We’ve all heard it before: lactate threshold is the best predictor of athletic endurance performance. It’s true that athletes with a higher threshold power (or in many cases higher threshold power-to-weight), will normally outperform those with less threshold fitness, but there’s a little more to it than that. If you have been part of the endurance game for a while, you know that the initial gains you saw in threshold power don’t last forever. With greater experience, you need to focus more on the details and try some new things to keep experiencing growth.
For all types of athletes, one of the first things to try is working on your “range”. This refers to the difference between your easy cruising pace and your redline point. Often, when we think of range, we have narrowed the window even further to the distance between threshold and redline, efforts commonly referred to as VO2. There are several advantages to increasing your redline and widening this window, including more room for your threshold power to grow and an increase in the ability to make game-changing efforts on race day. If threshold is “stuck”, it may be because you have reached your body’s ceiling with the available metabolic systems. We often use a 4-minute test to measure VO2 power; the typical relationship is VO2 power at 30-40% above threshold power. To put some numbers to it, if you have a threshold power of 200 watts, your VO2 power should be between 260 and 280 watts. If you improved threshold power to 230 watts through diligent training, but did nothing to address the upstream systems responsible for VO2 fitness, your threshold power has nowhere else to go. On the other hand, if you can increase your VO2 power to 320+ watts, you will have room for your threshold system to start growing again. Range is critical for any mass-start cycling event. Any time you’re in a group, there will be constant accelerations to hold the wheel ahead, move up in the group or get over a little rise. That issue is compounded even further in a criterium or technical road race when you not only have the accelerations above, but also the surges out of every corner, which could total 90-100 times from the corners alone in a 45-minute, 6-corner criterium. Now you may be thinking, “I’m a triathlete (or time-trialist). All I need to do is ride steady.” Aside from the need to improve range to continue improving your aerobic and threshold power noted above, there are still times when range comes into play on nearly every course for the solo athlete. Across the board, you will encounter other competitors, terrain changes and corners that will require you to either produce more power or go slower.
A crucial part of effective race-pacing is going faster when the race is at its slowest--relatively speaking. You will make up more time going 2 mph faster uphill than 2 mph faster with a tailwind. If you have the range to push the pace over a climb without going above your redline, you may be able to open a gap that is difficult on the competition. The shorter the event, the higher the speed/power required for success and the more important a wide range becomes. Now that you understand why it is important to have range, how do you incorporate it into your training routine? Simply put, you do so by working very hard for short durations. As you might expect, these efforts are very taxing on the body, so don’t do a lot of it and allow plenty of recovery, especially the first few times you attempt these more intense workouts. A standard approach may be one VO2 workout per week consisting of 10-15 minutes of total effort divided into 60- to 90-second intervals. Recovery between intervals should normally be at least as long as the intervals themselves, and, at times, recovery can be up to double the interval duration. As your fitness improves, you can manipulate the intensity by increasing your power for each effort or including additional intervals, up to about 20 minutes of total effort.
Be sure to give yourself at least one day of rest or very easy training after a VO2 workout before attempting any other intensity workouts. After a few weeks of hitting these extremes, you should find that you have an “extra gear” that helps flatten the hills and hopefully your competition!