If you are training for an event, it is tempting to always push yourself at every session. In this article from Ryan Chapman, he explains why staying in the ‘Black Hole’ zone is a bad idea.
About 3 years ago I started testing the concept of executing a true ‘Base’ period during the training season using low heart rates and little to no intervals or ‘hard’ sessions. Soon after I saw results in my training, I started using it more and more with my athletes with amazing results.
In this article, I want to talk to you about the training protocol that I use. The protocol is nothing special… it is the same stuff you can find in other articles by much more well-known triathlon coaches. The more interesting thing that I plan to show you in this article is a professionally tested example of one of my athletes and how the training affected her metabolic efficiency and lactate threshold.
The two most common training mistakes that I see (especially in new and/or self-coached athletes) in regards to training intensity are:
1. A tendency to spend too much time throughout the season in ‘The Black Hole’. This is the training intensity in which the average recreational runner does a 30-minute afternoon or lunch break run. It is comfortably hard. Far too many athletes spend almost all of their training in this zone.
The Problem: That training intensity doesn’t produce the training stress (and thus the adaptation) that intervals at a higher intensity will produce but it produces similar fatigue. Therefore, since athletes are doing every workout in that zone, their body never has time to recharge and recover. They are getting fatigued, not recovering, and getting minimal benefit (not zero benefit but less than they could be getting).
I am not going to go much deeper into that since this article really gives a great overview of the concept of The Black Hole.
2. If an athlete is not doing all of their workouts in the Black Hole, the other workouts are likely intervals or speed-work. Many athletes add this type of work to their training all year round and never really have a period of training that works completely on base aerobic fitness.
The Problem: Without a strong base, the intervals and speed-work are not as effective. Or, at the very least, too many interval sessions without a proper base is not as effective. From a metabolic standpoint, it teaches your body to shut off fat oxidation and rely on carbohydrate for fuel. While it is necessary to train these muscle fibers (fast twitch) and develop that anaerobic fitness, it should be done AFTER a strong base is built.
Six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen is famous for splitting up his training with a large base period. Find out more by reading Joe Friel’s article on Mark Allen’s training.
HR Zone Definitions
For this article, I am going to need to define the HR zones that I use with my athletes. As a certified Heart Zones Personal Trainer, I use the HR zone definitions from the Heart Zones system.
Zone 1: Aerobic – This is a low-intensity zone used to establish a strong cardiovascular base. Zone 1 training promotes increased oxygen absorption, fat-burning capacity, capillary and mitochondrial density. This zone is also used for active recovery after intense training.
Zone 2: Endurance – This is a moderate-intensity zone used to improve overall conditioning and endurance. Most exercise time should be spent in this zone. Zone 2 is an excellent calorie-burning zone because you can exercise here comfortably for an extended period of time.
Zone 3: High Endurance – This is a higher-intensity zone used to improve aerobic conditioning while introducing an anaerobic component. Lactic acid is produced, but not in sufficient quantities to immediately degrade performance. Training in this zone increases tolerance to lactic acid and raises the anaerobic threshold.
Zone 4: Interval – Training in this zone improves sports performance but must be used carefully with full rest periods between workouts to avoid over-training. NOTE: The Black Hole starts near the top of this zone and goes right up to Zone 5 (approximately).
Zone 5: Max Capacity – This is the highest-intensity training zone and is reserved for use in very hard interval training or near the end of performance pieces. Care must be used when training in Zone 5 to avoid over-training or injury.
In the simplest terms, here is the protocol that I use:
1. 90% or more of the training volume in zones 1, 2, and 3 during the base period. Little to no training is done in the Black Hole. A few interval sessions with intensities in Zone 5 and recoveries back to zone 2 or 3 are fine but no more than 10% of total training volume and usually much less.
2. Base period lasts anywhere from 4 weeks to 16 weeks depending on athlete racing goals and distances as well as athlete fitness level and history. However, it is always the first block of training for the year. For the example athlete below, the base period lasted longer than normal due to a calf injury that slowed down the training for a while for recovery. Planned base period length was 12 weeks but it ended up going about 16 because of the injury.
3. For a triathlete, HR work only applies to biking and running. Swimming is such a technical sport and requires so much attention to form and focus on details that I NEVER prescribe ‘aerobic’ swimming just to build fitness. Almost all athletes will see more gains from swims with specific focus points, drills, tempo changes, and stroke length work than with simple cardio swims.
4. Examples of typical workouts during the base period would be a 50 minute bike (I almost always go by time and HR rather than distance and pace) in HR zone 2 with 3 x 5 min in zone 3 with 2 min recoveries. Everything remains below the black hole but we interval between zones 2 and 3. For a run, we might do something similar or remain all in one zone for the entire workout.
Now, in the video below, I will walk you through the test results from before and after the 16 week base period of our example athlete.
Remember. Don’t spend all your time in the Black Hole. A solid base period will work wonders for your athletics season.
Photo Credit: Meyer Felix cc