In episode 11 of the Athletes Compass, hosts Paul Warloski, Marjaana Rakai, and expert Dr. Paul Laursen explore the concept of training thresholds and their significance in setting effective training zones for athletes. They delve into the physiological underpinnings of exercise intensity, including VO2 max, economy of movement, and the critical role of thresholds in optimizing performance across various sports. The conversation covers the differentiation between ventilatory thresholds, the importance of fat metabolism in endurance sports, and practical tips for everyday athletes to identify and train within their optimal zones using methods like the talk test and nasal breathing. This episode provides a comprehensive overview of how understanding and applying threshold concepts can lead to improved fitness, performance, and overall health.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding Thresholds: Thresholds signify the transition points in how our bodies respond to different exercise intensities, with a focus on lactate and ventilatory thresholds as key indicators.
  • The Role of VO2 Max and Economy: VO2 max represents the maximum oxygen uptake, while economy refers to how efficiently this oxygen is used for energy production. Both are crucial for performance but need to be complemented by effective threshold management.
  • Training Zones and Fat Metabolism: Identifying and training within the correct zones, especially under the first ventilatory threshold (zone 2), enhances fat metabolism, which is vital for endurance and overall health.
  • Practical Tools for Threshold Identification: The episode highlights practical methods like the talk test and nasal breathing as indicators for training within appropriate zones, emphasizing the importance of personalized threshold testing and monitoring.
  • Athletica’s Role: Athletica is discussed as a tool for athletes to understand and adjust their training based on thresholds, emphasizing the importance of regular testing for accurate training zone calibration.



Paul Warloski (00:36)

Hello and welcome to episode 11 of the Athletes Compass, the podcast where we navigate training, fitness, and health for everyday athletes. Last week we talked about monitoring your fitness and measuring your progress. But this week we're getting a little bit more into the weeds with thresholds and how we set our training zones. These zones are roughly defined about how our body responds to the training we do. So it's really important to understand

we get those zones in Athletica and in your training because they determine the effectiveness of your training. So let's start with definitions. Paul, can you talk about the physiological events that happen when we start to exercise and then how there are thresholds that signify the changes in your body's response?

Paul (01:28)

Yeah, for sure, Paul. So we'll talk about, you know, we use that term a lot, you know, right across the whole gamut of, we talk about training and performance, we talk about your threshold. What is the threshold? And, you know, you're talking, I guess, simply about your threshold to sustain exercise intensity. Right? How long, yeah, how long can you hold an exercise rate?

I guess the higher the intensity ultimately that you can hold, the better your performance is going to be. You can use that across any context that you want from whatever's in your head, whether it's a 5K race or an Ironman or whatever. What speed or rate of exercise can you hold throughout that whole thing? You want to obviously...

If we want to perform well, we typically want a higher threshold. And we know that training is, you know, we see that one of the biggest responses to training is our ability to heighten this threshold. The other place I'll put threshold around, if we want to just back up a little bit and do a little small exercise physiology class, there's usually three big factors for exercise performance. And you've probably heard some of these before.

One is VO2 max and we've talked about this in many other podcasts and that's the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take up and deliver to the muscles and burn as with the carbohydrates and fat that you might consume, that you will consume. And then that's then the second one is

So that's how economic you can be. Some people can have a high VO2 max, but they're not really economical with it, right? It's like a car that's just not really efficient, right? It might have a really good engine, but you know, it's, yeah, I typically think of American cars kind of were classically built like this or not anymore, but they were classically, they had big engines, but they weren't that efficient. And then the Japanese cars came in and they had

They didn't have as big engines, but they were super efficient with the engines that they did have. That's back a ways. I think everyone's sort of caught up, but that's an analogy there. And then the threshold that we're all talking about here is we're really talking about the percentage of that max that you have, the VO2 max, that you can hold for the whole event. So you want to have elements of all these different three, all these three big ones.

