It's time to understand your riding strengths and development needs.

How to Make Next Season Your Best Ever - Part 4

Understanding Your Strengths & Development Needs

2019-12-23 08:43:00

So if you’ve made it this far then I’m hoping that you have by now taken some time away from the bike, set some great quality goals and are now feeling highly motivated for the season ahead.

If you want to improve and I know now that you do, then it’s time to measure your current performance levels and record a baseline that can reliably be used to track your improvements against as the season progresses. This means performance testing!

Many of you I know really struggle with doing early season performance tests because there’s the lingering fear that you’re not going to like what you see. This is often as a result of us not having given ourselves time for adequate recovery and therefore we can’t motivate ourselves to perform at a high intensity level. However this year will be different, you’ve done the right thing and are raring to go. 

I’m quite often asked if to perform fitness tests you should use heart rate and power meters for all tests. The answer is unequivocally yes if you are able to do so. Using both heart rate and power meters for testing and training will ensure that you can track the increases in power output and decreases in your heart rate as training progresses. This is the holy grail of any endurance training programme, having the ability to deliver more (power) for less cost (heart rate). 

Testing and training with a power meter & heart rate monitor will not only give you a current performance baseline, but also allows you to set trustworthy (so long as tests are conducted correctly) training zones. This is where using both types of measuring system really comes into it’s own and using a combination of Heart Rate (HR) and Power (PR) zones will ensure that your hard earned training time is spent developing the areas of your physiology specific to the needs of your event.

Without testing we are riding and training in the areas we think are about right but the reality is that only with training zones of both types can you be sure you’re getting maximum bang for your buck during those much sought out training hours. Trust me, make the valuable time you have for training count, you’ll not regret it in the longer term.

Training Zones
Power Profile

Soon some details on the test types you should consider conducting but first an important word about perceived effort. I often liken allowing us cyclists loose with a power and heart rate monitor before we know how we feel on the bike to a young child being taught to add up and subtract on a calculator before the mathematical process is understood. It’s not an ideal way to get started.

Having a solid understanding of how you feel in many different situations on the bike is essential, it’s an inner skill and feeling gained during the first few years of riding.  Understanding these feelings is also an essential part of a training programme but to progress effectively a combination of perceived effort, power data, heart rate data plus a more subjective analysis of each ride is required to really improve. And this is where I turn to the tests themselves.

Initially you will want to complete two types of test both of which can be completed on the turbo (home trainer) or out on the road if you’re lucky enough to have the terrain suitable to do so during the winter months. 

The two tests and rationale for putting yourself to the sword are as follows:

1. Functional Threshold Test (FTP) : 

Performing an FTP test will ultimately give you the data required to set both your power and heart rate training zones. As the season progresses it will also give you an excellent idea of how you can expect to perform at the higher levels of intensity you’re likely to experience during your events. British Cycling have an excellent Training Zone calculator where you can plug in your test results and obtain accurate training zone data.

There are several different ways of completing the test with the most common being to ride for 30 minutes at the highest level of intensity you can sustain for this period of time (after a 20 minute warm up). I often liken this to a time trial and in fact personally always watch a team time trial on YouTube when I do the test. At the end of the 30 minutes of riding you will take the average power from the final 20 minutes of riding and subtract 5% from the figure to give you your FTP. There’s some clever sports science behind this and it’s intention was to prevent us from having to ride for one full hour to derive our true Threshold Power (TP). It’s also important to note your average heart rate for this 20 minute period of time as this will be used to set your heart rate training zones.

A final point to note is your average cadence for the test as this can be used further down the road during training sessions. British Cycling provide an excellent FTP test protocol document that I’d recommend taking a look at when planning your testing. 

Threshold Testing

As with anything new, the more you carry out one of these tests the better you will be at pacing yourself. In fact it’s quite an art to make sure you don’t go off too hard at the beginning when that new found motivation kicks in. Try breaking the test down into 6 sections each of 5 mins in duration. At the end of each 5 mins ask yourself if you can sustain the current pace for the next 5 mins and then hold, reduce or even increase a little if you feel you’ve been conservative. When approaching the final 5 minutes I encourage riders to start to wind up the power with a few minutes remaining, emptying the tank so to speak to compensate for the gradual winding up of pace at the start of the test.

We see this in time trials during the Tour de France as the riders approach the final straight and give everything for the final minutes. I also find it really helpful to watch a time trial the day before I do a test as this allows me to visualise the start, middle and end of my test in the same way.

