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Keys To Getting Faster! (Part 1)

It seems like every few months every publication is writing a new article about what you need to do to get faster running, biking, swimming or any other endurance sport.  You need to improve your Vo2max. No, you need to improve your lactate threshold! Wait, forget all of that you need to work on your economy. Oh and your program needs to be periodized or wait, maybe it should be polarized.  



So what are you supposed to do? How do you get faster? Well unfortunately it is not just one of those things above it is all of those things above.  Yes, focus on improving any one of the measurables (Vo2max, anaerobic threshold, aerobic threshold, etc.) can and certainly will have a positive effect on your performance.  Here comes the…but…but if you focus on only one of those measurables for too long then plateau and fail to get any additional gains or become any faster.  That is where the program becomes so important; understanding when and how long to focus on certain measurables. 


The main physiological measurables that we typically look at to improve in training are Vo2max, anaerobic threshold,  aerobic threshold and economy (this is really hard to measure by the way).  Yes, of course there are other things such as neuromuscular power, reaction time and a host of other things but for the general endurance athlete the big four above are the main indicators of performance. Over the next few posts I will go a bit into detail about each of these factors and how to improve them. When to focus on each of them is a whole nother post which I am sure to tackle at the end of this series. What makes the planning and timing portion of this so difficult is that working on one of the big four could negatively impact one of the other ones. Working on your Vo2max might have a short term negative effect on your aerobic threshold; so depending on the type of event you are preparing for you need to plan accordingly (or your coach would).  


Before we get into detail on each one of the big four we need to look at how your performance is a combination of all of them working together.  


Think of your Vo2max as how hard you can work; your maximum power or pace you can go for a short period of time; about 5-8 minutes.  The anaerobic threshold is the power or pace you can sustain for an extended period of time typically around 40-70 minutes. The aerobic threshold is the pace/power that you can sustain for a very long period of time, say 3 hours or more. Economy is like gas mileage in your car; except the gas in our body is oxygen so It is how well your body uses oxygen in a variety of situations like highway vs. city driving. 


So how does all of this play out? If we look at your typical well trained non-elite runner their anaerobic threshold will fall around 70-80% of their Vo2max pace. Which means if they are running for about 1 hour hard they can sustain about 75% of their Vo2max pace.  For the Breaking 2 Hour marathon event the runners were projected to hold 94% of their Vo2max pace. 94%!! That is nearly 20% higher than you could expect to hold for 1 hour and they held it for 2 hours. Not only did they need an extremely high Vo2max but they also needed another factor that allowed them to perform at a higher percentage of their Vo2max to possibly break 2 hours in the marathon distance.  


So when I have an athlete who is looking to get faster on the bike for a long event like an Ironman or Gravel race we have to at some point stop focusing on raising their FTP and start looking at raising the % of FTP they can hold for the goal distance/time.  Most Ironamn athletes will target about 70% of FTP for 112 miles. If I gave you an option would you rather raise your FTP 5% or raise your ability to ride at your current FTP by 10%?  Let's do the math: 


Athlete Race Plan: FTP 240, Ride at 70% = 168 watts/race pace

Option A: Increase FTP by 10% to 264 and continue to perform at 70% = 185 watts/race pace. That is a 16 watt race performance increase. 

Option B: If we keep the same FTP but increase the athletes ability to hold a higher percentage by 10% (80%) = 192 watts/race pace. That is a 24 watt race performance  increase a 50% greater increase than Option A.  


Yes a higher FTP will allow you to go faster but being able to perform at a higher percentage of your FTP might have you going even faster!  Not to mention the type of training that is needed to help you increase your FTP might have a negative effect at first on what percent you can hold in a long event. At some point you need to stop focusing on FTP and start focusing on how to use more of it.  The faster person does not always have the higher FTP.


In the coming posts I will discuss each of those measurable above in detail along with how to improve them. As mentioned above the type of training needed to have a positive impact on one measurable might negatively affect another so I will give you fair warning on what to expect.


Bottom Line: What allows those athletes to run at 94% of their Vo2max pace or that cyclist to hold a higher percentage of their FTP for hours on end is a combination of their Vo2max, anaerobic threshold, aerobic threshold and economy. It is not just one of them. Think of those measurable as ingredients in a recipe. How much of each do you need and how do you blend them is important. We all have that family recipe with the secret ingredient but the truth of the matter is that there is not actually a secret ingredient, it is the decades of knowledge and experience of how and when to blend those ingredients that make it so great. The true secret is in the how not the what.  


Keep moving forward!


Brian Hammond


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