And yeah, that's so today we're going to speak about the threshold. And you might have heard of your lactate threshold. We often talk about your ventilatory threshold. Well, the reason why we talk about lactate or ventilatory thresholds is because those are the physiological measures that tend to be associated with that sustainable rate. So your ventilation, we're talking about our lungs, how fast you're going to breathe.

that tends to be related to the point at which lactate starts to rise, the point at which the acid from the burning of sugar tends to rise as well. They're all kind of coupled. We can also get these functionally. When we do our FTP test, you've heard of that, or we've spoken about the...

the critical power and critical speed curves before as well. These are really where we can functionally determine where those thresholds in you lie. And we can do this outside of the laboratory and just using your wearable device and Athletica for some help. So that's a bit of a lay of the land. Paul, Marjanna, what did I miss or what do I need to expand on?

Marjaana Rakai (05:49)

Can you expand on the first threshold, the ventilatory threshold one? And what's the significance for everyday athlete?

Paul (06:00)

Perfect. Well, first of all, we should talk about the fact that there are two. So there's two of these thresholds. They definitely tend to be linked. And let's start with the second threshold, and then we'll move into the first. The second threshold is really that critical power or critical speed curve. It's really, it's very close to that. And it's your FTP (functional threshold power). Or it's your, yeah, it is your FTP.

it's pretty close to that. They're all around the same sort of point. Okay, so it might be the exercise speed or power that you could produce for say like one hour. And that's the upper threshold, the second threshold. Now to your question, you wonder, well what's the first threshold and what's the significance? The first threshold, and you will find this on your power and pace profiles on Athletica.

And the significance of it is it really represents your homeostatic exercise intensity. Homeostatic means balance in physiology. And it means that you're in equilibrium with a pace that you could, it's like your all day pace. You're, you know, I can comfortably do this all day. It really, it's that steady pace. It is the same zone two, ultimately. It's right around the upper zone two.

kind of level. It's around your MAF your maximal aerobic fitness intensity. And that's the significance. The significance is that it is your all day pace and it's very exercise below that intensity isn't that stressful on your body. It's where we need to be doing remember the polarized 80-20 model. It is where you need to be doing the bulk around 80% of your work and your training ultimately if you can.

Yeah, so it has a lots of different significances from both the overall training standpoint and from a pacing standpoint.

So yeah, just and pacing just to expand on that a bit. Like if you're gonna do an Ironman, you don't wanna start out at your second threshold, which I have done before. You know, like because you're, remember when you start out, you're pretty hyped up about, you know, being an Ironman or whatever, right? And this is the classic, the classic expression that we see with individuals, including myself, I'll put myself there as well, in an Ironman.

post race report, I absolutely killed my bike. And I'm saying, right? Exactly. And then it's, of course, that's, but again, we're above homeostasis, right? So we're burning matches ultimately all through that, you know, with, and you're getting a great bike and then you just got nothing left for the run. Of course, if you want to perform well in an Ironman, you can go back to, look at the Cindy Maloney blog.

Paul Warloski (08:34)

Ha ha ha.

Marjaana Rakai (08:37)

And they were working.

Paul (09:00)

on the Athletica website you'll see a classic example of what perfect pacing is where she's ultimately going at her first threshold throughout the whole Ironman she's at her all-day pace and you know she just basically has at the entire day of picking off athletes that are doing the opposite that are killing the bike you know to me uh... so that is the city that's the big significance of it to significance one training eighty percent of your uh...

below that first threshold. Second, around that pace, plus or minus a couple percent, is where you wanna be targeting your all day pace for something like an ultra distance event.

Marjaana Rakai (09:44)

My first Ironman was a complete opposite. I did not kill the bike, but I ran really well. So maybe we need to find out, you know, the balance. The balance. So let's say that we have an everyday athlete who wants to do 10k run. Does the ventilatory threshold one, is that still important for somebody who wants to go at that ventilatory threshold too for an...

Paul (09:54)

to balance.

Marjaana Rakai (10:14)

45 minutes or an hour.

Paul (10:16)

Yeah, context. So it just really, really depends on who we're talking about here. I would say the majority of us, probably that is ideal to be doing still a polarized training plan, but we're still focusing on quality work during the preparation for the 10K. I will say that...

there tends to be good support also in the more well-trained athlete for more of a pyramidal type training plan. And pyramidal is more like a pyramid where it goes, you know, above, you know, there's quite a bit in zone, like the zone one and two and then zone three, there's a fair bit of training in zone three as well. And there's a little bit of training in the in the upper echelon. There's the

the top zone four fives. And this is also called the Norwegian method, but this tends to be reserved a little bit more for more well-trained individuals and it tends to, or the time-crunched athlete, they can also potentially benefit. We need to be more careful with the stress that's implemented in these. But as we often say, there's more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to training.

