Make Your Engine Bigger!

Up in the northern hemisphere the nights are starting to draw in, the road racing season is a drawing to a close, and my bike needs washing more regularly! Yes, autumn (or fall) is upon us! Actually, it really means that it’s cyclo cross, and track season!

Racing around a velodrome and doing cross have no connection at all… In one event you get filthy dirty, and the other your bike stays in pristine condition. Or, is there a connection? Well, yes, there is!

Both types of racing require high levels of skill, high fitness levels, and, interestingly, a high VO2max.

Science bit: what is a VO2max? VO2max is the maximal rate of oxygen consumption that can be utilised by the body, and which occurs during ‘severe’ exercise. It’s usually measured during an incremental, ramped test to exhaustion and is reached when the exercise workload continues to increase, but VO2 no longer increases. It’s measured by measuring the ‘expired respiratory gases’ and, therefore requires specialist equipment to measure. At RST Sport, we measure MAP (maximal aerobic power output) instead using a power meter during a ramped, incremental test – with MAP being the highest average 60-second power output.

Non-science bit: VO2max is akin to the size of a car engine. The larger your VO2max, the more powerful you (or the car) are. Our FTP is the maximal effort that we can sustain for a long time (which is very important), however, our FTP works at a fraction of our MAP (around 70 to 80%). Thus increasing the size of our engine is very important.

During both track endurance races, and cyclo-cross events there can be times when we’re racing at MAP (during road races this will also occur, and with MTBing as well. Occasionally this can occur during TTs, and with other events too). Of course, during all of these events it’s quite possible and likely that you’ll also exceed MAP. Imagine, doing an individual pursuit, or you’re going flat out for several or minutes up a hill during a cross race – you’ll be at VO2max (or MAP).

Increasing your MAP is also likely to have a positive effect on your FTP (functional threshold power) as well. However, whereas intervals for increasing your FTP are generally longish efforts (>10-mins), intervals for increasing your MAP are generally much shorter. At RST Sport, we tend to mainly use intervals that are between 3 and 6-minutes in duration and call them API (aerobic power intervals). Often, we target these intervals at about 80% of MAP, starting at the shorter duration and increasing to 4-mins duration as a must. If you ride (or run) these intervals at even power/pace most people tend to find that the first minute is fine, and the ‘fun’ sets in from the second minute onwards. By the end of the interval it can feel like you’re going to explode. I know some of my athletes hate me when they’ve done some of these sessions!

To do a set of these we usually start with three intervals, with an equal rest period, and increase them, gradually, to an upper limit of about 35-mins worth of work. The fittest athletes can do up to three of these sessions a week! Personally, I find them easiest to achieve when I do them uphill, followed by doing them on a turbo trainer (as I don’t always have the mental capacity to be checking for traffic or damaged road surfaces). Depending on the athlete and their goals, we may have the athlete do them on level or uphill surfaces. Usually we’d run such a MAP block for about six weeks before moving on to something else. For track these are a great way to boost medium term speed, as they are for cross as well. Depending on your fitness, goals, and mental strength you may also need to keep focussing on your FTP as well during this work block. If you decide to do a block of these intervals let me know how you get on with them (although try not to send me too much abuse when the going gets tough!).

While building MAP is essential for both cross and track endurance, it’s also extremely important for other cycling events. However, prior to increasing MAP it’s well worth doing some fitness testing to ascertain where you are.