about this type of training is to get comfy. Riding fast and hard at this intensity sucks. While your body will adapt really fast at this intensity, it is a lonely training set. This is where the AIRhub comes in handy. Using the AIRhub you're able to reach these tempo targets easier, more often and at lower speeds. Setting the AIRhub to between 0.1 to 0.2 on CdA mode will give you between 30w and 70w of extra resistance at 30kmh, and reduce your riding speed by between 5kmh and 15kmh. Riding at high speeds makes these efforts really uncomfortable and dangerous depending on where you live, and it doesn’t give you anything more in return. The high speed and safety aspect is one of the main reasons athletes don’t like doing these sessions. Let alone finding a long, inclined road or someone to train with! Adding smart resistance means safer speeds on bike paths and being able to train with a partner even if they're not on the same session as you. Remember this is a metabolic effort not a neuromuscular one, we are working on the whole body - increasing metabolic enzymes, fat utilisation, glycogen storage and a raft of other whole body processes - your bike speed won't impact these outcomes.
If you don’t have access to an AIRhub all is not lost. A 2hr to 4hr climb would be perfect for these types of sessions - you need the long duration, coupled with the resistance to lower your speed. And remember, when using the AIRhub, just like on a hill, a reduction in speed will usually give you an extra 10 to 15% increase in power output for the same amount of mental effort.
Training at 75% to 85% of your max heart rate will increase your energy converting enzymes, make it easier to get the energy to these enzymes, shift your Lactate curve to the right, supply you with an almost endless amount of energy, stop your legs from fatiguing and allow you to sprint to the finish after hours of climbing.
There are a lot of every day weekend warriors that would beat professional riders in races of 10 seconds to up to 20 minutes. Where the big difference lies is that a professional athlete has spent time improving their ability to use clean burning fuel; improving their ability to mobilise Fats before Carbs or Glucose, which lets them stay fresh after hours of racing and many mountain passes.
Some Lactate training sets for you to try:
2x40km team roll throughs.
Building to 2x60km through the 2 week training camp.
14 day Advance Base Conditioning block. (ABC)
3 day block; 2hrs/4hrs/rest
75% to 85% of max heart rate
To be used as a stepping stone between endurance Km's early in the season and High intensity specific interval sets.
2x45min Medium intensity Endurance Training (MIET)
Wed/Sat. 85% to 90% of FTP
Used right through the season to maintain and build aerobic capacity.
Tempo training. 70-75 rpm
Starting at 20 minutes building to 1hr sets. 2x per week. Used as part of long endurance rides.
Tempo; up to 2.5hrs @ 75% to 90% of FTP
Used as part of a balanced training program in the Base and Build phases. 1 to 2x per week.
All rides should have as little interruptions or variability in heart rate and power as possible.