Improve Your Power
With the advent of affordable and accurate power meters, wattage is all the rage.
With the advent of affordable and accurate power meters, wattage is all the rage. Although power meters have been around for years, they’re finally starting to become standard equipment for competitive and recreational cyclists alike. Naturally, as well as unfortunately, simply having a power meter won’t make you any stronger, but when used wisely, you can make massive performance gains.
Many things can be looked at with a power meter, and with the manufacturers packing so many features and graphs into the software, it can become quite confusing. Let me simplify this for you. It doesn’t matter how much power you can generate in a sprint if you’re not there to bump elbows with the lead bunch and participate. Sit up all night and sharpen your elbows as much as you want, but what’s going to get you to the sprint with the lead bunch is your max sustainable power. Athletes with a high sustainable power and a good head win races, plain and simple. In many amateur races a split in the field occurs long before the sprint is in sight. This split is often dictated by terrain, weather conditions, or commonly a grueling pace set by strong teams and individual riders. This split is the most important part of the race for many riders in the peloton. Generally the riders that make the split won’t only have the max sustainable power required to stay with the lead bunch but also the ability to repeat this effort as the breakaway matures. This is the point where the data you collected with your power meter can become extremely valuable.
Power meters and the data they collect are just as useful in racing as during training. Outside of knowing what level of power you’re able to produce and how long you can sustain that power before you fall apart, the data collected can provide invaluable information for directing your training. This is particularly true when it comes to increasing your max sustainable power (the power you need to make it into the breakaway or through the winning selection), your max repeatable power (the power you need to handle or initiate surges), and your sprint power. The first step is dissecting race or strenuous group ride files and noting the power required at key points (splits, hills, breaks, sprints, etc.) or more generally, the physiological demands of the event These demands are relatively easy to isolate if you’re placing markers at key points while racing. This is assuming you can see straight enough to press the correct buttons.
What you’re looking for in past files are the areas where you ran into difficulty or where the split occurred. Early on in the race these splits will more often be forced by a consistent high pace rather than the explosive efforts required for smaller breakaways, so what you’re looking for in the files are the longer periods of higher power outputs. Identify the power you needed to produce while you were holding the pace, then make note of how long you were able to hold that power before failing to make the split. If you survived the first split but fell off the pace in the second or even third surge, then you need to be looking at the repeatability of the efforts as well as the sustainable power required in each effort.
Increasing Maximum Sustainable Power
In order to increase the sustainable power you can produce as well as your ability to repeat those efforts, you first need to identify your lactate threshold (LT) power. This can be obtained through laboratory testing or through a couple, 3-mile time trial efforts. Most experienced cyclists can complete a 3 mile time trial at an average power that’s about 10% above their lactate threshold power.
Once establishing your LT power you’re ready to get to work. The majority of training time should be focused on increasing the sustainable power (LT power). Fortunately, intervals at or slightly below your LT power are relatively easy to complete when compared to max intensity work. The initial goal should be to increase the time spent in your LT power zone through the completion of multiple intervals (3-4) intervals. Depending on your fitness, a couple sets might be necessary to increase the total time spent on LT work. For less experienced riders, LT work might need to start out at 8-10 min efforts before progressing into the longer duration 15-20 minute efforts. The goal is to accumulate more work time, partitioned into longer work intervals and as a result, increase your sustainable power (LT power). That is if proper structure and rest is incorporated allowing the body to recover, adapt, and overcompensate.
Developing High-Intensity Repeatable Power
After improving your sustainable power to the point where the splits are the ‘make it’ rather than the ‘break it’ point of your ride, it’s time to look at the finish line. If a bunch sprint isn’t your cup of tea, then it might be best to thin out the pack a bit or establish yourself and a few choice riders into a breakaway before approaching the line. This is where you’re going to need to be able to generate repeatable power at a level much higher than your LT training has prepared you for. This is where max intensity VO2 work comes into play.
In order to provide enough stimuli for VO2 adaptation to occur, a max effort is required during every VO2 interval, but that max effort needs to be tailored accordingly. Max intensity workouts of equal interval duration and rest (1:1 ratio), allowing for a relatively full recovery will successfully increase VO2 max power. Interval and rest durations of 3-5 min should be sufficient in length. Workouts weighted more heavily on the interval side (compared to the rest side), will improve the repeatability of maximal efforts and the tolerance of high levels of lactic acid for the repeated efforts you might find necessary to establish a favorable break.
Finish it Off Right
If you’re breakaway attempts are either unsuccessful or if you’re the type of rider who would rather save your efforts for the finish line sprint, you need to be prepared. Positioning and the correct lead out is extremely important, but when that wheel in front of you starts to fade or when it’s time for you to come around you’re going to need the legs to do it. Every bit of energy is precious, so make sure your technique is efficient. Lower intensity training sprints focusing on form, rather than power production, will keep you from getting sloppy while propelling yourself towards the line. To increase the power you’re able to generate at high speeds, short sprint efforts 10-20 seconds in duration starting from speeds close to that of a normal race speed will help you generate power at high speeds (you may need to sprint downhill to accomplish this). Allowing for full recovery between each interval is necessary in these sprint efforts; 5-8 min should do the trick. Sprint intervals from a slower starting point (12-15 mph) will help you develop the acceleration necessary to start being a real threat for sprint victories.
We’ve established you need to be in the final sprint if you’re going to win races but what if you’re one of those individuals that chose parents with poor fast twitch genetics? The answer is easy: don’t leave it up to a sprint. Increasing sustainable power is as important on the climb as it is on the flats. When looking at inclines, your main goal should be to increase your sustainable power to weight ratio. For those bigger riders with talents that sparkle on level ground the benefit comes from having a high ratio of sustainable power to frontal surface area. Either way you cut it, a high sustainable power is the common thread for all winning cyclists. Knowing a few good tricks won’t hurt either.
Joshua D. Powers is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and coached Kevin Mahaney’s before and during his successful Destination Cycling Tour de France Challenge. To find out what CTS can do for you, visit www.trainright.com.