Von Collins is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and the author of four fitness and training books: Smarter Running, Your First Triathlon Guide, Fit Foods, and 30 Rut-Busting Workouts. He has been cited as a triathlon, cycling, and fitness expert by Healthline, CNET, Forbes, Eat This, Not That and other major outlets.
In the running, cycling, or triathlon worlds, you hear lots of terms thrown around when it comes to training. Temp, threshold, VO2 max, FTP, Zone 2, training stages. I want to focus on three types of workouts that every athlete should understand: Tempo, threshold, and VO2 max.
Before going into some explanation, I should stress the importance of understanding your functional threshold power (FTP). This is the highest power output you can maintain for an extended period of time (often 20 minutes) without fatiguing. Knowing your FTP can help you tailor your training to improve your endurance and power output. In fact, a recent study found that a 20-minute FTP test is a more valid predictor of performance in mass-start bike races than a VO2max test for moderately trained cyclists.
If you know your FTP, you can design training plans that inject science into your weekly schedule.
Now, let’s look at the three types of training that I focus on.
Tempo training is a common term used in cycling and running to improve endurance and speed. It is a type of training that involves maintaining a steady pace for a prolonged period of time, usually at or slightly below your lactate threshold.
The fact is that tempo training is often used vaguely — “I just went for a tempo run” — but there is a scientific definition behind it that I’m focusing on here.
Tempo in Cycling
In cycling, tempo training is often referred to as Sweet Spot Training. It involves riding at a pace that is challenging but sustainable for an extended period of time. This type of training can help improve your lactate threshold, increase your endurance, and develop your aerobic capacity. You should be able to do a tempo ride for quite some time, as it might be around the some power level that you would ride outdoors at a quality pace.
To do tempo training on a bike, find a flat road or trail or if indoors use a trainer. Start with a warm-up for 10-15 minutes, then ride at your tempo pace for 20-30 minutes. Take a short break, then repeat the tempo effort for another 20-30 minutes. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your tempo intervals as you progress. It should be hard enough to make you sweat and get the heart rate up to the higher Zone 2, but not do hard that you are gasping for breath.
Tempo in Running
In running, tempo training involves running at a pace that is slightly faster than your comfortable pace, but still sustainable for a prolonged period of time. It is often referred to as a “comfortably hard” pace. This type of training can help improve your lactate threshold, increase your endurance, and develop your aerobic capacity.
To perform tempo training in running, start with a warm-up for 10-15 minutes, then run at your tempo pace for 20-30 minutes. That might be all. If you are an endurance runner and training for half marathons or marathons, take a short break, then repeat the tempo effort for another 20-30 minutes. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your tempo intervals as you progress.
I love threshold training. A 45-minute threshold set leaves me feeling spent, but not so much that I can’t workout the next day.
Threshold training is a type of training that is designed to improve your endurance and performance. It involves working at or just below your lactate threshold, which is the point at which your body starts to produce more lactate than it can clear. By training at this point, you can increase your body’s ability to clear lactate and improve your endurance.
Threshold in Cycling
In cycling, your lactate threshold is the point at which your body starts to produce more lactate than it can clear while cycling. To determine your lactate threshold, you can perform a lactate threshold test, which involves cycling at a gradually increasing intensity until you reach your lactate threshold.
Once you know your lactate threshold, you can use it to determine your training zones. Training at or just below your lactate threshold can help you improve your endurance and performance, as well as increase your lactate clearance.
Finding the threshold isn’t as hard as it sounds. Many apps can do it for you if you have a smart trainer at home, and any gym with a trainer can do it too.
Threshold in Running
In running, your lactate threshold is defined the same way as cycling – where you are producing more lactate than you can clear out.
You can tackle a running lactate threshold test on a treadmill, track, or any smooth surface that lets you run fast, but make sure you’re fresh, not worn out from previous hard workouts.
Start with a gentle jog to warm up, then hit the 30-minute mark at your max sustainable pace, keeping an eye on time, distance, and heart rate. Steer clear of the rookie mistake of sprinting out the gate and fading fast; aim for a steady effort. Take note of your heart rate at the 10-minute mark and again at the finish, then crunch the numbers to find your LT heart rate and pace. Just keep in mind, treadmill results might not perfectly match outdoor runs due to calibration quirks and differing perceived effort, so if you opt for the treadmill, ensure it’s calibrated and keep the incline at zero.
It’s tough, like running a half-hour race sans the race-day buzz. But once you know that threshold, you can plan certain workouts around it — runs where you spend anywhere from 3-10 minutes at or just below your threshold as part of the run.
VO2 Max Training
When it comes to improving endurance and overall fitness, VO2 max training is an effective method. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can consume during exercise, and it’s a good indicator of your overall fitness level. By improving your VO2 max, you can increase your endurance and performance in both cycling and running.
Consistent VO2 max training will really increase your speed, especially in shorter bursts.
FTP Training for Cycling
One of the most important factors in VO2 max training is your functional threshold power (FTP). FTP is the highest power output that you can sustain for an hour or so. To improve your VO2 max, it’s important to regularly test your FTP and adjust your training accordingly.
FTP testing can be done using a power meter or a smart trainer. I personally prefer using a smart trainer because it provides a more accurate and consistent measurement of power output. Once you know your FTP, you can use it to guide your training. A common VO2 max training workout for cycling is 4-6 sets of 3-5 minute intervals at 120-130% of your FTP, with 2-3 minutes of active recovery between each interval. Yeah, it’s a pretty hard set.
FTP Training for Running
FTP testing is just as important for running as it is for cycling. But generally speaking, runners can substitute their lactate threshold (from the previous section) for FTP. Don’t tell any trainers I told you that, they might disagree.
When you do these workouts, you push yourself hard for short bursts, hitting that maximum effort level where you’re really breathing heavy. For newbies, starting with shorter bursts, like 30-second sprints, can still jack up your VO2 max and get you on the fast track to better fitness. When you get stronger, do 3-5 minutes of hard running with a slightly shorter break between the intervals.
You will get faster.
Sample Schedule: Tempo vs. Threshold vs. VO2 Max
As a triathlete, cyclist, or runner, it’s essential to incorporate tempo, threshold, and VO2 Max workouts into your training regimen. These workouts help to improve your fitness levels and increase your endurance, speed, and power.
Tracking Fitness Levels
Before I dive into the sample schedule, let’s talk about tracking your fitness levels. Monitor your progress to determine if you’re making gains or if you need to adjust your training loads. I recommend using a fitness watch, heart rate monitor, or power meter to track your progress accurately.
Adjusting Training Loads
For a typical runner, triathlete, or cyclist, how often should you be doing each of these workouts? It should depend on where you are in your periodization. In the early stages of your training, you should focus on building your base fitness levels. As you progress, you can start to incorporate more tempo, threshold, and VO2 workouts into your schedule.
Here’s a sample schedule that incorporates these workouts, geared toward a moderately-fit (not an elite) triathlete.
On Monday, you’ll do a tempo run, which is a steady-state run at a moderate pace. This workout helps to improve your lactate threshold and increase your endurance.
Tuesday will be your swim day. I usually consider these tempo workouts unless you are doing hard intervals.
On Wednesday, you’ll do threshold bike intervals, which are short, intense efforts at or slightly above your lactate threshold. This workout helps to improve your body’s ability to clear lactate and increase your speed.
On Friday, you’ll do a longer bike ride, keeping your heart rate squarely in Zone 2 outside of any hills or climbs you need to tackle. Then Saturday, do some harder FTP run intervals, which are high-intensity efforts at or slightly above your functional threshold power (FTP). This workout helps to improve your power output and increase your overall fitness levels.