Jan Olbrecht on The Magic Bullet Theory

It’s been known for a long time that training at one’s anaerobic threshold is not a magic bullet. Why is it still so popular?

Jan Olbrecht has a Ph.D. in physiology and biomechanics. He was one of the early proponents of the theory that lactate is not a negative byproduct of glycolysis, but a fuel source for the aerobic system.

In 1996, Luc Van Lierde (coached by Olbrecht) set an all-time Ironman record of 7:50:27. That same year, Lierde set a course record in Hawaii of 8:04:08. Both records stood for 15 years.

At the 2004 Olympics, 40 athletes were training under Olbrecht’s supervision. They returned home with 27 medals.

The hypothesis has, for quite some time, been put forth that training at the maximal lactate steady state was the magic and optimal method to improve the athlete’s endurance (aerobic capacity/power). However, nothing is further from the truth. The components that make up an athlete’s endurance are very complex, and it is fantasy to think that just one single intensity is capable of developing all of the different components that are necessary for its improvement.
~ Jan Olbrecht, The Science of Winning

Olbrecht published The Science of Winning in 1997, a short twenty years ago.

Coincidentally, just a year before Olbrecht published his book, Bob Bowman started teaching an 11-year-old boy how to swim. Eventually, Bowman used Olbrecht’s ideas to develop that young man into a fairly successful athlete, whose longest event lasted two minutes.

Working at threshold — or at an event-specific maximum lactate steady state (MLSS) — is only one intensity within a wide range. So why is it so over-emphasized in today’s training theory?

My guess: because it’s fun. Threshold training feels good. It’s faster. It’s harder. It feels like work. In short, it’s gratifying.

And it works, quickly. In the short-term, threshold work makes an athlete better. It sharpens whatever base an athlete has, even if that base is almost non-existent.

Short-term gratification: What more could an athlete want?

The Science of Winning, Jan Olbrecht, 1997