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How to win the national road championships...

What’s more important, how many watts you can produce or when you produce them? An interesting insight to planning and racing.

After coaching hundreds of athletes to improve their performance on the bike and looking at

thousands of training files, one starts to see some very interesting trends. Something I feel that often gets missed in power analysis, is the “when” as opposed to the “how much” power an athlete produces. Let’s say we had 100 cyclists. We might have 50% of them who can warm up and then hold a power of 350w or above for 5 minutes. However if we have the same group, give them 2 hours at 250w, 5 sprints for 30s then 10 minutes at 300 watts first. We might find that only 20% of the 100 cyclist can now hold that same interval of 350w for 5 minutes. What does this tell us? People hold lower wattages when they’re more fatigued. “No kidding, that’s obvious!” You might say. “Of course people hold lower wattage when they’re fatigued.” So with that in mind, let’s have a look at some data...

Below are two power graphs from Smart Coaching athlete Joe Cooper. The graphs show the 2013 elite road race championships where he placed 19th. The second is the 2015 elite road race on the same course which Joe won. It was a huge improvement in performance. The interesting thing here is that Joe won the elite TT in 2013 and was second in 2015 with similar power numbers, so he had good form both years and his Threshold power over 60 minutes was almost exactly the same. So what was the difference in the road race? How did he go from 19th to 1st?

Have a look over the graph below. The elite nationals course has one obvious hill where you can see the power spike on each lap. Look at the power trend in 2013 verse 2015. Use the 300w marker on the right as a reference point along the graph when comparing each years power.

Elite Nationals Road Race January 2013

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Most of the peak power and efforts were in the middle of this race. Then in the last 3-4 laps when, it all happened, the spikes in power on the hill are getting lower (not by choice) when they needed to be higher be make the selection. From the midway point in the race there is a general downward trend in power. In the last 30min the legs where gone. Joe was really just hanging onto the group and the bunch was splintering with time gaps everywhere as the front riders rode away. Joe was the second to last rider that finished.

Elite Nationals Road Race January 2015 (same course)

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In this years elite nationals the spikes in power on the hill are steady all the way through the race compared the 2 years ago. The last two hills are ridden a little easier because Joe was in a breakaway. The breakaway was established at 4 hours 30 minutes on the graph. After this point there was a steady hard effort right to the finish. If you look across the line of power you can see that the highest power was achieved in the last 3rd of the race. There is an overall “upward trend in power”. In 2013, two years earlier, Joe was simply not able to ride like that. To give you an idea in the last hour of elite nationals in 2013 average power was 230w and in 2015 it was 306. There was more motivation in riding for the win of course, but also a massive difference in power and position, with 19th in 2013 as opposed to 1st in 2015. In 2013 there was just nothing left in the legs. This year there was plenty (relatively speaking!).

So how does one go from 19th to 1st in 2 years with all the same peak power numbers? How can this be possible?

Programme prescription

The overriding factor that made the difference in these two performances, was not one off “peak power” through each time interval, but the repeatability of power through each time interval. You will often find an exponential drop off in repeatability over any given time frame and effort. As a simple example; if an athlete is to do a set of 10 times 8 minute hill repetitions at 300w, they might get to 6 and start dropping power. They may also lose technique, cadence may drop, they may stand and surge during the climb to maintain speed and then crest hard to the top of the hill to try and maintain the same time and average power to the top. These are the tell tale signs that you’re at your limit. Resist them! Ride the same way each on every repetition. Smooth and steady. Until the legs simply can’t maintain the power. An improvement in strength endurance - the ability to repeat a hard effort over and over again, like we have seen here with Joe, is not necessarily climbing the hill any faster, but simply repeating the hill more times without the same drop in performance, technique or fatigue setting in.

If you can’t hang with the bunch in the first place, then you’re going to have to work on climbing SPEED as well! It just depends where the gaps are in your performance. You probably already have a good idea of what you need to work on. The key is to be specific. Here is the three step process to follow and help you plan and improve your ability to repeat an effort.

Step 1 - What needs to improve, based on where you’re at and the event/s your peaking for?

Look at the event your training for. What sort of intervals are there likely to be? Cross winds made up of longer intervals. Short hills, etc. What are your tactics for the race? If you’re preparing for a race with many 2 minute climbs, then you need good strength endurance over 2 minutes. Attacking on a 2 minute climb, may also be a good tactic!

Let’s keep it simple. Say you’re training for a 120km event with a lot of 2 minute hills in it...

Step 2 - Come up with a specific test session.

Test your repeatability over the important time interval/s. Try a set of 10 x 2 minute hill reps with 2 minutes recovery, at the hardest sustainable effort you can maintain for the session. Just see how you go the first time you do it. Did you “hit the wall” after 5 or finish the 10th feeling like you could have gone harder or done more? Was there a drop off or was the power steady throughout? What was the average power over all 10 compared to a one off, all out effort? Once you’ve completed the session once, you’ll have something to compare it to. You’ll then be able to adjust the pacing and the number of efforts etc. You may also add in something before the session to add “pre fatigue”. Once you have the session nailed and can then repeat the same session, it will be very obvious if you’re improving. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about!

Step 3 - Design the plan around the event and track the progress against the test sessions as well as any other markers.

Design a programme around improving specifically for the event or events you would like to train for. Your test set itself will be a key session, but there will be many other elements to the event and possibly other test sets you’ll need to do in order to track progress and further improve performance.

Please note there is a lot more detail that can be taken out of this case, which is outside the scope of this article. The key here is to understand the importance measuring repeatability of an effort many times, as opposed to simply looking at peak power over each time frame. In my opinion, this has a much greater effect on performance (the result) than producing a high power once. Apart from a TT prologue of course!

Keep things simple. In fact the simpler you can keep it, the better. Please contact me for any more information on becoming the best you can be. The harder you think, the faster you go!

Silas Cullen is the founder of “Smart Coaching Limited” an ever evolving training system designed to enable maximum performance improvement, for time spent training. Silas has a proven track record of giving anyone with the desire, the tools to improve without limits. For all enquiries please email info@smartcoaching.org or visit www.smartcoaching.org We look forward to hearing from you!