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Triathlete Senior Editor Matt Fitzgerald explains how to be a long-distance specialist without losing your short-course speed.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
There’s a funny phenomenon in endurance sports that I like to call “becoming a one-speed athlete.” It happens to long-distance runners, cyclists and triathletes whose training becomes so focused on sustained efforts at race intensity and below that their ability to work at higher intensity levels atrophies. The one-speed athlete phenomenon presents itself most notably when elite endurance athletes do shorter tune-up races in the weeks preceding a longer peak race and embarrass themselves by proving unable to go any faster over the shorter distance than they intend to go over the longer. A great, gaping hole in their fitness is revealed for all to see.
The problem with becoming a one-speed athlete is that it hinders performance in long-distance races as well as in shorter ones. Here’s how: Recent research has shown that rating of perceived exertion (RPE)—not heart rate or blood-lactate level or any other physiological factor—is the best predictor of fatigue during exercise. In maximal efforts over any distance, the athlete’s RPE increases linearly throughout the event, consistently reaching a level 5, or “hard”, rating after 20 percent of the distance has been covered and peaking at a level 10, or “maximal”, rating when the finish line is within sight. (The only exceptions to this pattern are beginners who lack the experience needed to calibrate the brain-based mechanisms that make RPE such a reliable fatigue predictor in experienced athletes).
Athletes improve by training in ways that make a pace that once felt hard at the 20-percent mark of a given race distance seem slightly easier in the next race—thus enabling the athlete to sustain a faster pace while working at the same RPE. This change occurs as a natural result of everything you do in a sensible training program. For example, simply increasing the amount of basic aerobic training you do will increase your aerobic capacity and efficiency, enabling you to race faster with equal perceived effort. But there are also specific things you can do to exploit the relationship between RPE and fatigue to your benefit. One of these things is performing hard workouts at pace levels exceeding your race pace so your race pace feels easier. When you cut back on such training too much in the pursuit of peak performance at long distances, your brain will hit the panic button when you try to race faster at shorter distances, causing your RPE to spike and therefore limiting your pace perhaps more than necessary. Hence the one-speed phenomenon. But your performance at longer distances also will be negatively affected by too much training specialization at your race pace. Exposing your body to fatigue in prolonged efforts at faster paces will result in nervous system adaptations that push back the wall of fatigue in your long-distance peak race.
Long, slow rides and race-pace rides certainly have their place in the bike training of long-distance triathletes, but these workouts need to be supplemented with others that expose your body to fatigue at slightly higher intensities. Here are three such workouts.
1. Pre-fatigued time trial: This is a grueling workout but a very beneficial one to do three to six weeks before a long-distance race. The concept is simple: You perform a maximal-effort time trial after fatiguing yourself with prolonged moderate riding. If you’re training for an Ironman, I suggest you begin with 40 to 50 miles of moderate riding and finish with a 40km time trial. If you’re training for an Ironman 70.3, begin with 30 to 40 miles of moderate riding and finish with a 20km time trial.
2. Watts (or speed) for duration: This workout is as hard as the pre-fatigued time trial and no less beneficial. If you have a power meter, first determine your race-day power-output level. Begin the workout with 10 to 20 minutes of spinning to warm up, and then increase your power output to 110 percent of your race-day power-output level. For example, if you’re training for an Ironman and your race power-output level is 250 watts, then ride at 275 watts. Or if you’re training for an Ironman 70.3 and your power-output level over this distance is 265 watts, then ride at 292 watts.
Continue until your RPE reaches 10 or you are no longer able to sustain this power-output level. If your peak race is an Ironman, you’re probably looking at a 50- to 60-mile ride. If your peak race is an Ironman 70.3, you will most likely hit the wall after 30 to 35 miles. Those lacking a power meter can do the same workout by determining their race speed and riding 10-percent faster.
3. Mountain stage: This workout is only feasible if you live within reach of some tough hills. To do it, plan the hilliest route possible with a total distance of 70 to 80 miles if you’re training for an Ironman and 50 to 60 miles if you’re training for an Ironman 70.3. Ride the flat and downhill sections at a moderate intensity level but attack the hills, riding them as hard as you can without bonking before reaching the top of the last hill on your ride.
Don’t become a one-speed cyclist. Incorporate these workouts into your training for long-distance races and reap the benefits on race day.
Long, slow rides and race-pace rides certainly have their place in the bike training of long-distance triathletes, but these workouts need to be supplemented with others that expose your body to fatigue at slightly higher intensities.
When you cut back too much on higher-intensity training in the pursuit of peak performance at long distances, your brain will hit the panic button when you try to race faster at shorter distances, causing your RPE to spike and therefore limiting your pace perhaps more than necessary. Hence the one-speed phenomenon.