Here is a classic example, there's lots of different ways to do this optimally and it will always depend on the context. I would start polarized and then as you become a more advanced athlete you might want to play around with a more pyramidal type approach if you're just a singular 10k running athlete.

Paul Warloski (12:03)

So for the ventilatory thresholds, I talked this morning with one of my Athletica athletes and we were discussing, he doesn't have a power meter.

So we were talking about how to do his zone two training at a pace where he could be talking to somebody else. So he could have his, a normal discussion, maybe not talk about religion or politics, but have, you know, a pretty good discussion with somebody. And that is.

under his first ventilatory threshold. And then when it comes time for him to do his intervals, that second ventilatory threshold would be an example of when he is starting to pant and he no longer can really talk. Is that a pretty good way of looking at your ventilatory thresholds?

Paul (12:50)

Yeah, perfect, exactly, right? And you think about it, that's why they're called ventilatory thresholds because the talk test works. You lose that ability to be able to speak full sentences because your ventilation rate must override the speech mechanisms. And yeah, you have to speak in a little short.

short sentences to get the communication messages out. So yeah, that's the talk test and it works perfectly.

Now the other one I'll say too, Paul, is nose breathing. This doesn't work for everyone. Some people have nostrils and sinus cavities that aren't configured appropriately to be able to take air in. But if you're the majority of individuals with

clear sinuses and normal mechanisms up there. You should also be able to nose breathe just for the most part, which is also a very good training practice as well. Not easy to do, and sometimes you have to all of a sudden revert to a couple mouth breathes, but it's a great practice to work on as well. If you're by yourself, you don't need to worry about talking.

And there's some really good filtration and humidification that occurs in the nasal passages that is very beneficial to a calm nervous system, that balance, that parasympathetic system. And yeah, it's another great one. So talk test and nasal breathing.

Marjaana Rakai (14:34)

I have to say about the nasal breathing. I thought I could never ever do that. And then when we started working together, Paul, you encouraged me to try nasal breathing. And I'm like, I can't do that. I've tried, but it's so hard. But I think it was, to your point about, calming nervous system down by using nasal breathing.

Paul Warloski (14:52)

It is.

Marjaana Rakai (15:03)

that it worked when I just kept practicing and it kept my running pace a lot slower. So I was in that zone two pace. What I've noticed though is that now I can nasal breathe at higher pace, which is great. That's what you want. So going from non-believer to a believer, it took some trial and error and just...

Paul Warloski (15:24)


Marjaana Rakai (15:33)

Keep trying.

Paul (15:34)

Yep, like everything, it's another system that can be trained. Pretty cool.

Marjaana Rakai (15:39)

Yeah, and I like, I don't, I don't have any scientific base for this, but I just think that the nervous system overdrive has such an impact on like, if you're able to nasal breathe or not. If you're constantly there, like you just can't, you know, nasal breathe.

Paul Warloski (15:54)


Paul (15:54)

Uh huh. No it does.

Yep, totally.

Paul Warloski (16:04)

And if you can learn to breathe through your nose and then down into your belly, as opposed to into your collarbones or into your chest and more shallowly, that also really helps calm, at least it calms me on long rides. That's what I, you know, I don't know if you can see this, but I've got, you know, breath tattooed on my arm, you know, as that's why it's just to practice breathing and calm myself down. Cause otherwise, you know, you're

Marjaana Rakai (16:11)


Paul (16:24)


Marjaana Rakai (16:24)

Oh, I love that.

Paul Warloski (16:32)

you're breathing through your collarbones and it's, you know, you sound like a dog, you know, trying to get your breath.

Marjaana Rakai (16:32)



Paul (16:37)

Yep. And if I could just shout out to a really fantastic book, Breathe by James Nestor. It is just a, you know, it teaches sort of all of these things. It's really not even in the exercise context, but all of these principles are still, you know, they still hold true. Alex Hutchinson as well, he was on the Training Science podcast with me and he also did a review of these sorts of techniques as well.

