Making Gains: Tips for Expert Cyclists

Russell-Stevenson-2.pngBy Russell Stevenson

I’ve been asked to help some of our more experienced Obliteride riders to train and prepare for this summer’s event. With so many varying abilities, this article is focused on those who own a Power Meter or at least track and use some kind of Zone Training. Owning a Power Meter is by no means everyone’s answer to making gains, but for this purpose I will help explain how to use its information constructively.

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Power to Weight Ratio

Being successful, winning a race or breaking a PR in cycling has a lot to do with your power to weight ratio or “watts per kilogram.” It’s a pretty simple formula. Power equals the amount of work divided by time in simple terms, and on a bicycle that’s how hard you pedal multiplied by how fast you pedal. So training with “watts” or “power” is essentially measuring how much work you are producing. You propel your body (and bike) down the road battling all these counter forces. The biggest counter force is you, your mass. Simply put, if you decrease your mass and increase your wattage, you will go faster. This is the objective throughout all sports. If the bat swings faster (more power), the ball goes farther. A lighter race car means the car can accelerate quicker. A lighter bike can mean a rider moves faster uphill, all things being equal. These are all examples of the “watts to kilogram” principal.

(We won’t go too much into the “weight” side of the equation here, but in addition to making your bike lighter, being at the right cycling weight is key. There are two published training plans by Hunter Allen for Bicycling Magazine to help you get to your ideal cycling weight).

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Functional Threshold Power

So what can we produce and for how long? That’s the question we’re all trying to answer. We need to identify some intensity levels and limits for ourselves before reaching for some far out wattage numbers. There is a sustainable output that applies to each individual athlete called the Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

FTP is the amount of wattage a rider can produce for one hour without fatigue. This is the simplest way to look at and gauge someone’s cycling ability. FTP is relevant to nearly all cyclists. Where it is less important is within the very short sprint disciplines, such as track or BMX where events are 200-1200m. But for the vast majority, knowing your FTP is very important.

Here’s a quick and easy way to calculate your FTP:

20 minute Time Trial average wattage X .95 = FTP.

Here’s an example: your 20 min average power is 300w. Less 5% = 285w FTP.

Once you have an FTP number you can begin to build your training levels around it.

Why do we use a 20 min TT figure as opposed to 60 min? While FTP is really your 60 min best wattage for a time trial, unfortunately completing a 60 min time trial isn’t feasible for many of us. Using the 20 min test and deducting 5% is much easier, and is accurate within a few percentage points. Of course, if you do have power numbers from a 60 min TT such as from a race, that’s even better.

But let’s back up a little. 300w could be good, or it could be bad. This depends on who’s doing the work and what they weigh. If Tony Martin (the current TT World Champion) produced 300w for 1h at his weight (I’m guessing around 82 kg or 180 lbs), he would only be producing 3.6-3.7 watts per kilogram (w/kg).

This calculation is: 300w / 82 kg = 3.65 watts per kilogram

Is this good? Not at his level. For men, 3.6 w/kg is about on par with a strong Cat 3 road racer of the same weight. So you can see, just focusing on the wattage numbers isn’t the entire story.

Let’s keep going…

So we have an FTP now. We know what our longer duration abilities are. But when a rider races mostly criteriums and cyclocross races and hardly ever competes in Time Trials or longer road races, is FTP important? Yes! Your FTP is the starting point around which you will base your future training.

Have you ever gone out and just HAMMERED as hard as you can go…and then realized after just 1 min, “Ok, this can’t be maintained and I’ll have to slow down?” This is the relationship between “strain” and “intensity” within your abilities. The harder you go (strain), the shorter you can maintain that effort. There are gigabytes of data on the subject, most of which are covered in Hunter Allen’s book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, but the bottom line is that the more intense the effort, the shorter you can hold it. Conversely, the less intense the effort, the longer you can maintain it.

This is again where your FTP comes into the picture. At FTP we call this effort 100%. Efforts below FTP are sustainable for longer and longer periods of time as the intensity decreases away from FTP. 120% of FTP is hard but maintainable for shorter than an hour.

Power Training Levels

Now that we have identified what 100% means in terms of wattage and that we can feasibly sustain this for one hour, how much harder can we go and for how long? These power training levels and their corresponding time durations were developed by Dr. Andrew R. Coggan to help answer this question:

Level 1: 55% of FTP – Sustainable for the expected life span of most humans at 65-85 years. You could almost ride around the globe until you die at this pace. This is often referred to as Recovery.

Level 2: 56-75% of FTP – 2.5 hours to 14 days. This is an easy pace, slightly over Recovery but still working. This is often referred to as Endurance. The upper limit here is admittedly somewhat arbitrary but assumes that there is little to no taxation on the rider and that they could ride continuously for many days as long as they had proper fuel.

Level 3: 76-90% of FTP – 30 minutes to eight hours. We call this Tempo or your “Sweet Spot.” This is where most of us live, be it in a road race, MTB race or even criterium. Some of the best ultra distance MTB riders can sustain this output for seven to ten hours without rapid fatigue. Tour riders also can put in some seven-hour days that average 85% of FTP. If the aerobic system is well trained and the athlete is fueled, this can be sustained for several hours.

Level 4: 91-105% of FTP – 10 to 60 minutes. This is your FTP output. Many call this “Threshold”, “LT”, or “AT”. However you name it, this is and should be your mark of ability.

Level 5: 106-120% of FTP – Three to eight minutes. This is now tapping into your body’s VO2max (total amount of oxygen you can take in). There is O2 usage but it’s limited. VO2max is an athlete’s maximal oxygen uptake, or maximal aerobic uptake. VO2max is reached when an athlete’s O2 consumption reaches its peak or remains steady despite an increase in workload. This number is part genetic but also very trainable. The easiest way to increase your VO2max is to lower your body weight while increasing power.

Level 6: 121-150% of FTP – 30 sec to two minutes. You are now exceeding your FTP and VO2max into what’s termed your Anaerobic Capacity. This is when you produce energy without oxygen. Anaerobic exercise induces anaerobic metabolism, which is separate from our day-to-day aerobic (with O2) system. The anaerobic system can only sustain itself for short time limits because it’s burning glucose and glycogen stored within the muscle (anaerobic glycolysis). This storage can’t be replenished fast enough at this accelerated rate and thus lactate is produced as a byproduct, which can be a limiter in extreme amounts. I should also mention that in this state you use mostly Type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fiber. These muscle fibers fatigue much more quickly than Type 1.

Level 7: 150+% of FTP – Five to 15 seconds. Lastly, your Neuromuscular Power. This is what your muscle can produce maximally, your max sprint.

These power levels represent a rider’s real world capabilities. Can you push beyond each time range? Maybe – each athlete is gifted in his or her own right. But even if you surpass these durations, remember that as you cross these lines, one system will blend into the next and so on. It’s not as if once you leave 100% of FTP, stepping into your VO2max system, that your FTP system immediately shuts off.  All these systems work synergistically, one assisting the other. A higher FTP output will bring your Level 3 Tempo output up as well. A higher VO2Max will increase your FTP, and so on.

Now that we’ve covered the nuts and bolts of FTP, in my next article I’ll provide specific tips to help you make even more gains.

About Russell Stevenson

Russell Stevenson is a USAC Level 2 coach, NASM certified personal trainer and holds numerous bike fitting certifications. With several years of experience in road, cyclocross and mountain bike training and racing, Russell excels in outdoor workshops and skills clinics. Russell is the current Master’s National Champion and Master’s World Champion in Cyclocross (35+).

The legal stuff: The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

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