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  • Jorge Martinez

FatMax/LT1 training is NOT just doing "easy" sessions

In the last blog, I shared some of the bike training I did as an experiment in which I spent ~4 ½ months training the traditional "FTP-focused" way centering load around that metric to increase it in said time. At the end of that cycle, I did metabolic testing to identify important fitness markers like FatMax, LT1, LT2 (aka FTP), VO2max, and more. Thereafter, the goal was to address the markers more relevant to my specific physiological needs/goals over the next 4 ½ months, and see how much I could improve with a different training load distribution.

For this blog, I'm sharing a training load analysis I did for one of my athletes. She had a different training load distribution working under another program until March 2021 when we changed her training load based on her specific needs.

The goal is to illustrate out that if we as coaches/athletes don't set specific ways to test physiological markers and track adaptations, we may NOT know how well the plan is working. Or worse, we may not be addressing the individual *specific* training needs. Testing and ongoing evaluation help us determine what areas an athlete needs to work on, and tailor programs to target the proper load/stimulus for an individual. Finally, just because we do a lot of "easy" training, it doesn't mean that FatMax/LT1 are been properly targeted.

Below is the training distribution on that athlete from July 2020 into Feb 2021. In the graph, you see the heart rate distribution as a percentage of her heart rate (HR) of VO2max and in that time, she spent 79% of the time training at/under the LT1 zone, 18% between LT1 and LT2, and 3% at VO2max. Based on my last blog you must be thinking: “A lot of FatMax/LT1 work, with some intensity in the mix, perfect, right?” Well, in *this* particular case, no, that was NOT the right mix. How so?

Well, in the previous blog I stated how testing (metabolic or other) is key to identify an individual's fitness "needs" given his/her goals. Also, I mentioned that the way that we determine a metric (i.e. FTP) can influence whether we are training at the right intensity or not. And finally, I mentioned that having a single “metric” approach may not allow you to fully address the athlete's specific needs.

In this example, the athlete’s program didn’t seem to include any type of testing protocol (i.e. some sort of time trial, targeted effort, etc.) to identify specific fitness markers or to define training zones. Also, it didn't have a standard monitoring process to track fitness gains or determine how the athlete was responding to the training. Finally, it seems it arbitrarily defined what "base training" was and the prescription was to spend a significant amount of time at this intensity.

All this resulted in a significant portion of the training load accumulated done at a range that was below FatMax/LT1 intensities. Or more precisely, the zones needed to develop fat utilization and lactate clearance were not being often targeted and a significant portion of the training was “too easy” or a recovery zone.

After reviewing the power/HR files from that period, I estimated the athlete’s FTP/VO2max, and based on that analysis, I determined she needed to ride between 75-82% of FTP to properly target FatMax/LT1 (more on this below). Yet, in that period, she spent 73% of the time riding below this range (what would have been “recovery” watts/HR), only 23% at FatMax/LT1, and 5% at FTP or above.

And thus, while the athlete averaged 7 hours of riding per week, about 5 hrs were too easy to elicit significant adaptations. At best, she did just enough to gain a bit of fitness in the other 2 hrs of training, and at worst, she was simply maintaining (or even losing) some of that fitness every week resulting in little/no gains. This led to disappointing race performances that were significantly below her potential.

After joining our program, I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to do metabolic testing directly. Therefore, to understand athlete’s needs/potential, I did thorough data analysis and combined power & HR to estimate markers like LT2 and VO2max, and made some assumptions, to 'guesstimate' other markers like FatMax, LT1, etc. While this approach is not as accurate as metabolic testing, it can be a great tool and the next best thing I had at my disposal.

The training zones determined are shown below. After reviewing the training of previous months I realized the 3 main areas to focus on were:

  1. The athlete needed to spend "actual" time in the 75-82% of FTP range (130-135bpm) to properly develop FatMax and LT1 for an Ironman scheduled in 4 ½ months

  2. The athlete needed to spend time improving power at VO2max as her numbers seemed low when compared to her potential

  3. And while this wasn't a specific driving force, addressing points 1 and 2 would help improve LT2 (FTP)

Fast forward to August, below you can see the training distribution from that period, this time with properly defined training zones (by power and heart rate) all based on the identified markers. The time she spent at true FatMax/LT1 was 73% with 22% between LT1 and LT2 and 5% at VO2max.

This is more noticeable in the training distribution as a % of FTP. As mentioned above, this athlete needed to ride ~75-82% of FTP to elicit FatMax/LT1 adaptations. Therefore, we spent about 64% of the time in that area, and ~8% higher from LT2 to VO2max.

In this period, the athlete averaged 6:30 hr per week (30 min less than previous months), and yet, her FatMax, LT1, LT2, and VO2max all improved.

In July she competed at Ironman and her hard work paid off, resulting in a bike split course PR. Paired with a swim PR and a strong run, it led to a 2nd place AG and earning a slot for the Ironman World Championship.

The takeaways

  1. Doing FatMax/LT1 doesn’t mean simply doing easy training. These zones while “easier” than Tempo or LT2/FTP, are “intense enough” to elicit the proper adaptations to help improve your fitness.

  2. If you don’t define your training zones properly, you may (or may not) be eliciting the desired training stimulus to address your physiological needs

  3. Testing keeps both the athlete and the coach honest. Testing keeps us informed as to what areas need to get addressed and evaluate if what we are doing is providing the desired adaptions, thus prevents us from losing training time.

  4. While metabolic testing provides the most accurate way to identify physiological markers to inform your training, when that’s not viable, a thorough power/HR/GPS file data analysis plus field testing can assist to estimate certain markers and help approximate others.

  5. As an athlete, you *must* question the “why” behind the program approach, and as the coach you *must* be able to explain clearly the reasoning behind it. That way together we can understand, believe and follow the process.

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