There are two main ways to improve your endurance performance and fitness as a whole. You could focus on increasing your aerobic system (ability to use oxygen), or you could improve your anaerobic system, and with it, the ability to tolerate and clear lactate.
The problem most endurance athletes face is that they have focused largely on building a huge aerobic engine, building a very solid “base” of training, yet their ability to clear hydrogen ions and lactic acid remains limited due to their training methodologies. In this blog, I will teach you what you need to know about functional threshold power and how it can benefit you in your next adventure, whatever that might be.
Let’s start by understanding a few terms thrown around in the endurance world that come across a little confusing (this is because most of them mean the same things).
VO2 Max – Is defined as the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in, transport and utilise in one minute. It is often referred to as your aerobic engine and is represented in the form of how many mL/kg/min you can utilise. Most amateurs, i.e me, would score in the 50’s, however some professionals have been known to score in the 80’s. Put simply, the higher your VO2 Max, the more aerobic energy you can produce without creating the dreaded by-products such as lactic acid. Essentially being able to deliver high amounts of oxygen to your muscles enables you to produce larger power outputs for longer periods of time.
Aerobic Power – This is your ability to utilise your oxygen quickly, and is trained through spending time at or above 95% VO2 Max.
Aerobic Capacity – Is your ability to use oxygen over a given distance, such as being physically capable of finishing an iron man distance race. It is trained through your long, slow distance base training. Most endurance athletes have very good aerobic capacity, but very few have the aerobic power to race and compete faster. Much is true of most strength turned endurance bunnies. The strength guys have enormous tolerance to hydrogen in their legs and generally have a high lactate threshold, yet they have no base foundation of aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity will get you to any finish line, but aerobic power will get you there quickly.
Lactate Threshold – Your Lactate Threshold (LT), is the point at which lactate production exactly meets lactate removal in your muscles, with any increase in intensity from this point bringing you to a very quick stop. Other common names for lactate threshold to keep you on your toes are “anaerobic threshold”, anaerobic capacity”, “lactate inflection point”, and “functional threshold power”. Your LT is very important, as it is the functional component of your endurance performance. Nobody can withstand 100% of their VO2 Max for any decent length of time, but those who train their lactate threshold can hold higher percentages of their VO2 Max, meaning they can capitalise further on their already solid base aerobic fitness.
The average athlete reaches their LT at around 70% of their VO2 Max, whereas some fine specimens out there can reach their LT between 88-94% of their VO2 Max.
Let’s consider two athletes with exactly the same VO2 Max of 70mL/Kg/min, the average athlete can only hold a pace in which he utilises 49mL/Kg/min at LT (70%), whereas the well trained athlete can hold 65.8mL/Kg/min at LT (94%). The elite athlete is said to have a much higher functional threshold power and will always wipe the floor with the other athlete who has worked to have just as big a VO2 Max.
So, the question now becomes, “how do I increase my Functional Threshold Power?”
Improving your Functional threshold power:
Lactate threshold can be delayed, and performance power increased without any changes to VO2 Max. This is achieved by improving muscle efficiency by increasing hydrogen ion buffering capacity, lactate tolerance, and lactate clearance. In other words, when performing the following methodologies remember that specificity is key and that you will want lactic acid and hydrogen ions present in the muscles in order to get better at clearing them.
The 2 best ways to increase LT are below, these methods are both aimed to bring a sudden and sharp influx of lactic acid, followed by a brief recovery period, before creating yet another influx of lactic acid. These methods of training would most widely be referred to as H.I.I.T or fartlek as another option as well.
Interval LT Training – Perform 3 to 5, 10-minute high effort intervals at 95-115% of your LT heart rate or velocity on the given piece of equipment. Rest 4 minutes between intervals. Use 2:1 work rest ratio for these sessions.
Continuous LT Training – Performing one 20-30-minute-high-intensity effort at 95-115% of LT heart rate. Include a slow warm up and a slow cool down.
So, there you have it, increasing your aerobic engine is only half the battle. Focusing on higher intensity sessions with lactic acid present, will help you utilise your full potential out on your next bike, run, swim or whatever it is you might do.
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