Early this spring I suggested to a fellow master-aged cyclist that he should invest in a cycling power meter to improve his racing. His response to me was, “Why do I need a power meter? I already understand pace quite well”. He is a very talented rider, therefore, I did not dispute his position, but simply made the suggestion that pacing (knowing how hard to ride over a given period of time in a training or race situation) was only one small aspect of the benefits of a power meter. If I had more time, I would have explained to him, from my point of view, all of the benefits of training and racing with a power meter.
Essentially what you see above is my own power-duration graph based on the last three consecutive years of training on a road bike with a power meter. As you can see from the numbers at the top, I am basically in fitness maintenance mode in the current period. Hopefully over the winter months, by cycling on the trainer and XC skiing outdoors, I will see a gradual increase in chronic training load (CTL), acute training load (ATL) and a consistent negative training stress balance (TSB) of around -15 to -25; ramp rate increase of about 4-5 weekly until Spring 2017. Still with me?
What is of particular interest to me in the graph is not so much the relative consistency of numbers generated year over year (2014-2016), but rather the shape of the curves over a 60 minute period and what this graph reveals to me about my natural strengths and weaknesses as a masters-aged cyclist.
From a purely subjective point of view, I do not consider the current year (2016) to be an outstanding year in terms of personal cycling performance. My training volume is down about 20 percent over last year (2015). The graphs point out the effects of that decrease in training volume and the decrease in overall cycling performance quite clearly. Nevertheless, the current year was a much better year than 2014 (a lower training volume year).
Now that I have got all the preliminary explanations out of the way, I want to get to the real point of this post – what can I learn about myself from a power-duration chart such as this? The following summarizes what I have gleaned from this power-duration data:
- A natural ability to produce a considerable amount of power from 1-5 seconds. Road racers call this “snap” or “kick” – the ability to jump way from a group very quickly and or the ability to jump back on a fast moving peloton after being shelled out the back (dropped). A good snap may also get you out of trouble quickly if you commute by bicycle to school or work.
- A poor ability to produce a lot of power from approximately 5 seconds to 30 seconds. This the the power realm of true sprinters (and also punchy climbers). This is quite obvious to me as I get consistently dropped by the pure climbers (those with high power to weight ratios) – you know, the skinny guys and girls. The good news is that if the hill is long enough, a long climb such as one I am familiar with in Montana (16km climb; average grade 7.0 percent), I do possess the natural ability to slowly claw my way back to the group (a sharp increase in power from approximately 30 seconds to five minutes and a slower but continuing ability to hold considerable power up until the 1 hour mark). Although this particular graph does not reveal the entire power-duration curve of my long rides – the line gradually levels off and remains steady until approximately 2.5 hours where it falls off rapidly.
- To improve my 5 second to 30 second power output I simply need to attack the short, steep hills (and risk blowing up before the apex) or do all-out 30 second intervals in the big chain ring on the flats repeatedly until I am nearly dead. Better yet, I could lose 15 kg of body weight and, by doing so, greatly increase my power to weight ratio (assuming I do not lose too much muscle mass in the process). All of the aforementioned does not sound like a whole lot of fun, yet it is necessary if I want to improve as a cyclist. Besides, my motivation for riding is often spurred on by my enjoyment of good food.
- I would be a much better cyclist on the track in shorter events than as a long distance road rider (e.g. a Randonneur). Any cyclist that possesses a strong kick and good power output from 30 seconds to five minutes invariably does better on the track. An attempt at a one hour age-group distance challenge on the track would not be out of the question either. Again, good power output from 5 minutes to one hour is a good indicator that I still have some potential as both a 15km and a 40km age-group road time trialist. Whether or not I want to suffer through a training series of 2×20’s and another 40km TT is a question, perhaps, for another day.
- The power-duration graph points to the phenotype of an all-rounder cyclist with good time trialing ability. These type of riders do well in both one day and multi-day events. In terms of professional cycling, an all-rounder often does well both in the spring Classics and the major tours. Many of the unsung heroes of professional cycling (the domestics) fall into the phenotype of all-rounder. So do some Classic specialists and Grand Tour contenders.
- My power-duration graph, though similar in shape to other all-rounders, is unique to me only. What can I learn from this? Simple, train my weakness(s) and exploit my strength(s). For example, I need to stay away from junk miles (riding too hard to be a recovery ride and too easy to be of any positive training benefit) that so many cyclists (myself included) default to in order to get their weekly mileage in (we are all Strava addicts). I also need to avoid doing too many weekly three hour endurance rides, let alone the 5 hour rides that seem to be the status quo for road riders around here on the weekends. In other words, play to my inherent physiological strengths and not so much my weaknesses. Likewise, avoid letting my training partner(s) or the “group” dictate what my training will be for any given day. If the ride is too fast for my planned ride for that day – simply slow down, even if it means being dropped and riding solo home. Of course there is some wiggle room here, but too often I find myself either riding too fast or too slow in group training situations and my planned workout falls by the wayside. Although group rides can be a blast, solo training has a lot more going for it in terms of developing as a rider – just ask Eddy Merckx (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddy_Merckx).
- Don’t throw away my heart rate monitor – even if I am using a power meter. My heart rate data is just as important as my power data. Concepts such as pw:hr (power to heart rate ratio) and cardiac drift are very helpful cycling metrics to understand, especially if I truly want to improve as a cyclist.
I hope as a cyclist you may have learned something from my experience(s). Although I am no longer involved in competitive sport, I still continue to train to improve my overall fitness and skill as a master-aged cyclist. I wanted to write this article from a first person point of view to emphasize that, first and foremost, we are all unique as cyclists from a physiological point of view. What works for me in terms of a specific training regimen probably won’t work for you – even if you have a similar phenotype (the all-rounder).
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