With cycling steeped in history many different training philosophies have come and gone. There was a time when it was considered good practice to not let the riders drink any water during training to teach the body to do without and, therefore, supposedly, help them cope with being dehydrated? Laughable but true! There was also a time when it was common practice to have the “Belgium Mix” (amphetamine and brandy) before important stages and criteriums. How times change? Ok, perhaps the sophistication of doping methods have gone way above the Belgium Mix, and EPO and steroids are now the blight of the peloton, but science has proven that being dehydrated can lead to major drops in performance.
Science has also provided the training tools to aid the coaches and athletes in gaining insight into the training loads and adaptations required for increased performance. The heart rate monitor has proven to be a standard piece of kit on the bike and more recently the power meter has really enabled athletes and coaches to analyse exactly the physiological demands of specific events.
With this, and the development of analysis software like Training Peaks, it is such an exciting time to be involved in cycling and training, where we are pushing the boundaries of human performance from the club rider to the elite athlete.
Having been involved in racing and training at elite levels in many different sports, I have never before been able to accurately quantify improvement and measure the percentage gain and improvement over time. This is now possible with these new training tools.
This then brings us back to the initial question, So How Should We Train? There are really two distinct camps being pushed at the moment. The first and old school method follows the quantity/volume approach. Very well known coaches such as Carmichael and Friel base their programs on the higher quantity, lower intensity, volume based approach. This theory sits well with the history of training and the approaches of most institutes of sports going back to the eastern block and Russian camps of the 70’s. It also holds up with the pros who often write of 1000km training weeks and 5 -8 hours of training a day, or so we are led to believe!
The next camp goes back to the early exploits of a young American called Greg Lemond, who was one of the first to get onboard the power thing and invested in himself with an SRM. Remember, Greg was at the forefront of cycling technology and demonstrated this with his narrow victory on the last day of the tour in the time trial, using aero bars and helmet. Greg used science to win the tour and he continued to use science to train with the SRM power meter. He was, and still is, an advocate for less is more, if it is done right. One of the most knowledgeable people in the World today on training with power, and co owner and inventor of training peaks software, is Andrew Coggan. Using science has shown that the greatest development of the physiological adaptations for the development of an athletes Functional Threshold Power (FTP), occurs at between 88 and 105% of the athletes current FTP. These adaptations include Mitochondrial Density, Capillarisation and Oxidative Enzyme concentrations. These adaptations make a rider ride faster and, if this has been proven through science, then this is the area that we should base our training.
Most athletes, especially cyclists, really struggle with the concept of ‘less is more’. We tend to believe that if other riders are doing 1000km a week and we are only doing 500km, then they are going to be faster, fitter, stronger and, therefore, more successful during racing than us. This is simply not the case and, just as marathon runners do not need to go out and run a marathon in training to become very good and fast at running marathons, so cyclists do not need to go out and train for 200kms every day to compete at those distances. Cycling, by its very nature, can be its own worst enemy because it is a non load bearing/non impact activity, which means much greater volumes can be completed without muscular or skeletal damage, as could occur in running, for example. Again, however, this does not mean simply because you can do more, that you should do more to achieve your fitness goals.
When analysing a training ride using power it is possible to disseminate the information in a second by second breakdown. By doing this it is quite clear to see in an unstructured ride lasting four hours, for instance, that the actual time spent within the desired exercise zones (85-105% FTP) for optimal physiological adaptation will often be less than 60 minutes, with a further 120 mins spent either not pedalling or at power intensities not great enough to stimulate or develop physiological adaptation. With this knowledge it is then possible, in a much shorter time frame, to create the same physiological load to optimise performance than is possible using more traditional methods. A common query to this is those using heart rate monitors, who often relay feedback to the coach saying that their heart rates were in the required zone throughout the longer training ride. When analysing performance and training intensity using heart rate monitors, it is not possible to understand the stochastic nature of cycling and the fact that the demands are changing by the second, even when we are riding on relatively flat roads. To really understand the demands one must use a power meter, as the human’s heart naturally smoothes the data and does not accurately portray the second by second physiological demands of cycling.
A good example of this would be an athlete completing a five minute maximal effort using a heart rate monitor. Heart rate would lag by 60-90 seconds behind the actual physical metabolic exertion. When using a power meter the same athlete would see that initially powers would be far beyond the intensity required for the physiological adaptation of the systems targeted for that particular effort, which would be VO2 max efforts at 112-125% of FTP. Therefore, average heart rate may very well be within the required zones but the actual physiological metabolic demands would have been very different. More likely, the first 60-90 seconds would have been an anaerobic effort at around 150% FTP, which would have been targeting anaerobic capacity, with the final 3 – 3.5 minutes, gradually declining in power, finishing struggling to hold 100% of FTP and more likely at Tempo intensity. Heart rate would simply not show this. This is just an example of how heart rate is simply not effective in exercise training prescription and how by using power we can simply cut out the chaff and junk miles of yesteryears training programs.
Over the past three seasons, as an elite, ultra-endurance, 24 hr racer, I have personally been collecting valuable data and actual performance measures to back up the less is more approach. I have often struggled with reducing volume, as simply, 20 years of riding have engrained the old school philosophy into my psyche. The power meter has revolutionised the way I train and in the process, at 38 yrs old, I am smashing out the best performance figures of my life. I have over the past year witnessed a 20 minute FTP gain of over 30 watts with a best 15 minute effort of 372 watts and a five minute maximal power gain of over 50 watts up to 420 watts. These laboratory based test results have proven to be accurate as at this year’s MTB championships at Canberra I finished within 94% of Chris Jongawards wining time in the Elite race, compared to last year where I finished within 90% of his time on pretty much the same course in very similar conditions. Of course there are many variables within this equation; however, I do truly believe that the best measure of performance is performance itself and Jongaward won last year by a very similar margin over Sid Taberlay as he did this year.
(Fig 1, below shows Mean Maximal Power (MMP)/duration chart from training peaks software).
The bottom line (solid Line) depicts last season’s data following a more traditional lower intensity higher volume regime.
The top line shows this season to date. This chart represents peak powers on a sliding time continuum from 1 second to 9 hours and is collated from all the training and racing files. Simply put, the top line shows that this season, I have improved my power from 1 second through to 2 hours. Also you can see that I just haven’t done any of the longer rides as in the previous season. There are no ifs or butts, the data tells the story.
Having said all of this, there is still a place for the longer ride. Competing in stage races, multi-day tour events and ultra-endurance events can often be a mind over matter issue. By simply having ridden for 8 hours in training when contemplating a solo 12 or 24 hour allows the brain and the butt to comprehend the task and challenge ahead. Professional riders, I believe, can also warrant completing longer easier base training, from time to time in their base phase, because as they complete up to one hundred races a year and their high intensity V02 and anaerobic efforts are more than taken care of within these races. Remember that the Pro’s use races to gain form and they are not out to win each event, teams have riders target specific races and periods through the year. It is simply not possible to be in peak form all year round. The long, slow distance (LSD) approach can also fit in to their professional lifestyle as they simply have more time for training and recovery.
All in all if the same result can be achieved in less time I know what I will be doing :0)