Cycling Fitness & Performance: Training is Testing – Performance is Testing
- How to measure Cycling Fitness & Performance
- Power-based Training and its Practical Utility
- Yesterday’s training – Limitations of HR-based training
- Laboratory Testing: Sizzle, sizzle, but Where’s the Beef?
1. How to measure Cycling Fitness & Performance
Cycling legend Lance Armstrong said his workout results made him certain that he would finish on top.
“I knew I was ready to win the tour,” he said. “If I stepped on the scale in the morning and it said a certain weight and the power output was where it was supposed to be when I tested at the end of the day, it was over. Nobody close.”
This article will discuss how the use of a power-meter is the most effective way to measure, monitor, and assess cycling fitness, training, and pacing.
A power-meter tells you exactly how much power (watts) you are generating at any moment and for any particular period of time. Measuring your power output is a direct and objective measurement of cycling performance. A power-meter is in effect a veritable testing laboratory.
Prior to the introduction of power-meter technology and its ability to succinctly measure fitness, cycling performance was more difficult to effectively measure. Cycling’s inherent variables of wind, road surface, grade, drafting, etc, meant that speed for a given distance was not a useful fitness metric, as it can be for other endurance sports like swimming and running.
In the absence of a tool to directly measure cycling power output, performance cyclists and fitness enthusiasts resorted to what was then the next best option available, the use of heart rate monitors. Other riders included laboratory testing as an adjunct to their HR training methods, though such testing was/is expensive and often not particularly relevant.
However, with the advent of power-meter technology, cyclists now have at their fingertips a straightforward and practical way to directly measure fitness and performance, as well as to monitor daily training.
2. Power-based Training and its Practical Utility
What is my Fitness – What we all want to Know!
Cycling power is measured in watts. You might think of lifting weights as an analogy, where you can lift X amount of weight for Y repetitions. It is pretty simple to figure out how many times you can bench-press 50 pounds, and one does not need to spend time and money go to a lab or monitor heart rate to do so – it would be pretty silly actually.
Using our analogy, with a power-meter, a rider of any ability can quickly discern how many watts he/she can generate for a particular duration, be it 5 seconds, 3 minutes, 10 minutes, 60 minutes, or several hours.
At M2 Revolution, our indoor cycles accurately measure power output so that riders of every ability can understand their fitness and enjoy seeing it measurably improve on a weekly basis, both in class and out on the roads.
So you want to ride in the first pack over the mountain-tops in the Tour de France? Fine, but be prepared to generate 3x your bodyweight in watts. Most of us won’t have this experience, but it is pretty cool to have a keen perspective on what professional riders can do.
On a more practical level it is satisfying to have an objective and easily obtained fitness measurement for oneself at different points in time. Am I stronger for this year’s race? Can I push the same or more watts than I did 5 years ago? What are my relative strengths for different durations? Am I a better sprinter, middle distance, or long distance?
Human nature being what it is, it also becomes a lot of fun and motivating to compare yourself to your peers.
We all know intuitively that an optimal pace for covering a particular distance is one that is largely steady and sustainable. However, the question of just what is that pace is one that has long bedeviled cyclists and triathletes.
A power-meter eliminates pacing guesswork and as such represents one of its greatest assets. Your daily training will be make it very clear what your fitness is and what your optimal pacing should be for a particular duration.
Practicing power-based training provides a rider with the knowledge and confidence of what an appropriate pace is for optimal performance.
How much power = what pace can I sustain for:
- 5sec, 1min, 10min, 30min, 60 min
- 30min climb at the end of a 3hr road race or training ride with your buddies
- ½ Ironman
3. Yesterday’s TrainingMethods – Limitations of HR-based training
While there still can be a place for HR-based training methods and laboratory testing, their usefulness is largely supplanted with the availability of power-meters to neatly, accurately, and directly measure your cycling fitness.
The introduction of Heart Rate Monitors at the end of the 80s did represent a new and improved way to monitor cycling training. Where previously riders had to rely on a vague sense of effort, riders now had a tool which although it did not measure your actual power/work effort, it could at least measure your body’s reaction to varying levels of effort, albeit undefined efforts.
Although HR-based training was a quantum leap forward relative to the go-by-feel method, there are important limitations to HR training and its effectiveness.
Limitations of HRM training:
HR an indirect measurement
It is important to understand that HR is not a measurement of your work output – it does not measure pace or power output. Instead, it is a measurement of your HR’s response to physical effort, though absent a power-meter one does not know what that effort is.
On the other hand, a power meter is directly measuring your work output – watts. Thus, a rider can see in exact terms just what his/her work output is at any moment, for any segment of a ride, and for any particular route. As such a rider’s fitness can be quantified in objective terms.