Paul Warloski (16:45)


Thank you.

Paul (17:08)

Yeah, they're really great like Marjanna's kind of learned for keeping us in balance, in homeostasis, parasympathetic high calm nervous system, which is what we want. That's really what we're trying to do in this with the whole training process, right? We're going away from that no pain, no gain mentality and we're doing something that is more sustainable and healthy for us. We know healthy athletes are, you know, it's the more sustainable long-term.

you know method that you know anything else is just not sustainable you'll you come into us eventually the

Paul Warloski (17:49)

And I think what's important for the nose breathing for the talk test is knowing when you are in that zone one and zone two, when you're below that first threshold, because there's so many things that so many adaptations that happen in that first threshold that allow you to build a lot of volume and a lot of time in that zone without building all the fatigue that comes through the more intensity. But Marjaana, you know,

in your eyes as a coach and as an athlete, why do these thresholds matter? Why can't you or I or any other everyday athlete just go out and train and just go ride our bikes and go run and go swim? You know, why do we need to think about these thresholds?

Marjaana Rakai (18:39)

Oh, great question. Um, I think for me, typically I don't worry too much about Threshold Two as a coach, I am always talking about Threshold One, just trying to get my, my athletes to stay when they are building their aerobic base to stay under

Paul Warloski (18:39)

Thank you.

Marjaana Rakai (19:08)

zone two, stay in zone two, zone one, and not go too much on the zone three. But we also need to remember to go hard sometimes for performance. So for my athlete's threshold two, we do the tests, we set the intensity zones.

Paul (19:33)

We set the intensity zones. I tried to teach them how it feels using RPE.

Marjaana Rakai (19:36)

I try to teach them how it feels using RPE. Um, and so that they learn their own bodies and how they can kind of calibrate, um, any progress, you know, like, okay, so I'm running 5:30 and it feels RPE three. But couple of, um, couple of months ago, maybe I was running 6:00 per K.

Paul (20:00)

So maybe I was running six minutes a day, and it felt like RPE four So they can tell, okay, I'm clearly getting better.

Marjaana Rakai (20:03)

And it felt like RPE 4 so they can tell that, okay, I'm clearly, you know, getting fitter. Um, but I don't really talk about, you know, lack the threshold. So FTP, I don't like try to boost their train training so that it boosts their FTP, because I don't think that that's, um, you know, the most important um,

Paul Warloski (20:32)


Marjaana Rakai (20:35)

But, yeah.

Paul Warloski (20:37)

So you go more by, you're trying to train your athletes to go more by feel? Okay.

Marjaana Rakai (20:42)

Yes, yeah, and I don't train them like I, you know, I don't see...

I don't see the importance of trying to get a bigger number on FTP, for Or, you know, just if I have a marathon, trade a runner to run the fastest 5 K ever, you know, um, it's, it's more about understanding how they train using those thresholds.

Paul Warloski (20:55)



Marjaana Rakai (21:15)

like to feel.

Paul (21:17)

I'm just thinking one of the things we haven't explained well to the listener, I don't think, is around some mechanisms of why does Marjanna care so much about this first ventilatory threshold. She cares about it because she knows that all the exercise that's done below that first ventilatory threshold is done by the burning of fat.

right we talked about when i was kinda going through the thresholds i was talking about the burning of sugar versus the burning of fat a little bit we burn sugar that's when the lactate kind of you know spins out through the mechanism of uh... you know glycolysis the metabolic mechanism of glycolysis to bring us energy by burning of sugar what we want to do as much work as we can by the burning of fat because there's no

by product there's no lactate by product in that there's only carbon dioxide and water which your body has no problem dealing with right will just breathe out the carbon dioxide and will just hang on to the water no problem that's the whole efficient uh... oxidation kind of process that occurs so imagine if you had a system that was so built up on that's you know efficient

metabolic process and you were just like, imagine if you could burn fat to the same level right now that you might be doing your FTP at or whatever. Imagine that was just like all fat burning. Well, you know, people like, if you look to Iron Man winning performances, take your hero, whether it's Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Dan Plews.

