Overview of Aerobic Capacity Development for Cyclists

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A common issue seen in ameteuer endurance athletes is trying to get fitter by cycling at your limit or at your threshold every session in the hope that the pushing harder and harder approach will reap rewards. 

No doubt that to improve performance, logically, we must cycle more. However, is riding for PB’s each session the most effective way to improve your fitness?

Aerobic Capacity Development for Cyclists

Fitness is described as VO2max or aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity is the ability of the cardiovascular system to provide oxygen to working muscles during exercise. 

Training focuses on increasing aerobic capacity allowing you to produce the same intensity at a lesser effort.

Example:

Cycling Training

Example

In the example above, an athlete recorded 100w as their maximum aerobic capacity. 

During training, cycling at 60w means that the athlete is cycling at 60% of their total capacity. After a block of training the athlete re-tests and records a 20% increase meaning 60w is now 50% of their maximum capacity. 

As a result of an increase in VO2max:

  • The athlete is most likely to prolong the time until fatigue due to performing at a lower percentage of their max capacity.
  • The athlete has the capacity to produce more power aerobically when required.
  • There is a trickle down effect on other physiological markers such as lactate threshold. Lactate threshold will increase as aerobic capacity increases (may not be a linear increase).

What is the most effective way to improve aerobic capacity?

Studies have shown that when comparing: 

  • Low intensity long duration training 
  • Threshold training
  • High intensity interval training (90-95% VO2max)

The most effective way to increase aerobic capacity in trained athletes is through a mix of low intensity training and high intensity interval training also known as polarised training. By approaching aerobic capacity improvements from both ends of the spectrum, athletes are essentially pushing the block up from below and pulling the block up from above.

Cycling Training

Building into a Training Plan

When prescribing low intensity training (Zone 2) athletes are “pushing their aerobic capacity up”. 

Athletes should focus on accumulating time by riding long distances at a low intensity. The adaptation gained from Zone 2 training is:

  • Muscular endurance (muscles are able to work for the duration of the event)
  • Aerobic efficiency at sub maximal intensity

The disadvantage of low intensity training is that the athlete can cycle longer but no faster as the athlete has not exposed the body to the higher intensity required to cycle faster.

Aerobic Capacity Development

Interval training focuses on “pulling aerobic capacity up” and studies show that effective interval training includes: a 1:1 work to rest ratio, accumulation of approximately 15-20 minutes of work and spending as much of the work duration at 90-95% max capacity as possible. 

By performing higher intensity work, cyclists become more efficient at faster speeds.

In summary:

  • Increasing aerobic capacity allows you to produce the same intensity at a lesser effort
  • Studies show polarised training is the most effective way to improve aerobic capacity.
  • Pushing sessions to the limit (threshold or sweet spot) every session is not only detrimental to performance due to residual fatigue but also increases risk of injury when higher levels of fatigue accumulate after every session.

If you would like to know more or to start training to improve your cycling performance, please contact our Exercise Physiologist Justin to book in a session.

We have much more information about our performance testing and programming on our Sports Science page – click here to view.

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