Heart Rate Drift (HRD)
Heart rate drift refers to the tendency of HR to continue to drift up over time despite there being no increase in pace or power output. The degree of HRD increases even more so as exercise continues beyond an hour, thus making HR an increasingly unreliable training metric as duration increases.
As an example, a rider might think that he/she is riding at an even pace by maintaining a steady HR. However, by monitoring power output for this “even-pace” HR-based ride, you would quickly discover that you were actually losing power/pace in order to maintain a steady HR.
Because of HRD, the longer the ride or interval, the less reliable is HR for effectively monitoring pace/power/effort, and the more difficult it is for the rider to practice an optimal pace.
Optimal pacing should see a largely even and sustainable power output, and using HR as your intensity metric makes optimal pacing a challenge. Thus, riders training for events like Ironman will find HR to be of limited usefulness for their longer training sessions.
By using a power-meter, optimal pacing is straightforward – simply ride at that optimal power output corresponding to the anticipated duration of the ride.
HR’s delayed response
Another limitation of HR-based training is its delayed response to a particular level of effort. A change is pace/power is not immediately reflected by HR, such that HR is often does not reflect your actual effort.
This delayed HR response to effort is especially noted in the beginning of an interval or ride. Thus, what riders who train with power for the first time quickly discover is that they almost always ride too hard at the beginning of an interval or ride, and thus do not pace themselves for optimal performance.
For shorter intervals, HR will often have no relevance whatsoever to a rider’s work effort.
On the other hand, using power one can measure exact work output at every moment pace accordingly, be it a 1min interval or a 60min time-trial.
HR subject to external influences
Besides cardiac drift, HR can be affected by factors other than your work effort and fitness. Heat, hydration, excitement, sleep quality are all external factors that can affect HR and which do not relate to your physical effort.
On the other hand, power output is straightforward. The wattage numbers are what they are – an objective and direct measurement of your actual work effort at any moment in time.
4. Laboratory Testing: Sizzle, sizzle, but Where’s the Beef?
I am reminded of the 80s music hit by Thomas Dolby and its refrain “she blinded me by science, SCIENCE!”
Where objective and relevant fitness numbers are more easily and accurately obtained with a straightforward workout protocol using a power-meter, there really is no need for a cyclist to go to overly complicate the basic task of measuring fitness (expensive lab tests, gas masks, drawing blood, white jacket technicians).
Despite being marketed as science-based training, laboratory testing often uses methods and tests whose results shed limited light on performance capability and optimal training. Even more curious is that much of the testing is still geared to using HR training methods, despite the many limitations of such training outlined above, and where power-based training is much more “cutting edge”, not to mention more relevant.
I suppose that the lab atmosphere and equipment does qualify as “scientific”, it’s just that the tests throw globs of bells and whistles on a simple task, and yet the results too often fall into the “gee whiz” category of usefulness.
Two of the more common lab tests are VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold Testing.
VO2 Max Testing – $175-$250
This test measures that maximum amount of oxygen a rider can utilize. VO2 max may or may not give a partial indication of athletic potential – there are many other factors that influence performance.
As an example, for many years the world record for the marathon was held by Australian Derek Clayton, yet who possessed a modest VO2 max.
A VO2 max test can give some insight into HR training zones (with all of their inherent limitations), but will give you little perspective on the most important cycling fitness metric – sustainable power for a particular period of time.
At $175-$250 per test, a rider might ask what the value is of a test that provides such limited utility. I advise my clients to do this test if they have money to spare, enjoy looking at numbers, and do not mind if the numbers are not particularly instructive.
Lactate Threshold Testing – $150-$200
This test measures changes in blood lactate at varying levels of intensity and seeks to outline heart rate training zones, again with all of their limitations. Depending upon the test protocol, LT testing can be a useful way to outline more relevant power training zones.
The drawbacks to Lactate Threshold Testing are the following:
- InvasiveLT testing often involves repeated drawing of blood during the exercise test.
- AccuracyWith multiple blood draws, the veracity of the data can often be circumspect.
Protocol RelevanceMany times the testing protocol involves a quick ramping up of intensity. This rapid-fire protocol provides very limited, to the point of useless, perspective on sustainable power, and hence, appropriate power-training zones.Riders that attempt to outline power-based training zones on the basis of this common LT ramp testing protocol often are quick to discover that the zones are neither accurate nor useful.
In effect, the usefulness of the steep ramp test is largely limited to repeating and comparing this same unnecessarily complicated test at a later date. Hmm.
Unnecessarily ComplicatedWant to know your LT heart rate and power? A simple field test time-trial can be done on the roads using a power-meter or on an indoor cycle that measures power output such as we have at M2 Revolution.A rider will quickly, easily, and accurately ascertain sustainable power and HR and thus be able to outline appropriate training intensities.
Practical, accurate, cost effective, and easily repeated fitness tests.