On a bike ride a couple of days ago I was thinking about ways to define steady state training. Why is this important? Steady state training, is the zone which develops specific power and endurance for all people racing Iron distance, and what’s more it is the intensity which an Ironman is raced by people completing the race between roughly nine and fifteen hours. In other words, want to get through your first Ironman? Train steady, want to get faster at Ironman train steady.
If you want to think about the adaption on the muscular level steady state training turns the fast twitch (IIa) fibres into slow twitch. So it works the fast twitch a little bit for a long duration. This can be seen on a lactate graph where the lactate levels are a bit above the baseline (as the fast twitch fibres effectively leave lactate in the blood as a marker of their recruitment).
While that is all well and good and many people get very excited reading and writing the textbooks that all that clever exercise physiology is in. It does really help us on a bike ride. How does steady state training feel like? For me the answer lies in the Friel zones. Zone 1 being easy, Zone 2 is steady, Zone 3 moderate, Zone 4 threshold, FTP, AT, etc.
Whenever I’m riding and I think, phew, this is really tough, that is too high, and whenever I think this is better this is nice comfortable, it’s too easy. So to me when I’m asked what is steady, my reply is “whatever it is, it is never easy”. It is hard enough to wipe the smile from your face, put an ache in your legs, while at the same time it is tolerable.
Both the blessing and the curse of steady state training is that it is tolerable, not easily tolerable admittedly. That means you can keep at it, while V02 max efforts are very painful they don’t last long so it is easy to deal with. Steady isn’t that easy, long steady state rides get you fit, and get you fast and your body never gets used to it, and whatever it is it never feels easy or comfortable.
It is this chain to steady state training which is what Ironman is about. You can measure your progress with a power meter, you can log the hours you spend in this mild painful state, and after your workouts you can give yourself VDOT scores, and assess decoupling. But the fact remains, Ironman is about spending as many hours as possible in this zone. As long as you are in the Ironman game, steady state will never leave you.