Monday, January 14, 2013

'The **** that kills'

Referring to a thread on the informative Google Group 'Wattage', this is the idea that training at the 'Sweetspot' intensity is the best way to improve your power numbers during the winter.

Put simply, the Sweetspot as defined by Dr Andrew Coggan is demonstrated by this graph:

The idea is that there exists a region that lies somewhere around 85-95% of your FTP in which you are able to:

1) train extensively in this region on any given day
2) repeat such sessions on a day to day basis without accumulating large amounts of fatigue
3) increase your threshold power when already reasonably fit

Returning to the Wattage thread, the author recounts his anecdotal evidence of significant training in this zone. His routine consisted of doing a turbo session every day from Monday to Friday that included 2x20' intervals ranging from 85-92% FTP, followed by a long steady ride on Saturday and a ride with some harder work on Sunday. He comes to the conclusion (paraphrased in the title) that the training is extremely effective.

At first glance, it seems to me that following this protocol means you miss out on training at your race pace intensity (let's say you are training for a one hour race that you will complete @ 100% FTP). This breaks one of the seemingly fundamental tenets of athletics, that you 'train how you race, race how you train', i.e. that honing in your race pace is of great importance to achieve success.

Combining this with the table below which outlines the expected physiological adaptation from training at certain zones (again from Dr Andrew Coggan), it would seem that removing race pace work from your program is not the ideal way to go.

Adaptation\Zone Z2 (60-75%) Z3 (75-90%) Z4 (90-105%) Z5 (105-120%) Z6 (above 120%)
Increased Lactate Threshold ✓✓ ✓✓✓ ✓✓✓✓ ✓✓

However, having considered the matter following my own 12 week base period in which I did sessions of various types at intensities anywhere between 80-100% of FTP, I can see some clear benefits to the 'Sweetspot' approach that go beyond the realms of physiology.

I am, of course, referring to the mental benefits of such training. I will give two examples that I believe illustrate the superiority of Sweetspot training over Threshold training:

1) 2x20' on the turbo

I am using this because it was the session outlined in the 'Wattage' thread, and also because it is common for cyclists to do 2x20' @ 100% FTP on the turbo.

Doing this session at 100% is tough. Although this isn't necessarily a bad thing, I think that:

- If you have to use a large amount of motivation and willpower for your regular turbo sessions, the risk of 'burnout' is increased.

- Doing this twice a week is thus about the maximum possible, and so you are only getting in 80' of work at your FTP

- On a given day during a hard training block, you won't be able to sustain 100% FTP for the whole hour that you could if fresh and rested - the number is probably more like 30'.

- As such, you leave the session feeling like there is no way that you could sustain that power for a whole hour!

At 90-95%, these negative issues are removed. The session is mentally very easy at 90%, and a bit tougher at 95% but still very comfortable. It's easy to see how you could carry on at that wattage, and you aren't left dreading your next turbo session. Doing it 5 days a week is manageable, giving you 200' of work at these intensities. 

2) 2 hours, including 60' @ 90% on the road.

The Sweetspot intensity comes into its own in this session. As a relatively new time-triallist, the thought of going hard for a whole hour can be daunting.

The pacing bands are so small - 5% too hard and you will be done after 20'. 5% too low and you will lose a minute or possibly more, which is not good for an important race.

However, this minute loss for going too easy isn't that much from a training perspective. If we increase the pacing 'mishap' to 10% too easy, then you have essentially done 60' @ 90%. The figure isn't exact, but you are likely to only gain 2:00-2:30 were you to do the course @ 100% (assuming constant pacing, flat course, no wind).

As such, you can establish a great baseline for your race pace by doing the session outlined. If the course has hills, you will be able to get some idea of how if will feel on the day to push a bit harder on them. If there is wind, you will be able to tell what that might feel like, too.

Not only that, but you will complete the course in a decent time, with total confidence that you can repeat it on race day. For example, if you are aiming to do a 25 mile TT in 57-58 minutes, you will ride 60 or 61 minutes for the course @ 90% (with kind-ish weather conditions).

From this starting point, you can identify where those last 3 minutes of improvement will come from. Sure, they will come from putting out 10% more watts, but the where and how you will put down these extra watts becomes more obvious.

On an undulating course, you might decide that you will stick to this 90% value on the flat sections and push on to 105% or perhaps a bit more on the uphills.

On a windy course, you may decide that you only need to ride at 90% with the tailwind, and 105% with the headwind.

On a flat course, you might decide that your baseline moves up to 95%, saving those last few watts for any small inclines and potentially for the last quarter of the race in which you ride at a minimum of 100%.

Overall, having this 'worst case scenario' (this is, only riding at 90% FTP for a 25 mile TT) already under your belt in training means that you will never lose more than a couple of minutes from your best possible time in a race, and that you are likely to figure out how not to lose these couple of minutes pretty quickly.


Sweetspot training has both physiological and mental advantages vs threshold training

- On the turbo, it is repeatable and requires less willpower (of which everyone has a finite amount)

- On the road, it establishes a baseline for your performance that you have 100% confidence in being able to achieve on race day.

1 comment:

  1. Great post dude. One of the first I've seen that seems to consider the issue of willpower seriously.