The anaerobic assessment test assesses the strength of your neuromuscular ability and your anaerobic system. Neuromuscular ability is the extent to which your muscles can contract forcefully and quickly to produce velocity and power. Your anaerobic system ability is the extent to which you can produce and clear lactate to provide energy to working muscles in the absence of oxygen. Taken together, the test answers this question – how fast are you over short durations?
Whether you can or can’t go fast for short durations doesn’t necessarily make you a fast or slow cyclist; however, it does have implications both on how you should train and what cycling events you’ll be good at.
The results of the anaerobic test influence how you should train (and race) significantly, including how your thresholds and zones should be set, how much training you should devote to improving pedaling skills, strength training, and anaerobic workouts, as well as the race tactics that play to your strengths. I’ll briefly explain each in turn.
Setting Your Threshold and Zones
If you have a strong neuromuscular ability and anaerobic system, that means you’re good at delivering ATP to working muscles in the absence of oxygen. Classic methods with which to determine one’s anaerobic threshold, or FTP, typically involve a 20-minute all-out test with a percentage taken off (usually 5-10%) the result to approximate the classic definition of FTP which is an all-out test for an hour which most athletes don’t want to do because it’s too mentally challenging, impractical, or just undesirable.
The problem with a 20 minute FTP test is that athletes with significant anaerobic ability will often be able to inflate their test results because of the contribution of their anaerobic power to the effort, basing all of their zones on a ‘vanity FTP .’Consequently, all their training tends to be too hard, and they end up chronically stressing their physiology in the wrong way by accumulating non-productive fatigue with muted adaptations.
How You Should Train
The test also determines how to train to improve your neuromuscular and anaerobic capacity. In my experience, I’ll admit this point is a bit of a red herring. I’ve had many athletes go through my testing protocol, and the vast majority lack neuromuscular and anaerobic abilities. Why? Because beginner to intermediate cyclists rarely ride in a way that stresses these systems.
Most people ‘just ride’, and if you ‘just ride,’ most, if not all, of your training is just at endurance space at a comfortable self-selected cadence which is the opposite of what’s required to be proficient. The athletes I see excelling in neuromuscular and anaerobic ability typically are athletes with a background in anaerobic power sports like football, soccer, hockey, or strength training.
Regardless, training these systems often produces the most significant increases in performance because most selections (or moments in a race in which people get dropped) occur in short, violent attacks, NOT the long bombs most cyclists fantasize about from watching stages of the Tour de France. If you can cover a short attack and stay with the group, you can continue drafting and move faster, easier.
How You Should Race
Your results should also make you think about how you race. If your results are superior, generally, your best race tactic is to conserve your energy in the pack and save your energy to attack either as you approach the finish line or near the finish because you can go very fast for very short periods and create the separation from the peloton necessary to win.
The same strategy with a cyclist with poor neuromuscular and anaerobic ability wouldn’t work because they aren’t explosive enough to get a gap from other cyclists – their best approach is to attack early and often and hope their breakaway sticks OR that the terrain is so hard that aerobic ability defines the race, which is an excellent segue into the next point.
What You Should Race
The results of the anaerobic test also influence what cycling events will give you the best chance at success. I should have mentioned this before, but phenotypes, or the shape of your power duration curve, which shows your strength and weaknesses, nearly always comes with tradeoffs.
If you’re an elite sprinter, there’s almost no chance you’ll be an elite climber and vice versa. The skills, muscle types, and capacities of each phenotype are in tension. For example, sprints typically have an abundance of type II or fast-twitch fibers, which predisposes more mass which directly interferes with your potential to carry that mass uphill fast as a climber would. I’m brushing over many nuances here, but it’s essential to understand how phenotype predisposes one cyclist to excel in a criterium and another in a hilly road race.
