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VO2max and anaerobic threshold training: what is most relevant?

By Massimo Massarini, Doctor in Sport Medicine, Vitalia Progetti Salute
Cycling is tough sport that requires a well thought training program in order to achieve good results. Of course, there isn’t any coach or training plan that can transform a good cyclist in a yellow jersey, but it is possible for each of us to improve our performances and enjoy a better shape. This is where quality training plays a big role. The right mix of stimulus at the right percentage of VO2max and anaerobic threshold can really make the difference between accumulating distance and time or improving.

Definition of Anaerobic Threshold and VO2max

Cycling is by definition an aerobic sport which means that chances to perform well largely relies on the oxidative system of the body or, to explain the concept in simple words, on the capability to produce energy to push on the pedals burning fats and carbo in presence of oxygen. This is what happens when the effort is within the limit of the anaerobic threshold (AT). This is the borderline above which the oxygen supply is not enough to produce energy. Good cyclists can push at the anaerobic threshold intensity for about an hour. However, if they exceed this point lactate starts to accumulate and the effort cannot be sustained for more than few minutes.
The maximum power output is therefore above the anaerobic threshold and is defined as VO2max. Using an analogy, we can define this value as the size of the human engine and the threshold as the maximal cruising speed that can be maintained without overheating the engine.

Why are they relevant for the cyclist?

VO2max and anaerobic threshold are both very important for the cyclist. The first one determines if you can be a pro (>75 mlO2/kg/min-6watt/kg), a good amateur (50-75 mlO2/kg/min., 4-6 watt/kg) or just a recreational cyclist (<50 mlO2/kg/min., <4watt/kg).  The second one tells you more about the capability of sustaining hard effort for a prolonged time; it is usually expressed as relative power (watt/kg) and associated with a heart rate value and usually sits between 85-90% of VO2max.
High VO2max is then fundamental to push high wattage to sprint fast on flat or to attack during a climb at high rate. AT is also critical to sustain high-energy effort such as a time trial or an alpine pass climb.

A high VO2max is therefore essential to push the wattage in fast sprint in flat or to attack during a high speed climb.

Therefore a big engine and an high cruising speed are both key to success. In well-trained athletes, VO2max is almost constant throughout the year whist AT varies more accordingly to the periodization of peak performance.

How to train to improve their values

Cycling offers a wide variety of situations, from the low intensity cruising, to the furious attack and counterattack to break away from the peloton, to the continuous hard effort of a long climb. Given this picture it is mandatory to organize training plan with the right mix of stimulus. In other words, each session should include all 5 power or heart rate training zone, with an inverse relationship between time spent and intensity in each zone.
Accordingly to the type of race we are training for and the periodization we are following, low intensity warm up, tempo, anaerobic threshold intervals and VO2max short bouts should be included to target each different aspect of cycling. Cadence is also a key element of the picture. Modern cycling is all about high cadence/high power. Average cadence has increased about 20 rpm. in the last 30 years. In the ‘70s, cyclist averaged about 70 rpm going uphill, nowadays climbing cadence is about 90 rpm.
Heart rate should not be considered as the value to match but rather the number to monitor to understand how the body is responding to training. Given a specific power, low heart rate and high perceived effort mean the body hasn’t recovered yet, on the opposite, high HR associated with low perceived exertion means you’re well rested and ready to train hard.
Skillbike and MyCycling are two Technogym equipment dedicated to avid cyclists. On both products it is possible to asses anaerobic threshold values with a guided test procedure that will provide power (watt) and HR at which anaerobic threshold occurs. Cycling technique can be monitored thanks to a specifically that shows cadence, pedalling symmetry and roundness.
MyCycling and Skillbike offer a variety of training programs that are designed with the purpose of precisely targeting the different power zones.  On both MyCycling and Skillbike it is possible to train with TNT - Technogym Neuromuscular Training, the training methodology developed by the Technogym Scientific Department and the best athletes, coaches, physiologists and trainers in the world, which is based on the most effective training techniques for cyclists.

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