(from May/June 2016 Issue)
What is power and how is it measured?
Power is one of the essential training tools for cyclists. In my opinion, if you had to decide between training solely with power or heart rate, I believe that power training is more effective than the latter. For cycling, power is a measurement of energy output expressed in watts and is conveyed through the intensity at which your legs are working at any given moment. Power can be measured through an assortment of power meters, all based on user preference. These can be located on rear wheel hubs, the crank spider, crank arms, pedals and bottom brackets.
Why choose power-based training?
For those cyclists who have tried implementing a training plan with no solid measurement of your baseline fitness, it can be difficult to identify if you are training at the right intensity for each workout, time of year, taper weeks, etc. Power training essentially eliminates the guesswork and tells the rider exactly what their baseline fitness is, and what target intensities (power output) each type of training workout should be ridden at to be the most effective.
Now, don’t get me wrong, heart rate training is an excellent tool to complement power training, but let me demonstrate why I prefer power training. For any given interval workout, some riders will not consider the training interval started until their heart rate rises to the designated heart rate zone, when in reality, the interval should start instantaneously when the power output is within the targeted zone. Additionally, when solely using a heart rate monitor, it can be difficult to measure whether you are going too hard or too easy during the first few minutes as heart rate can considerably fluctuate. Power measurements, on the other hand, will accurately identify if you are riding at the correct intensity from the second you decide to start your interval.
Identifying your functional threshold power
Spend enough time around a group of cyclists and you will hear the term functional threshold power, or FTP, thrown around. Functional threshold power is the highest possible power a cyclist can output for 60 minutes, and is also calculated as 95% of the average power a cyclist can sustain during a 20-minute time trial. Prior to diving into any sort of power-based training, it is crucial to first identify your FTP through a 20-minute time trial on a flat course. Your FTP can be utilized as your baseline fitness, and all other types of workouts will be based off of this measurement to identify the correct intensities that stress your body properly for effective training.
It’s all a numbers game
So, you have measured your FTP… now what? It is time to begin training with direction and confidence! Initially, it is important to consider the type of race you are training for, such as a time trial, road race, or criterium race, as this will define how much time you spend training in specific power zones. Admittedly, there are a myriad of other workouts not mentioned, but the following workouts are key workouts in an athlete’s tool belt to improve their racing abilities. Power-based training is a numbers game, so lets break down the numbers behind key workouts that will increase an athlete’s all around fitness.
Aerobic capacity rides
As you may have thought, these rides do exactly what they are titled: build your aerobic capacity. The majority of these rides will occur during the offseason when you are building a strong fitness base to work off of come time to begin interval training. Aerobic capacity rides have power outputs that range from 55-75% of the rider’s FTP and typically last multiple hours. A successfully completed aerobic ride will leave you feeling somewhat fatigued, but not exhausted. Begin with 1 or 2-hour aerobic rides and build up to 5-hour rides over the course of months as your aerobic fitness increases.
Tempo intervals are an excellent way to build an athlete’s muscular endurance. These fundamental workouts can seamlessly transition an athlete’s muscles from aerobic capacity riding into more intense training sessions without completely shocking the body. Therefore, many of these 20-minute intervals that gradually increase to 60-minute intervals are effectively used subsequent to a long base-building period.
Oftentimes, tempo intervals are thrown into aerobic capacity rides. These intervals consist of power outputs that range from 88-102% of the riders FTP and can be completed up to three times a week. Figure 1 illustrates the power profile from an example 30-minute tempo interval within a 2-hour aerobic capacity ride.
VO2 max intervals
Ahhh yes, aerobic endurance intervals – a crucial workout for any athlete. For reference, an athlete’s VO2 max is measured as the maximum rate at which oxygen can be consumed. Therefore, the larger an athlete’s VO2 max, the more physically fit they are. These workouts are some of the best bang-for-your-buck workouts when it comes to increasing your fitness level. Effective VO2 max training comes in many forms, but an athlete must train at an intensity that reaches their VO2 max. In other words, VO2 max intervals will cause an athlete to breathe as hard as possible. Example workouts include four to six intervals ridden at a power range of 110-120% of the athlete’s FTP and lasting anywhere from 3-6 minutes. Also, the rest between each interval should be equal to the interval length. If completing multiple sets of two or three intervals, the rest between sets should be twice as long as the interval. A key point to understand with these intervals is that oxygen consumption will increase throughout the duration of the intense interval – resulting in an athlete reaching and training their VO2 max. The power profile from an example workout is shown in figure 2.
Anaerobic capacity workouts
Are you constantly getting dropped during hill sprints in a race? Can you not quite bridge up to or create a breakaway group when you need to? It is probably due to a weakness in your anaerobic capacity. The aforementioned race scenarios demand intense muscle engagement that utilizes energy systems requiring little to zero oxygen, hence the term anaerobic.
Anaerobic efforts can oftentimes be the determining factor of who wins a road race, and can occur quite frequently during a criterium race. Training at anaerobic intensities can be rather taxing, and a great example workout includes multiple 30-second to 1-minute efforts at a power output that is at least greater than 121% of the rider’s FTP. Recovery time between the work intervals can be anywhere from 3 – 5 minutes. An example workout consisting of two sets of six, 30-second intervals within a 2-hour aerobic capacity ride is displayed in figure 3 below.
Sprint power (Neuromuscular)
Spectators at criterium races are often in awe of the true sprinters who are led out by their teammates to win the race. Their reactivity during the pivotal, final seconds of a race is explosive because a sprinter’s whole central nervous system and muscles have been conditioned to rapid fire when called upon. Tapping into your top sprint speed not only requires explosive power work at 100% maximal effort, it also requires sprint technique and coordination work. Sprint training can put athletes in a whole new mindset: training the coordination between instantaneously spinning their legs up to speed while pushing the pedals as forcefully as possible, and executing proper sprint form to unleash their greatest power potential. Therefore, top end sprint power is a function of training the central nervous system to handle sudden, intense outputs of maximum energy and power.
Effective on-the-bike workouts include short, 10-seconds or less, sprints at 100% effort, followed by a full recovery lasting 3 – 5 minutes long.
It takes finesse
The fundamentals behind power-based training have been outlined, but take note that it takes a bit of finesse and practice to become proficient at riding within small, defined power intervals. Mastering the ability to train and race with power can be as valuable as runners who have the ability to differentially pace themselves for the race distance at hand. So, become in-tune with your power capabilities and unlock an invaluable way to measure your progress, training, and race performances.
Katy Brown is a competitive cyclist on DNA Racing and enjoys crit and road racing. Her top performances have included being the first female from the University of Oklahoma to qualify and compete at the 2015 USAC Collegiate Road Nationals in Asheville, NC., winning the criterium and road race stages of the Joe Martin Stage Race, winning the state championship criterium and road race, and being the runner up in the state championship time trial. She continues to improve her cycling performance and hopes to be on an elite racing team in the near future.
In December 2015, she graduated Summa cum Laude with her Master’s of Science degree in Molecular and Anaerobic Microbiology from the University of Oklahoma where she was also in the top 5% of highest ranked graduate teachers.
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