Phenotype should play into what races you compete in. For example, if you’re a sprinter, it’s OK if you’re drawn to the longest, hilliest races around – racing first and foremost should be fun – but you’re always going to struggle because it’s not your strength. On the other hand, if you chose to do flatter or shorter competitions, your strength would align with how the race is typically decided, and you’d do better more often. I’ll repeat that nothing says your phenotype should determine your race because ultimately, your race selection should be about what sounds fun or inspiring to you, but choosing events that suit your strengths often leads to you enjoying cycling more in the long term.
OK, that’s done. Let’s move on to how to do it. Tl: DR – this is going to hurt:
Warm-up for 10-15 minutes bringing intensity from Z1 to top of Z2.
Easy 5m Z1; spin high cadence (>100rpm)
Complete 1×10 sec ALL OUT sprint from a rolling start. You want to hit this just like you’re sprinting for the world championship. Do it out of the saddle, do it hard, and SMASH. Don’t hold back.
Easy 5m Z1; spin high cadence (>100rpm)
One minute ALL OUT; Keep cadence OVER 100rpm if you can.
Easy 5m Z1; spin high cadence (>100rpm)
20x30sec ALL OUT, 30sec Z1 EASY spin
Easy 5m Z1; spin high cadence (>100rpm)
1 minute ALL OUT; Keep cadence OVER 100rpm if you can
10m Z1/2 Cooldown
OK, so what’s going on here?
First, we test your neuromuscular power through a 10-second all-out sprint. Your ability to produce peak wattage is as much about your phenotype as it is your sprinting technique. Many cyclists never sprint, and if they do, their form is all off, so I typically see a lot of potential for growth here.
Next, we perform a 1-minute all-out effort. Your 1-minute effort is a reflection of your rested, absolute anaerobic power. The workout fatigue hasn’t hit yet, so the power you output should be a good reflection of your rested best.
Next comes a rough set: 30 seconds pedaling HARD, 30 seconds pedaling easy for 20 minutes. This sort of effort was pioneered by a Japanese scientist named Tabata. The idea behind this effort is to blow out your glycolytic capacity in preparation for the final, second one-minute effort. Hang in there – this isn’t going to be pleasant.
Last, you perform another 1-minute effort. When most athletes hit about 40 seconds into this, they are well and truly dying. Hold on – that last 20 seconds are essential.
You’re done. Feel free to shake your fist at the sky, find my address and send me dog shit, whatever. I get it, and I deserve it – just remember I’m trying to make you better.
How to Screw This Up
- Don’t eat carbs beforehand.
- Use your power meter too much. The efforts are so short I don’t want my athletes to fixate too much on what their power meter is saying because you should be fully engaged in the effort, and staring at your screen can rob you of your true output.
- Being tired. I almost always schedule a testing week after a rest week, so I’m relatively sure an athlete is rested, but sometimes they’re just not, even if they look like it on paper. Fun fact, if you’re fatigued, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and makes it harder for your sympathetic nervous system to arouse fully. So if you’re buried, you can always pedal at a lower intensity, but the hormones and sympathetic enervation required to activate all the muscle fibers and energy systems for a genuine all-out effort isn’t available – your body won’t let you.
- Fearing ‘sensation .’Pain is different then sensation. Pain signals from your body that something you’re doing is unhealthy. Sensation signals your body that something you’re doing is hard. Knowing the difference can take years. Regardless, some athletes, beginners in particular, sometimes aren’t familiar with the sensation of anaerobic exertion – it hurts, it really does. Even if you’re doing everything else right, a lot of anaerobic effort is about your mental state, your willingness to hurt yourself. Life stress or a simply unfamiliarity with that kind of effort plays here.
How Should You Interpret the Results?
In two ways: the test itself and using a power profile chart or modeling software.
For the test itself, I work through the efforts.
Sprint: The main question to ask is the power in relation to the athlete’s body size and the shape of the sprint.