Kristian Blumenfeld, etc. These guys have these engines that can burn fat, super high, high levels. That's what they've trained. So this is ultimately what you're doing. And we're all the same this way. We all have our own individual levels that we're trying to kind of get to. But the higher you can build this up, the better you're going to be and the better you're going to perform, the better everyday feelings are going to be.

And I know Marjanna is going through a transition right now where she's, you know, she's kind of manipulated some things in her diet that she's even noticing are contributing to this. And we can leave that for another one. But really it's, it really is about the ability to burn fat and something called in physiology, something called your fat max, and that's the maximum rate of fat oxidation that we'd measure on like one of those VO2 max carts. The higher we can get that, the...

the better everything else the better everything else is. It all, you know, what's the expression about tides? Like, you know, they're all gonna rise with the rise of that one, right?

Marjaana Rakai (24:16)

we're going to talk about nutrition later on, actually episodes coming soon, but now we're talking about like 120 grams per hour of carbs. And if your fat max is, yeah, taking in 120 to 140 even per hour, it's insane. Like if you just measure your sport nutrition, like

Paul Warloski (24:26)

Thanks for watching!

Paul (24:30)


Marjaana Rakai (24:44)

This is 25 grams in the Lara bar. It's insane. Like, how do you even get that in? Like, are you training? Are you running, biking? Are you eating? It's insane. So if you can build up that fat max as high as possible for you, you're way better off. But we'll... Yes, yeah.

Paul Warloski (24:56)

I'm sorry.

Paul (25:06)

It's the foundation, right? It's the whole foundation that upon everything else that's built. So this is, and this relates to totally to the threshold thing that we're talking about, right? So we're, that's why we're trying to do the bulk of this work under our first ventilatory threshold, because we're trying to build that base, that build that foundation of aerobic fat metabolism, right? And we can, carbohydrate is a short term limited source. You only get so much, right?

calories stored on all of our bodies. Everything else, that's why the big push to take in these big amounts is, everything else has to be taken on board. So why wouldn't you totally enable everything on board to be oxidized? And that's the whole process of getting your training right, which we're talking about, generally polarized with lots of exercise intensity below the first ventilatory threshold. And then also

adding to it as well with a really good nutrition program. So we can save that for another day.

Paul Warloski (26:11)

So FATMAX still occurs under zone two, under your ventilatory threshold, correct? Or right about there?

Paul (26:21)

It occurs usually right around your first ventilatory threshold. There's some really good studies that actually show the two coinciding. Your Fatmax tends to coincide with your first ventilatory threshold. I don't have that paper offhand, but I can find it if you're interested.

Paul Warloski (26:25)


So Paul, when I first started using Athletica and when my athletes started using Athletica, we started with the test week, which is not a lot of fun, but it's, you know, it's, it's useful, but why do we have to go through those tests? I mean, what, how do those tests help Athletica understand who we are as riders and runners and swimmers?

Paul (27:06)

Yeah, so the tests are the first point in determining the sustainable intensity. It determines markers that are close to your second threshold that we spoke about, which are close to your, a lot of us have heard of FTP. It's really the, we're getting markers of this. We've spoken in previous podcasts on our critical power or our critical velocity in running

critical swim speed, it's really getting the marker of that second threshold and then we just take a an estimate from that second threshold into your first threshold. The two are very much related. They won't always be perfect but that's the very first test and then we can refine that a little bit with the other tests that's there as well and that's the MAF tests. These are again, they're not perfect and

but they're giving us more indications of where the first thresholds lie. And again, just a shout out to our coaches, our Athletica coaches. This is really where the coaches can come in and help to refine that for the user.

Paul Warloski (28:22)

So we get a sense from those tests where the thresholds might be the first and second threshold so that Athletica can then adapt and get a better sense of where we should be a train doing our training.

