Why you might be overthinking anaerobic threshold / FTP.
How many times have you looked at your power meter or heart rate monitor and wondered if you were going too far above your threshold? Although it is reasonable not to kill yourself ‘just because’ when you’re out training and racing, you might be surprised by how little you actually know about one of the most discussed – and misunderstood – performance metrics, the Anaerobic Threshold (AT) or FTP.
The blurred line
AT/FTP is conceived as the highest workout intensity at which the concentration of lactate in your blood reaches a steady state. At this intensity, the lactate stabilizes at a certain concentration and does not increase over time. Athletes are normally so afraid of passing that single power unit or heart rate beat) they have been told is their AT/FTP, that as soon they get close to that limit, they start to back off. But what they – and maybe you – don’t know is that AT/FTP is not a fixed value - it’s actually a blurred line.
If your AT / FTP has been determined by a test at 300 watts, for example, what you should know is that you can increase your power output slightly above that 300 watt limit and – for example – go higher to 308 watts without blowing up just yet. The most interesting thing here, is that your body may actually find another lactate steady state where you can exercise for a pretty long period of time.
Because of the small increase, the lactate levels in your blood will initially increase too, but not so much to make you “blow up” and force you to drop the intensity. This is due to the fact that a slight accumulation of lactate can be associated with a negative feedback on the lactate production itself. A controlled accumulation of lactate can actually be associated with slowing down the lactate production itself, up to the extent where the concentration reaches another steady state and stabilizes! The second “steady state” is an intensity where you can stay at for quite a long time. This is possible because your AT is not a fixed value. Again, it’s a blurred line within which you can move around and over (and up to a certain extent of course).
Clearly, there is an upper limit where exercising at a specific output is not a “steady state” anymore, and if you spend too much time in that area you eventually “blow up”. And that is why it’s so important to test yourself regularly and know where the blurred line is. The same rule applies to any sport: in swimming and running, for instance, you just replace the power in watts with speed and pace and the mechanisms are the same. These are also blurred lines within which you can “play around”.
AT/FTP: most popular – least ever used
The other very important thing you maybe didn’t know about AT is that it doesn’t really come to use in any specific race or distance. If you run a 10k race for example, you will never run at AT, but your average intensity/speed would be higher (and the same will be even more true in a 5k race). Even in a half-marathon or a full-marathon, you will be hardly running at your AT speed, as you will be running below that threshold. And even when Peter Sagan is attacking on the Oude Kwaremont in the Tour of Flanders or Marcel Kittel is sprinting in the Tour de France, they're not riding at their AT. There is almost no scenario where you actually ride at AT.
The only event where an athlete might really be at threshold for the majority of the race is a long time trial that lasts around one hour, and even in this event the athlete will be racing at AT just in part. The majority of every other competition in swimming, running, cycling, etc. are decided in situations where the athlete is well above AT! But in long-distance events like marathons and triathlons, the intensity will be well below AT/FTP for the majority of the time.
So why does AT matter so much? Well, people are using it because the intensity (power or pace depending on the discipline) correlates pretty nicely with the performance in a lot of events. Statistically, if you know your threshold, you will have a pretty good idea of how you will perform in every kind of scenario. But AT is only a statistical indicator and you should bear in mind that it is possible to run significantly above or below AT intensity – possibly even more than what you’d thought.
What might surprises you the most is that the majority of the amateurs can stay above AT /FTP more easily than professional athletes. Professional endurance athletes may have a higher anaerobic threshold, but once they exceed it, the accumulation of lactate and fatigue is – in most cases – much quicker those of amateurs. Even more specifically, some pro riders can stay above it more than others: according to their specific physiology and specialization; Sagan can stay above it for a longer period of time compared to Froome for example.
AT/FTP has been historically used to prescribe training intensities, and of course it’s not bad for this purpose. However, it is not the most efficient and precise way to prescribe training intensities and training zones. The fuel utilization, such as FatMax, below AT/FTP can be vastly different and a simple extrapolating from the AT/FTP to a lower intensity isn’t valid.
The same is true for high intensity efforts: the ability to ride above threshold is not directly correlated to the power at AT/FTP, and it can differ quite a lot. For example, the only valid way to plan a VO2max interval training session is to base the intensity of an interval on the VO2max itself = the physiological system you are targeting with this specific training. Consequently, this training should be based on the specific VO2max, and not extrapolated from AT/FTP.