Unless your triathlon training has totally replaced your TV and internet time, you know that, at age 37, Lance Armstrong came out of retirement and placed third in the 2009 Tour de France.
He says that he was inspired to do so in part by recent Olympic performances by older endurance athletes like American swimmer Dara Torres (41) and Romanian marathoner Constantina Tomescu (38). Perhaps it's only fitting that Armstrong is now benefitting from the inspirational example of others, as he has long been an inspiration to fellow cancer patients and survivors—not to mention other cyclists.
While atop the cycling world, Armstrong's innovative training methods set a new standard that has since been widely emulated at all levels of the sport. Specifically, according to Mr. Yellow Jersey's longtime coach Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's training regimen emphasizes the four components of aerobic development, pedal cadence, consistency, and stretching more than most other training systems.
So whether you want to make your own run at the Tour de France or you just want to boost the cycling in your triathlon training, here's how to do it like Lance.
1. Aerobic Development
Armstrong does a greater percentage of his riding—and just plain more riding—in the aerobic training zone than most other cyclists.
"Aerobic development—that is, increasing Lance's ability to transport oxygen to his working muscles—takes up 95 percent of our focus in training," says Carmichael.
Many other cyclists, according to Carmichael, place too much emphasis on raising their lactate threshold—the level of exertion at which the blood lactate level begins to increase—instead of concentrating on building their VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use to fuel exercise.
"I see a lot of triathletes focusing on getting their lactate threshold up as high as possible," he says. "But there's a point of diminishing returns. If your lactate threshold is 85 to 90 percent of your VO2 capacity, it's just not going to get any higher. So what you've got to do now is go back and build a bigger engine, which means you've got to grow your VO2."
There's no single method or type of workout Armstrong uses to increase his aerobic capacity, says Carmichael, but perhaps the biggest VO2 bang for the pedaling buck comes from his tempo rides. In these, Armstrong maintains a steady heart rate—just a hair below his lactate threshold heart rate, which for him is an inhuman 178 to 180 bpm—for a long duration of up to two hours.
2. Pedal Cadence
When prescribing workouts for Armstrong, who is known to turn his cranks faster than any other man in the European peloton, Carmichael includes numbers not only for duration and heart rate but often for pedal cadence, as well. Why?
"You start to develop efficiencies at certain pedal cadences the more time you spend at them," explains Carmichael. "Generally, at lower pedal cadences, say 60 to 80 rpm, people have the greatest efficiency (on flat terrain). Once you get above this level, you start to lose efficiency and you start to consume more oxygen and your heart rate increases.
"Well, that's a great training opportunity for improving aerobic development. You need to keep moving cadence upward in order to keep gaining efficiency at higher cadences. You're going to be uncomfortable at 90 to 95 rpm if most of your training is at 70 to 75 rpm, but over time you're going to start improving your aerobic capacity and your efficiency at that higher rpm level."
This leads directly to faster cycling, as there are only two ways to cycle faster: by pushing higher gears and by pedaling faster.
Never shy about revealing the ingredients of his recipe for his success, Armstrong has said, "I never miss a workout. Ever." This machine-like consistency is the key to achieving the high training volume through which Armstrong continually builds his aerobic capacity.
Says Carmichael, "People are often amazed to see how little high-intensity training I prescribe for Lance, but he's a 24/7/365 athlete. If you look at any particular workout, you might say, 'Hey, that's not so bad,' but if you look at the consistency with which we train, it's pretty numbing. Every year, Lance wins the Tour between November and January. He makes his biggest gains in the offseason."
Try being more consistent during your next offseason and see what a difference it makes.
Armstrong stretched an hour a day in preparation for the 2001 Tour using a program designed by Jeff Spencer, a former Olympic cyclist himself and now a Scottsdale, Arizona-based chiropractor.
Armstrong publicly credited the stretching with taking his cycling performance to a new level by increasing his power output and pedaling efficiency, reducing muscle recovery time, and keeping injuries at bay—all results sure to lift your cycling performance as well. So give your muscles a thorough stretching after your workouts. You certainly don't have to spend an hour per day, unless, of course, you want to try to spoil Armstrong's second cycling comeback.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training for Runners, Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005) and Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide (Warner, 2006).
A version of this article first appeared in Triathlete magazine in 2005.