Paul (28:37)

That's right. Yes, for sure. So every year, you're basically getting a calibration of who, where you are with all of these thresholds and all of your subsequent training sessions will be calibrated in accordance with your own fingerprint, right? From that threshold, right? So that's why the testing is really important. We see some individuals coming to Athletica and they'll just skip the tests. Well,

Yeah, it's not always a great idea because you don't... It's the old expression garbage in, garbage out. GIGO we really don't know much about you and you can't expect the tests or the training sessions to be that great because Athletica really knows very little about where those markers lie. So it won't really know what your zones are. So it's not a super idea

to miss those out. Unless the context that you look at the test itself and it just feels too hard, and you're actually not ready for it. That can occur. But generally speaking, if you're like the majority of Athletica users that come in and you're fairly experienced as an athlete, then you should definitely try to do the

Marjaana Rakai (30:02)

Um, and I, I guess I can see some people don't like testing because they just put so much value in them and it can be scary. It can be intimidating to do your tests. Um, I think though, personally, I love test weeks because it gives me, it gives me a benchmark.

Paul Warloski (30:14)


Somehow I'm not surprised.

Marjaana Rakai (30:30)

where I'm at that moment. So say for example, I'm new to Athletica and I've run 5k a couple of years ago. I'm using that time to, you know, estimate my thresholds and intensity zones. And then Athletica uses that to calculate the load. Well, it's two years ago. I'm not going to be in the same.

fitness level than I was two years ago, anything can happen. And now you're getting that garbage out, right? In your training plan. So if you feel like test week is intimidating and you put value into the test result, maybe just hook up with the friend and go for a little hard run, just make it into a game.

But just remember that if you want to progress and if you want to see results, you need to put a pin to where you are today. And then you can come back, well, seven months later, OK, I started here and now I'm so much fitter and I can actually quantify it, what my progress was. So make it into a game if you're a little bit intimidated by test

Paul (31:48)

Making it.

Paul Warloski (31:53)

You know, Paul, that leads me to a question. You know, I started at Athletica when I was just recovering from surgery. And so I get a lot of reminders. You know, do you want to, you know, update your thresholds, your VT1, your VT2? Is that something we should be doing on Athletica? Yeah.

Paul (32:15)

Absolutely. Yeah, for sure. If you get a... Again, context is everything. You could be accidentally have your watch going in your car and all of a sudden you've got this higher threshold. That's why the warning's on there just in case this happens, where you've got this false reading. But yeah, for sure if you're coming back and you know, Athletica is always monitoring you and if it notices that you've already all of a sudden got this...

you know whether it's in the run and you've got a five k run time that's all of a sudden above what your what your thresholds are set at or if you've got a um... you know VT2 uh... critical power FTP that's above what your settings are at it's going to give you a uh... a warning and or so not a warning but an alert to say it we suggest that you increase your it your thresholds and of course everything will go up as well all the zones will go up that's the same for heart rate as well

So you've always got the option. Ideally, have a look, does it make sense? If you're not there yet in terms of understanding these sorts of things, again, great to have a coach that can kind of keep tabs on these things. And the coach is gonna know if these are, if it makes sense to raise the threshold.

Marjaana Rakai (33:39)

Sightlights like them, sorry. Cycling specifically though, like I like to say that we often talk about absolute numbers like FTP, we hear Ironman athletes like, Oh, I was pushing 350 watts. And I'm like, okay, well, that doesn't say anything to me. You know, like as a woman, 300 watts would be.

tons, like that would be amazing, like Ryf style. I don't even know if she goes over 300, but and youth athletes, like lighter athletes, like 320 watts, holding that for five hours is intimidating. So if you look at power to your weight, that's a little bit more better number to look at. But then you have to remember.

when you lose weight or gain weight, that will change, like compared to your absolute numbers.

Paul Warloski (34:47)

Here are my takeaways from this conversation about thresholds. In episode 10, we talked about how to monitor our training. Thresholds are a great and very effective tool to help organize our training so that we're training in the right zones and our target zones. And therefore we're training smarter and not harder. Number two, we need to understand our approximate first and second thresholds in order to train

smarter within the correct zones, particularly learning your zone 2 helps you burn more fat and therefore build more volume. The talk test works really well to help you understand your ventilatory threshold. And number three, using a tool like Athletica's Power Profile can help everyday athletes understand and do their workouts more efficiently with better pacing or better power. That...

is all for this week. Keep the questions coming. Thank you for listening and join us next week when we talk about the 80-20 guideline for organizing your training time. Another controversial topic for Marjaana Rakai, Dr. Paul Larson. I am Paul Warloski and this has been the Athletes Compass podcast.

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