Typically, if the absolute sprint power is low, the athlete needs to work on their neuromuscular power and sprinting technique. For example, if you’re a male that weighs over 160 pounds, there isn’t a reason you should be able to break 1000 watts for 5 seconds in a sprint, and I’ll submit that’s even age agnostic. The inability to do so says more about their nervous system and sprinting technique than a physical limitation.
I’ll also look at the shape of the sprint. Did they start our very high for a short period and drop off towards the end, or was the sprint relatively flat? Even in such a short duration, you can begin to form conclusions about how they sprint and what implications it might have in a race, e.g., a sprinter with explosive power for the first 5 seconds that drops to the 10-second mark is better of waiting until the last possible moment in a sprint scenario rather than opening up too early.
The first one-minute effort gives me an excellent data point of an athlete’s raw anaerobic ability. Since this interval comes early in the workout, the value they produce should be about as close to a clean representation of their anaerobic power as we can hope to achieve solo. A high value in relation to one’s body weight predicts an explosive, more pursuit or sprinter phenotype than an allrounder or time trialist. The raw value in itself isn’t necessarily predictive of race performance since almost all race-winning moves involve average numbers in a fatigued state, but it’s an excellent indicator of anaerobic power, and thus it’s easy to identify whether it’s a strength or a weakness for a rider.
The 20 minutes of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off has one goal – drain the anaerobic battery. Interestingly, suppose one highlights the 20-minute section of these intervals. In that case, I find that many times the normalized power, or the physiological impact of the power if it was produced continuously, not stochastically, nearly always matches up neatly with the 20-minute average power the athlete produces in their threshold test. If the normalized power is higher than the average power in the threshold test, that tells me that the athlete has an unusual anaerobic ability. If it’s lower, that often means they’re not trying hard enough or have limited anaerobic endurance (or both). In any event, after the 20 minutes of hell, the athlete has sufficiently smashed themselves for the final indignity – the second one-minute effort.
I insert the second one-minute effort here at the protest of everyone because I’m trying to see the decay in power from the first one-minute interval to the second one-minute interval after 20 minutes of dunking on the athlete’s anaerobic system.
Typically I observe a 30% decay from the first to the second one-minute interval, which usually demoralizes an athlete, but that’s a good thing because it tells me they’ve gone hard enough. If there’s less decay, that generally means the logical opposite – they didn’t go hard enough, OR that they’re likely a time trialer phenotype.
The easiest way to tease out a time trialer phenotype without uploading files to modeling software or looking at a profile chart is by comparing their first and second one-minute effort. A time trial will have only a tiny decay (~10%), or, in many cases, no decay at all! You’d think that would be a good thing, but mostly it’s not – they don’t have much innate or trained anaerobic capacity, so they can’t produce big power numbers for short durations (which means attacks and accelerations will challenge them).
Who knew you could fit so much pain into a one-hour workout? I’ve never met an athlete who looks forward to this test, but it’s an essential assessment to get a complete picture of an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.
Naturally, you’re probably wondering how much one can improve at the test. I’ve got my favorite answer ready for you: it depends.
Usually, it’s difficult to ‘change your stars in raw number terms.’Raw anaerobic ability can be trained, but the better part is genetic. As I mentioned before, if you’re an ectomorphic waif that shops for jeans in the women’s section, it’s unlikely that your frame is hung with ample type II fibers.
That said, years of strength training, sprint training, speed skills, and anaerobic workouts can change gutter-level anaerobic ability into average, even slightly above average. That doesn’t sound like it’s worth it, but because all bike racing, regardless of discipline, is typically decided with pace changes and accelerations, focusing some of your training here can change you as a bike racer.
Training plays a massive role in anaerobic endurance (which you can think of as less decay on the second one-minute effort). Maybe your genetics don’t predispose you to feral 1500 watt sprints or wheel breaking 750-watt one-minute efforts, but with training, you may be able to reproduce what raw anaerobic ability you do have under fatigue with very little decay. If that sounds like it doesn’t matter, remember that most races are won with average to good numbers under fatigue. There’s hope out there even for the time trialists.