Racing is not training. The argument is that you can't create a 'true' race intensity effort during training. Ok, maybe not but that's no reason not to try and make the efforts you do put in as effective as possible.
Yes, I'm speaking of specificity!
In the hierarchy of training theory specificty ranks near the top (so it's no coincidence that it's my third topic I guess!). If you are not addressing specificity on most of your rides then you are either - just riding around, or wasting your time. A bold statement though that may be, I think I can demonstrate that it has merit.
The short explanation of what I mean by specificity is to DO WHAT YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO DO on any given day/ride. For many riders there are degress of specificity on any given workout, which although defensible, is not the point. The point is to do what you're supposed to do. "What you are supposed to do" will be answered in the next Training Theory Applied topic, but for now let's give it some metrics.
If your Functional Threshold Power is 300 Watts then your Threhsold level workouts should be very near the neighborhood of 300W. If your VO2max Power is 425W, then it's a fair guess that VO2 specific workouts should be right around 425W (*I chose FTP/MAP intensitites specifically due to their race level relevance). This begs the question "how near" should they be - good question. It's fair to say that for Threhsold level workouts you should probably be in the ball park of 90 -105% of FTP. For VO2max efforts you have an effective range of 85 - 110% of MAP (Maximal Aerobic Power).
Which leads to the next question - how long? Since the goal of workouts at FTP and MAP is to hit the needed workload, and maximize the effectiveness and total volume of time spent there you have two considerations - length of interval and length of recovery. Let's start with FTP efforts.
Several studies have looked at the minimum and maximum duration of workouts in order to determine the optimal range. For the most part it is well established that 10 - 12 minutes is the minimum interval duration for a worthwhile threshold level workout. The maximum is likely in the neighborhood of 60 minutes of focused FTP work. Certainly you can do much more than 60 minutes of threhsold work when intensity drops to 90%, especially when factored as Normalized power (which I believe has great relevance, but isn't the be all/end all of rating an effort), but the key word is focused.
On the recent Santa Cruz Mountain Challenge I spent the first 2h41m at 90% FTP Normalized! That was a hard day but if we look at the variability index of that ride we see it was 1.19, so it wasn't a very focused interval and therefore lacked the requisiste Specificity! In fact the longest quasi steady state interval (VI < 1.05) of that ride was a 30min block at 286Wavg and 303Wnorm, and I'm not sure I could have done that a 2nd time that day!
Which takes me back to the 60 minutes of accumulated threshold intensity on a given interval workout. It is a good target.
Recovery - another key component. On focused, SPECIFIC threshold efforts you shouldn't require too much recovery. Figuring that you "should" be able to do a 60 minute block of this intensity, then a five minute recovery from the standard 20min interval should be plenty.
VO2max Effort Length and Recovery: Since MAP is so much harder and more wicked than FTP you should look to maximize total time spent at VO2max! Which is to say at between 85-110% of VO2 Power. This range is cited in one of my favorite research papers by Thibault when he lays out his graded MAP interval protocol. Accumulated time at/around MAP is an important consideration because even a motivated athlete has a hard time doing MAP efforts of longer than five minutes for more than 2 or 3 intervals (eg 15minutes of accumulated VO2 time). I think it is an elegant representation of specificity! He even covers the rest intervals necessary at these varying intensities. Without reading the whole paper it is a fair estimate to say recovery time should be at a 1:1 or 1:1.5 interval/recovery ratio. As you gain fitness you can play with these recovery times.
Which brings us to our last point on Specificity for today. How do you know when to stop? A classic rule of thumb is to stop the interval when you can no longer hold at least 90% of the intended workload. This rule of thumb is fraught with problems however - for example if you hold 90% of 90% FTP - you're really only doing ~81% FTP. Not quite the intended effort level! So a modification is when you cannot hold the intended % of FTP or MAP workload you are likely done for the day. For example if you start a 20min block at 90% FTP and cannot hold it after 10 minutes...rest, recover and try again - if you still can't hold it then go home and rest.
Too often athletes squander their rides on easy pedaling and unfocused efforts. By addressing your specific workout needs you will see quicker progression and more overall satisfaction with your fitness gains. It will also translate into stronger race performances and more confidence that you can put the hammer down when necessary!