Sunday, March 7, 2010

The cyclists' achilles heel

If you could collect as much data as you needed on every club or competitive cyclist, analyze it and determine what everyone's weakness is, what do you think it would be for most?

My hypothesis: "mid-range power". As I see it, most folks with little cycling background can easily ride for hours (think charity century rides). This is what we call endurance and is on the low-range of the power band. Most riders (especially those under 30) with some experience can accelerate to and maintain a high speed for a short time period. This is top end power which is achieved anaerobically. But that middle range where you need to sustain a hard effort for 60 minutes (CP60) to up to 3 hours (CP180) remains elusive for many. This power range is important even if you're doing 4+ hour rides as this is what will allow you to comfortably respond to changes in pace and incline.

Part of the problem may be mental -- you can feel it's hard but maybe you're not aware that you can actually sustain this for much longer than you think. As a result I think many people don't train at this level and don't develop the underlying physiological adaptations to make themselves stronger in this power band. It becomes a feedback loop which further reinforces the weakness. The other potential cause of this weakness is nutrition -- within the CP60 to CP180 power band you're burning a mix of carbohydrates and fat. The metabolically efficient will obtain a higher percentage of their energy from burning fat, while the inefficient will rapidly burn through their glycogen stores and then "hit the wall". If any of this sounds like you I'm going to give you a few suggestions on how to begin to address both sides of this.

Workouts are intentionally simple and designed for folks without heart rate monitors and/or power meters. One could make these more quantifiable if you had one or both.

Workout A:
After a thorough warmup, ride for 20 minutes at a comfortably hard intensity. Effort level similar to what you might do if you were pulling the group (except you maintain for 20 minutes). Recover and cooldown afterwards at an easy pace for another 20 minutes.

Workout B:
After a thorough warmup, attempt three 6-8 minute intervals at a slightly higher intensity than in workout A. Imagine you had to bridge the gap with another group of cyclists a half mile away but didn't want to go all out. Recover for 3 minutes in between. Can be done on a flat course or a slight incline. Recover and cooldown like in workout A.

What not to do:
I would generally recommend against max-effort hill repeats on a short/steep incline. I see too many folks doing this without having done multiple workouts similar to the ones above.

Nutrition Suggestions:
  • A simple fix is to make sure you're taking in enough carbs during your rides. A mix of energy gels (one every 45 minutes) plus sports drinks (20 - 40 oz per hour) should keep you going strong for miles and mile and miles. If you sweat more than the average rider and/or have issues with leg cramps, make sure to also supplement with extra electrolytes too.
  • The other solution is to become more metabolically efficient. It's a pretty advanced topic so I'll just give you a simple recipe to "try at home." Attempt a few 1.5-2 hr rides (on the trainer) with no carbs and at pace enough to cause a "bonk". Continue to hydrate with electrolytes and drink plenty of water. Don't experiment on a group ride as the last thing you want is to end up bonked and stranded 20 miles out. After a few of these rides, you'll notice that you'll be able to a) go longer b) at a higher intensity and c) without the bonk effect. At this point, reintroduce carbs and watch the magic. It would be akin to adding a high octane fuel to a sports car that has been running on regular -- immediately noticeable power increase.
Address both aspects (training and nutrition) and after a few weeks you'll find that you have more mid-range power and can easily hang on to the group/peloton even through the various surges and changes in incline. The key is to have enough excess power to comfortably respond to those surges aerobically rather than relying on fatigue inducing, top-end anaerobic power.

1 comment:

  1. Forgot to mention one thing for triathletes. CP60 to CP180 lines up with what you need for most triathlons. Your finishing time for most bike segments will be between 60 and 180 minutes, be it sprint, olympic, or half-iron distance. If you want to race well, you need to have strong mid-range power.

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