Establishing Training Zones – The Lactate Balance Point Test
Now that I’ve taken care of my initial fitness testing for the beginning of the season, it was now Jenna’s turn. In my training and racing last season it was all based around different training zones that I established with Sean early on. The way we did this was through a lactate balance point test. It’s not something for the faint of heart. There’s blood, sweat, maybe even some tears and worst of all the candidate that’s been duped into performing this test has no control over the wattage they have to put out. Needless to say it’s not a pleasant occasion and I was quite happy to be on the sidelines this time around.
Basically the test involves measuring your blood lactate level at different levels of intensity. Analyzing the trends of when it increases and decreases versus your heart rate helps to determine your appropriate training zones. I’m by no means an expert on this, in fact I may have botched this already but I’ll share how the test goes and my experience training and racing in the zones prescribed by the test results last year.
To start the test you set your bike up on a computrainer. No need to worry about resistance, the boss controls that! After warming up the fun starts. Sean increases the resistance in gradual blocks. He’s constantly monitoring your heart rate while controlling the wattage you produce and taking notes. The goal is to keep a steady cadence the entire time. You pretty much work your way up until you can’t possibly sustain going any harder. Once you’ve made it up to that point you have to stick it out for a bit longer until you hear the blessed words “Stop.” By this time you’re absolutely drenched in sweat, sucking air and in my case I opened my eyes for the first time in about 5 minutes. I don’t know why, but for some reason it felt easier putting my head down when things got really tough and closing my eyes, I’ll try to avoid doing this in any races! At that point Sean gives one of your fingers a prick and takes a blood sample to test the lactate level in your blood. This is the point where the lactate level in your blood will be the highest as it increases with the level of intensity. Giving the sample is very similar to how someone with diabetes would test their blood sugar levels. It doesn’t hurt and it only takes a second.
The test is now halfway done. You now start at an easy pace and gradually build your intensity back up. At various points Sean would take more blood samples to check our blood lactate levels again. If the blood lactate level was lower than your previous test you keep going and keep increasing the intensity. In my case this took what felt like forever. When you finally get to the intensity level where your blood lactate begins to increase again the test is over. You passed! There’s no grading on this test, you’re not competing with anyone, all that matters is that you show up and get through it. The whole point of this test is to establish your training zones so that you can train and race smarter to get to the finish line FASTER. I’m very confident that it did exactly that.
Before doing this test I really had no idea how to pace properly. When I hopped on my bike in T1 the thought process was to go as hard as I could until I reached T2. This pretty much always resulted in a slower second half to my bike split, a slower run and overall a slower race. In training I felt like I never knew how to gauge how hard I should be going. If I was told to do 20 minutes at tempo it would still leave me guessing. I wanted something that was going to take the guess work out of everything so that I could dial in my workouts the way my coached wanted them to be done and I wanted to pace my races better to have the best possible race I could on the day. Having the results from the LBP test took all of the guesswork out. When being given workouts last year Sean would specify intensity levels by my heart rate zones based on the results from this test and it simplified everything for me. The results pretty much speak for themselves. All of my bike splits were paced very well last season and it left me with gas in the tank for the run. I can honestly say that if I didn’t train and race by heart rate last season I wouldn’t have had such good results. It’s a bit ironic that the more I train with a heart rate monitor the less I depend on it. I’ve learned so much about my body in the last year and I now have a better grasp on perceived effort. Tracking my heart rate and associating it with the prescribed zones has given me a really good feel for what different intensities should feel like, that way if my watch or power meter decides to crash on race day I won’t have a panic attack and I can still have a solid race.
I’ve talked a lot in previous posts about the benefits of a power meter. It’s definitely a much more accurate measure than heart rate; it’s not affected by outside factors such as dehydration, anxiety or weather conditions, power is power. But the reality is power meters are still very expensive. Even if I had the opportunity to train with power last season, going back I don’t think I would. I feel that training by heart rate helped me learn a lot about my body and has made me a smarter athlete overall. When comparing power numbers to heart rate now I can quickly spot if something’s wrong as I understand the relationship between the two. I know what my heart rate zone is for half ironman pace and I know what my power is for that pace, if my heart rate’s considerably higher at that level of power output then it might mean I need a day off to recover because my body’s telling me it’s tired.
Anyways that’s enough of my jibber jabber, what I’m really getting at is if you’re not going to purchase a power meter this season, then the next best thing is to get a heart rate monitor and to do this test. We commit hours and hours of training every week to accomplish a goal that can be 3 months, 8 months or a couple years in the making. Why wouldn’t you spend a couple hours of time and a little bit of money to ensure that these endless hours of training are done the way they’re supposed to be done. You might find out what I did, you can go A LOT FASTER by going A LOT EASIER.