Wednesday, April 22, 2009

4 x 2 Minutes in Hell is the New 6 Hours in Heaven

There's an ongoing debate right now in endurance sports, cycling in particular, about whether to train hard or to train long. New research suggests that interval training--and we're talking intervals of one minute, not 20 minute tempo blocs--has a significant effect on aerobic capacity. One study I read found that after 6 weeks of intense training, mid-level cyclists putting in only 4 hours a week achieved more substantial gains in VO2 capacity and watt output than those who trained 10 hours a week at varying levels of intensity.

This is good news for those of us with jobs, school, laziness standards, and social lives, er, drinking habits.

On the other hand, riding like Satan himself is chasing you is painful.

Cycling is supposed to be relaxing, floating along at 17 mph, looking at the dogwoods and feeling the accomplishment of going places. I love the 40 mile loop out MacArthur Blvd. to River Road and through Rock Creek Park. I like to talk to people when I ride. I like to look around and let my brain chill. Cycling is both leisurely and fat-burning--and that's what distinguishes it from other sports.

Yesterday I did intervals up Tilden hill in Rock Creek Park. If I'm killing it, I can make it up the hill in 1:45. I did it four times, my times running between 1:37 and 1:56. At the end I had a headache and felt like throwing up. My legs felt like they'd been run over by a truck.

Two teammates rode by on their way to the hills, and we chatted a bit. "How's the ride?" they asked. I'm not on a ride, I wanted to say, I'm on four two minute gut busting shit-kicking tendril popping brain blowing chest heaving eyeball inflating sledgehammer to the gut slaughterhouse genocide journeys to the center of hell.

Course, we all suffer when we ride hard, and we all know it, and that's one of the things that we share and the muggles, to borrow from J.K. Rowling, know nothing about. It's what keeps us from being the blobs from Wall-e. As the non-ambulatory Captain says, "I don't want to survive. I want to live." If avoiding the fate of the human-like blobs on that spaceship means 2 minutes of hell a few times a week, well, so be it.

1 comment:

qualia said...

This confirms my survey of the research too. But it goes against the standard practice for ALL of the major riders, not to mention the advice of current coaches, and received training wisdom.

Joel Friel has a post about the studies of volume versus intensity on his blog:

He acknowledges that intensity is a better investment of your energy than volume, BUT his rationale for early-season volume is injury prevention while your soft tissues adapt.

For an untrained athlete like myself, I think he may have a point. If I rip up a patellar tendon, it could set me back for a long time, and I'm more likely to do that at AT than below, although tons of volume can also cause injury.

He may just have a case for *gradual increase in load* -- where load is volume x intensity -- not for volume over intensity. For someone who's been riding a lot already and has strong tendons, ligaments, and muscles already, that is no reason not to hammer all the time.

One qualification...

One of Friel's understudies is Thomas Chappel, author of _Base Building For Cyclists_. The book is almost entirely about *avoiding* intensity in the first few months of training. He uses the metaphors of 'floor' and 'ceiling' to argue that a huge base, while temporarily lowering the ceiling (top performance), raises the floor for the season. The floor is the efficiency and ease of riding at moderate speeds. Base training builds this by increasing:

-capillaries to muscles
-mitochondrial efficiency
-number of mitochondria
-muscular endurance
-muscular efficiency
-blood volume
-heart and lung strength
-fat-burning for fuel

The thing is, as Michael Ross points out in _Maximum Performance for Cyclists_, Chappel is actually wrong about muscular enduarance. Lots of volume actually thins out muscle fibers and decreases their endurance. It also depresses the production of testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid hormone, which impedes recovery. FURTHERMORE, intensity can bring about *almost* all of these adaptations, and do it better.

The one adaptation you won't get from intervals is fat-burning. Instead, as Chappel points out, you will get the opposite effect: you're training your body to run on carbs. Because carb stores are small and fat stores are immmense, this is a bad thing, even in one-hour races. You want your glycogen on hand for hills, bridging, and sprinting.

Chappel has a nice graph in his book of cylists pre- and post- base training, showing the percentage of fat that they burn at a given power output, and it really does increase dramatically with a big base. (No surprise.)

Ross's solution to the fat-burning problem -- how to train the body to burn fat without weakening it on 6-hr rides -- is really ingenius, and should maybe supplement your routine of intervals. He notices that muscles 'learn' to use fat when they are (1) repeatedly stressed and (2) when they are depleted of glycogen. You reach (2) only in the last hour or so of your long ride. His goal is to re-create that hour, without the preceding four or five in specific workouts that are designed not to build strength, but just fat reliance.

What he recommends is riding, first thing after waking up in the morning for ONE HOUR, when your liver and muscles are glycogen depleted, in heart rate zone 3 (for lipolysis) or heart rate zone 4 (for mitochondrial biogensis). Zones 3 and 4 are still fairly intense. Zone 4 is lactate threshold and you should actually break it up into 4 reps of 15 minutes, with small breaks in between, to maintain your intenisity. Definitely not dogging it. But they're not anaerobic efforts either.

He recommends just drinking water and or coffee before, water during, and optionally supplementing with branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) during, to prevent muscle loss. You stop exactly at an hour, or before if you feel your power drop sharply.

You don't want to start breaking down your own proteins to fuel the exercise. You just want to deplete up to that point and then quit and take in some carbs / protein immediately.

He has other tricks for increasing fat-burning: low-carb diet on your off days, four days of super high-fat diet, both based on studies showing they dramatically increase reliance on fat, without the recovery-hindering hours in the saddle.

Anyway, that's not an answer to Friel's "injury prevention" objection to intensity training, but it does answer the "fat burning" problem, which you don't mention in your post. Think about doing some morning *near-bonk* tempo workouts in addition to your intervals.