Just Break the Rules

We are living in a world driven by data and a cycling world that is obsessed with it. Heart rate monitors, power meters and smart trainers have all been fantastic inventions, but at a cost - A lack of self awareness leading to an inability to self pace efforts, and hence poor training and riding.

We build all of our workouts in Training Peaks Workout Builder which allows us to set 'target' ranges for power, heart rate and cadence. For the purpose of this insights piece we will discuss the power numbers and why you should not treat them as RULES, or always aim for the highest number in the prescribed range.

Just because two riders have the same FTP does not mean that their other physiological markers will be the same. For example, two riders with exactly the same FTP can have significantly different sprint abilities. In the chart below we can see that for an effort of say 17 minutes (1000secs) the divergence of power output as a percentage of FTP for different riders is very small. However when we get down to sprints, the divergence is extremely significant. Unless you are following a very individualised training plan, like the ones we offer in our Platinum Coaching, it is very possible that your higher intensity intervals are set either too high or too low, depending on your unique physiology.

In my life before coaching my job relied heavily on statistics and quantitative analysis. One of the most useful illustrations of how statistics work is the classic bell curve, that has been used for many things from bucketing exam results to predicting (badly) financial risks, and estimating (again badly) maximum heart rates. If you are 'average' then calculating your maximum heart rate as 220-age works, with an acceptable degree of inaccuracy for around 68% of the population, which is illustrated by the hump area of the bell curve. However if you are in the high or low 14% or even more importantly the high and low 2% or 0.1% then an equation, based on the 'average' person is going to be very wrong. So think about that for a moment. Anything that is calculated on the basis of the general population is going to be wrong for 32% of people.

Bringing this back to cycling. Let's assume that I have 1000 riders with the same FTP and set them all a VO2Max workout at 115% of FTP. Using our bell curve as a rate of perceived effort guide, we can assume the following:

  1. 34% of riders would find the session slightly too hard.
  2. 34% of riders would find the session slightly too easy.
  3. 14% of riders would find the session much too hard and at least 2% of riders would probably fail to complete the session.
  4. 14% of riders would find the session much too easy and at least 2% would get limited training adaption from it as it would not cause enough stress.

You see we are dealing with human beings with different capabilities, different heart sizes, different lung sizes, different peaks power, different VO2Max and so on. So when you have a workout with a 'target' power range it really is only an approximate guideline. If you are lucky enough to be average, then it will probably work out fine but even then you will have an off day and a day when you can hit it out of the park for the same perceived effort. If you are a high performer or a poor performer at a particular fitness ability, the 'target' power numbers that you are using will be badly wrong. I understand that for many of you that are new to cycling, that data has been part of the experience from day one. For those of us who are old enough to remember our Dad buying us a 5 speed racer at 12 years on that we rode until we were 18, then we had to ride by how we felt on the day.

Smart trainers have proliferated the problem because in erg mode there is nowhere to go if you are having an under par day. Cycling is an endurance sport and I want to see nearly all workouts completed at whatever power you can do on the day. I don't want to see your cadence fall to zero and you to fail in a heap of sweat on the floor!

Personally I can tell in my warm up whether I am on a good day or bad day and I often cover my screen with my towel and do my sessions without looking at power. Often I am surprised by the results. For example a session this week prescribed 5 x 5 minute efforts at around 295w which should equate to a perceived effort of around 8/10. I did the workout blind, worked to a perceived effort of around 8/10, finished, grabbed my post workout shake and sat down to look at the results. 5 efforts all above 'target'. A good day.

Conversely a few days later I had a 3 x 15 minute threshold session at around 275w. I could tell from my warm up that the legs were heavy after two hard rides the days previously. Preparing for a 9 day stage race sometimes you just have to grind these workouts out, so again I covered my screen and rode at a perceived effort of 7/10. Three efforts, all below 'target' and each one deteriorating in quality. I was tired but I finished the session and banked the work. A poor day?

When you think about the adaptions that we are trying to encourage, you can see below how much cross over there is between the training zones. Increasing power means building more and better mitochondria in the muscles for example. This is achieved by training in all zones from 2-6 and most effectively in tempo and lactate threshold zones. So you can train at anywhere between 76% and 105% of FTP and get pretty much the same mitochondria adaptions! Your body is not going to adapt any better or worse because you worked out at a few watts harder or easier. If the perceived effort is the same then the physiological strain you are putting your body under is the same, despite what your power meter is saying. Do the right amount of work in the approximately the right areas and the power will come. I say it over and over and over again....

Also think about what you are doing tomorrow before trying to smash every workout through the 'target' ceiling. If you have a hard day tomorrow then don't turn your tempo session into a threshold session. The difference in physiological cost between workout at say 90% FTP and 100% FTP is massive, and you will be introducing increased training risk for very little potential reward. If you are coached then the risk/reward of every session should have been worked out for you and carefully periodised in a sensible plan. If you are self coached then this is an area that you can easily get wrong. Many believe that every session has to be nailed to elicit any gain in fitness, whereas all you are really doing is playing a high risk game for little reward.

Have a great weekend and remember, sometimes turn the screen to map and time only and ride it like an artist, not a scientist