If you are asking yourself whether you should test inside or out there’s a good summary written on the British Cycling Web Site that will help you decide.

There are many different information sources published about the test format itself (along with Swift and Sufferfest tests) so I’ll not repeat it step by step here, I’d rather spend a few extra words to inspire you to do this test and not get overly hung up on what the initial number is. At this stage it's a baseline, something we can trust and work from as training progresses. Give the test your all and your season will be off to a flying start.

Heart Rate Training Zone Calculator

2. Power Profile Test : 

Whilst an FTP test allows setting of your training zones and gives you an excellent understanding of your ability to sustain an effort for 1 hour the power profile test goes to a slightly deeper level. It will tell you how your body responds to shorter efforts of 20 seconds, 1 minute & 5 minutes which doesn’t sound overly spectacular until you think about this in relation to your goals.

Let’s say that you have two primary goals for next season. The first is your annual pilgrimage to one of Europe’s great cycling destinations, the Alps, Dolomites etc and the second is to have a go at criterium racing for the first time. For your cycling trip which may entail an event like the Etape du Tour or La Marmotte the details gained from completing your FTP test will  have given you an excellent guide to how you are able to pace yourself on a climb using either heart rate or power using your training zones. You’ll know that if a climb like the Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps is 20km long then it’s most likely not going to be possible to ride it at your FTP because it’s going to take longer than 1 hour. You’ll use a combination of power, heart rate and feeling to pace yourself to ensure you reach the top of the climb in good shape and are able to repeat. So far so good.

A sustained climbing effort
Short sharp sprints

Now if we have a think about your second goal of the season the criterium racing. Let’s say you have an FTP of 295 that’s great and means that in your first season as a cat 4 racer you’ll more than hold your own in a bunch. The intersting part comes when you turn up for your first race and find that after a few laps you are no longer able to stay with the hard accelerations that happen as the bunch exits the bends. You find yourself moved down the field and then eventually out of the back, having to perform maximal efforts just to get back to the bunch only to find another hard acceleration see’s you having to do this again and again until you run out of energy, leaving you with no choice than to abandon the race.

All is not lost and this is where the knowledge gained from power profile testing will help you to achieve your goal. Performing a power profile test will tell you what your current ability is to ride at a a maximal intensity for 20 seconds, 1 minute and 5 minutes (others as well if we modify the test to be very specific to your goals). We find that when we analyse the top 3 riders race data in Strava (yes it’s great for this as well) that those hard accelerations out of the bends were consistently performed at 650 watts and towards the end of the race as things hotted up the power increased to over 800 watts to decide who ultimately won the race. Now this is interesting because you know that having performed a power profile test you were able to produce a maximum of 570 watts for 20 seconds which is clearly lower than the top 3 finishers in the race making it unlikely you’ll achieve your goal of finishing in the top 3.

Having this information is excellent news because as a direct result of completing a power profile test you know that to break into the top 3 which is your next seasons goal you must work further on developing your sustainable power output for periods of time between 15 - 25 seconds. In the race you survived the first few laps through pure motivation but as each lap went by the power faded.

Armed with this information either working with your coach or alone you are now able to create a very specific series of intervals to improve month by month your ability to increase your repeatable 20 second power output towards the elusive 650 watts mark. You will also improve your ability to resist the fatigue that builds after many of these hard efforts enabling you to stay with the group during the race (assuming your positioning is of a high quality but more on that another time). Knowing that the race is 25 laps long and that there are usually 30 or more hard accelerations is also helpful in planning a suitable set of intervals. The same is true of understanding your 5 minutes power capability if there’s a hill of this length in your weekend club ride that you find yourself getting dropped on you can apply the same principle here as well, once again tests and intervals can be made specific to your situation to make it as realistic as possible.

In time and with experience conducting frequent FTP and Power profile tests will really help you to understand what type of rider you are. You will be very aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a rider and as such can choose events that play to your strengths. It’s always worth remembering that we can’t all be great sprinters, or natural time trialists and knowing these numbers does categorically not mean you shouldn’t participate in events that you enjoy. What it does give us is the ability to know where you should focus your training efforts over the coming season based upon the unique demands of your events. Understanding your complete Power Profile and FTP test results is not only for racing either, having this information at your fingertips will also help you to train and become a stronger all round cyclist and take some of those local KOM’s from you cycling companions!