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Breaking Through a Training Plateau – Intensity

By Jiri Kaloc

Training intensity has a big impact on how fast you improve as a cyclist. If you’ve been training consistently but have hit a plateau and can’t seem to improve, maybe it’s time to look at how you use intensity in your training. Do you spend enough time at threshold and are you doing enough speed work? Let’s take a look at how to break through a cycling workout plateau by implementing a training plan that focuses on intensity.

In the previous article, we looked at training volume and how adding an hour or two to your weekly training schedule can be the cure to a fitness plateau. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of adding more training hours on the bike. And many aspiring athletes follow an established workout schedule around business, personal or family obligations that can cause those sessions to go stagnant. This is exactly where improving time spent on intensity can help.

Both lactate threshold (LT) and functional threshold power (FTP) are important scientific metrics to know if you want to use contemporary training techniques to help you breakthrough a performance plateau. However, they aren’t the same and it is important to understand the difference between the two before we get started.

Lactate threshold (LT)

Lactate threshold is determined after a series of blood samples taken during an exercise stress test that takes the athlete to exhaustion. Blood is taken every time there is an increase in training stress and the results are plotted on a line graph. The results form a line that fluctuates little until at one point it climbs quickly. An athlete’s lactate threshold is the point on the graph where the change happens.

This defining change in direction represents the moment during intense exercise that a body’s cells are no longer able to efficiently evacuate lactic acid in the bloodstream. The result is the accumulation of lactic acid which eventually sends a signal to the brain for the muscles to stop working. An athlete’s lactate threshold is a critical value to know because it signals to what point they can push and sustain their bodies during exercise without feeling tired or worn out.

Not everyone has the resources to have their blood lactate levels tested regularly. The procedure is expensive, and who wants their finger pricked every few minutes? Luckily the onset of the power meter and the functional threshold power metric has rendered blood samples and analysis unnecessary.

Functional threshold power (FTP)

Functional threshold power is the highest level of exercise intensity an athlete can sustain for one hour without exhaustion. To many it is a superior method of determining a person’s actual fitness level at any given time because it is more readily accessible to everyone. This is especially true since the cost of power meters have decreased considerably. Once you own a power meter, you can test yourself as often as you like at no additional cost.

Many apps for smart indoor cycling training devices offer functional threshold power tests to help you determine yours. Some offer abbreviated versions of less than one hour followed by an estimated value, but the one hour test is the benchmark. Once you have your number, update your settings on your connected devices and get ready to use it to breakthrough your fitness plateau.

Now that you know the difference between the two, let’s look at how to increase the lactate threshold and VO2 max intervals by boosting your training stimulus. While our memories can do powerful things, we recommend using a training journal to track your progress.

Increase time at threshold by 25%

Increasing training stress and forcing a body’s ability to adapt to new levels is the only way to overcome a training plateau. And since functional threshold power (FTP) is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance – that’s where most of your focus should be, on adding more training stress to your workouts . If you aren’t sure what your current FTP score is, and you have a smart trainer, many online training apps include FTP tests you can do at home.

The average cycling enthusiast would only need to spend around 10% of their training time at threshold. If we continue with the example of 8 hours of consistent training per week, that’s about 48 minutes. Increasing that by 25% means adding only 12 minutes to make one hour in total. Following this logic makes it possible to maintain the same number of hours in any athlete’s weekly training plans while growing the amount of time spent at increased workloads that will lead to measurable improvements.

Two road cyclists on an open road.
Working on the lactate threshold is especially important for cyclists focusing on shorter races where it is important to sustain high intensity for extended periods of time. © Profimedia, Alamy

Sweet-spot training

To get the best results from this type of training, you’ll again need to know your current FTP value. It might seem easy adding just 12 minutes per week, but proper threshold work means training adaptations that can be very taxing in terms of recovery. That’s where sweet-spot training can help, its the ideal harmony between intensity and training volume.

And because of that, sweet-spot training is the most practical and effective means for cyclists to progress. It provides most of the benefits of pure threshold work with a lot less fatigue, so you can do more in three or four weeks. Sweet spot training involves extended intervals sets ranging from 15-60 minutes of riding at about 88 to 90% of your FTP. You can implement these by doing 2 x 20-minute intervals, 3 x 15 minutes or 4 x 15 minutes. An hour of this type of training load in a single workout is a good goal to work towards.

Sweet-spot training is especially valuable in the early base-building phase. When you do it for a few months, it’s good to progress to true threshold work (around 100% of your presumed lactate threshold) towards the late stages of base building. Here are two examples of threshold training to get you inspired.

Two cyclists, one on a road bike in a tuck position, followed by a second rider on a fitness bike.
The main point of threshold workouts is to improve the maximum sustainable 1-hour steady-state power, or the functional threshold power (FTP). © Profimedia

Focus on speed intervals

Another way to include more intensity is to include speed intervals. A typical interval set might look something like this: sprint for 30 seconds, recover for 30 seconds, repeat for 6 minutes. This means you should initiate it after being warm and cruising at an easy speed for you, using moderate gear. The 30-second recovery in between sprints doesn’t mean stopping. You should gradually slow back down to an easy cruising speed. For moderately fit cyclists, it’s a good target to do two of these sets in one ride with at least 5 minutes of easy spinning in between. Advanced riders can do 3 or 4 sets.

With volume and intensity sorted out, there’s only one thing that could be standing in the way of your improvement – and that’s recovery.

The importance of recovery

A cyclist has to increase training stress in the hopes of achieving performance gains. To most athletes, it is vital to feel as thought they are constantly making training progress to remain motivated, but any training progress you hope to achieve will unrealistic if you don’t give your body enough time to recover. Never skip a rest day. This time is important to repair damaged muscle tissue which is just as important as the rest of your training to breakthrough your fitness plateau.

Next up in Breaking Through a Training Plateau series