Aerobic Capacity, Part 1: Sustain the Pain

Two words no one likes to hear regardless of the venue: sustain and pain. Despite the look on your face right now, this is the best definition of an aerobic capacity effort, also referred to as riding at VO2 max. This level of intensity is not for the faint of heart…er…I mean it is not for everyone. Actually both. I just finished watching stage 18 of the Tour de France, which consistently provides a spectacular display of aerobic capacity entertainment. How do they do ride for prolonged times at that intensity? Genetic freakery aside, there are numerous training elements that combine to produce this extreme level of performance.


  1. I’m looking forward to Tom’s Part 2 and comments and questions. It will be very interesting to read.

    Thank you Tom and all the comments made.

  2. Kathy, Jennifer, Chuck, and all… These are the types of topics that set my mind astir. Your responses are why I love being a coach, an educator, and a part of ICA. I hope you find the training concepts and physiology in part 2 as fascinating as I do.

    Knowledge and understanding come from stirring the mind. Oftentimes …stuff… gets spilled all over the place in the process. Even the clean-up process is an opportunity to learn.

  3. As a direct result of ICA, the indoor cyclists at the gym where I work are very familiar with LT/AT and the five zone heart rate methodology that Jennifer as has taught. This topic opens so many avenues to educate the indoor cyclists even more. Thank you!

  4. Tom’s done it again with a great article on physiology that has me on the edge of my seat waiting to hear more! Tom- you are one of the few people that can take what is typically mundane and dry and leave me hanging on every word.

    Chuck’s done it again, too! I thoroughly enjoy Chuck’s comments and questions as they often mirror my own. Chuck- I was struggling with the same thing and Jennifer- your response back already has me critically thinking. Thank you.

    It is an honor to be a part of a community this excited about learning, and where learning is never dumb-downed but thoroughly explained in an understandable and relatable way. Thanks to all- Masters and members alike.

    -Kathy Ehrlich-Scheffer

    1. Kathy,

      Amongst us instructors this will be an interesting topic. Let’s see how it plays out. Tom, the ball is in your court. Good luck.

  5. Chuck,

    Thanks for asking such great questions! You aren’t alone and this sparks great discussions. Tom’s followup article will be later this week.

    When I am teaching live, I often try to coax the answer to someone’s question by asking more questions back. It’s effective in person…I hope it comes across as helpful in comments! 😉

    In my 18 years of training instructors, I’ve found this to be one of the more confusing physiology topics for many instructors to grasp. It was to me for a long time too! I think part of the confusion lies in the continual representation by instructors, trainers, the media, etc that any effort above LT is anaerobic, so they think it’s exclusively anaerobic. We’ve got to let go of that idea.

  6. I just want to say – fantastic post. This is the reason why I am a member. I only had a chance to skim now – I printed it (I still like paper, what can I say) to read more closely. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Bonnie! I’m with you on the paper. Even though I have a number of books on my iPad, I just love holding the actual book 🙂

  7. A couple of questions back at ya Chuck:
    1. Where does Max VO2 occur?
    2. What are the implications when you think of “Maximum Oxygen consumption” (VO2 max)? In other words, what system is working to its full capacity?
    3. IF LT happens at below VO2 max, then is there still room for O2 consumption to continue to increase (which implies aerobic), even above LT? (average unfit people reach LT at 50-60% of VO2 max, recreational athletes at 60-85%, elite athletes at 85-95% of VO2 max)

    I don’t want to pre-empt Tom’s next article. He’ll define VO2 Max and explain what is going on in much more detail, but hopefully this will give you some food for thought.

    1. Thanks Jennifer,

      I probably should have waited for Tom’s follow up parts. He did tell us that he was starting at the end. I did not intend for my comment to be contrary. Like I mentioned in my comment to Tom, perhaps it is just semantics.

      While the true nature (and perhaps definition) of ‘aerobic capacity training’ is that which works on improving that region between LT and VO2 Max our riders will likely feel – for good reason – very anaerobic during such exercise for all the reasons you explain.

      Our club members likely fall somewhere between ‘average unfit’ and “recreational athlete’ Aerobic exercise by their way of thinking is that which tends to be less stressful to the muscles and heart. Therefore with or without a heart rate monitor any efforts above LT – for them – will feel anaerobic.

      I’ve no argument with any of the science you mention. I think my issue (for lack of a better term) is in explaining to my riders an aerobic capacity workout that feels so anaerobic. Of course, therein lies the benefit. I’m sure Tom will get to that.

      Best Regards,


  8. Tom,

    This is the kind of coaching one tries to bring to ones classes. True that few are ready, but many think they are or wish to be coached as if they are.

    That said I’m intrigued. Since you got me all fire up to do more coaching and less brainless leading I have few questions. You will likely address these in your follow ups but I was hoping for clarity.

    Sally, Carl and many of us have all worked hard on threshold training. We’ve come to understand where in ones range of heart beats such thresholds fall. We can field test to find VT1 & VT2. Then create training plans to help improve ones capacities.

    It is generally accepted that VO2 max is

    So when you talk about aerobic capacities related to 106% to 120% of ones FTP, VT2 and LT2 I stumble. I kind of get it for FTP since we usually get that number from 20 minute sustained efforts.

    I tend to think of VT2, LT2 as more or less anaerobic thresholds. Therefore working at 106 to 120% of these numbers seems very anaerobic to me. Any work at or above those crossover points seems very anaerobic in nature. Would you agree?

    You state, “If a rider starts out strong and then fades after a minute or so, they probably simulated an anaerobic capacity effort rather than an aerobic capacity effort. So help me out here. Is it just a semantics issue?


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