By Stephen Cheung and Tim Cusick
Last week’s article focused on the mechanics of testing, outlining how to go about achieving a 5 s, 1 min, 5 min, and 20 min maximal efforts. Now it’s time to look a bit deeper about what it actually means.
The first thing to do is to examine your overall power profile from a broad perspective. To do this, you need the results of the maximal effort tests at the four durations we discussed previously. As a reminder, those durations were: 5 s, 1 min, 5 min, and FTP (60 min, extrapolated as 95% of your 20 min effort). In my case, below are the values that I achieved in October at Peaks Coaching Group’s Fall Camp, along with the peak values achieved right around New Year’s Day, during a winter testing week.
As context, the latter tests were done after a full 3 months of CX racing ending December 5, after which I took time completely off the bike and any exercise at all until Boxing Day, except for a couple days of snowboarding. This constituted my first full break from cycling in many years.
As reference, the rankings go, from lowest to highest, as follows: Untrained, Fair, Moderate, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Exceptional, World Class. Note that the rankings are for the best performances across EACH duration individually (e.g., 5 s rankings are based on top track sprinters, FTP on top time trialists, etc.), rather than taking one single world-class rider and looking at their profile across all four durations.
The basic interpretation of such a profile, which is essentially a mostly flat pattern across the four durations, is that I’m a decent all-arounder with no particularly huge strengths or huge limits. In reviewing my racing history on both road and CX, that’s a fair overall assessment. In my Master’s category, I’m competitive in that I rarely get dropped, but I’m almost never on the podium either in terms of being able to ride my competitors off my wheel or make attacks that stick. In our club hammer rides and races, I can usually punch above my weight for the bulk of the race, but get in trouble when the final hammer drops.
The other interpretation is that most non-elite athletes tend to exhibit this horizontal profile. That is because the training is fairly non-specific, in that we try to tackle a little bit of everything and do not train or race any specific area enough. Therefore, our natural abilities may not really get a chance to reveal themselves.
Great, Now What?
The Power Profile provides one critical piece of the overall puzzle into who we are as cyclists. It tells us where we stand in terms of our basic abilities right now. This is equivalent to the shopping mall map with the big red dot saying “You Are Here!”
To use it properly, however, the next step is to match your current abilities to where you want to be this coming season. That is, you need to find your final destination on that map, and then plan your path accordingly.
This is where you need to actually analyze the races or events that you want to do the best in. Not just when they are in terms of planning to peak for them, but what are the actual physical demands in order to excel? Here are two examples:
1. I only do a few road races a year now, and above all in importance is our 60 km Niagara Classic road race in mid-May. Organized by my club and with the starting line 5 km from home, it is held on a 12 km circuit that is flat to undulating, but each lap ends with a hard 500 m ascent up a 15-17% climb. Each year, I’m completely comfortable riding in the pack and can handily maneuver myself to be about 5th wheel at the base. However, despite averaging >350 W for 2 min, I still end up falling through the pack to about 30-40th spot by the top. End message is that, to improve my placing, I need to train to increase my 2 min wattage significantly.
2. In cyclocross, I typically ended up about 7-11th out of 40 riders or so, about 1.5 – 2 min behind the winner in the 40 min race. That’s a lot of pure time to make up, nearly 20 s per lap. In addition, CX is marked by repeated 5-10 s bursts of very high power outputs from a low cadence, repeated over and over with short recovery of very low power output or coasting.
For Stephen to position himself to achieve his goals of podium performance, his Power Profile gives us some key insight, some of which is obvious, some a little more obscure. It is important to note, that when using the power profile as the “diagnosis” to your training, the actual rankings of the categories against all other athletes is not as important as comparing your “system ranking” against themselves. Regardless of how Stephen “ranked” against others, his power profile suggests a limiter in the anaerobic capacity area.
The first observation is his 1 minute power, indicative of his anaerobic capacity, is lower than the other systems measured and suggests a limiter. Whereas this is true and we will use this as our first assumption, there are some other observations to be made. His 5 minute VO2Max numbers are a good bit higher than his 20 minute Functioning Power Threshold (FTP) Test and this suggests a second issue, his FTP is “underdeveloped” and has more potential to grow then he might guess (and if focused on is actually more likely to lead to success).
To create Stephen’s “map” we need to implement what we learned over time and as part of a periodized plan. During the winter months Foundation Training Phase he should make FTP (increasing his threshold) his Primary Fitness Focus. The best way to do this in the Foundation Phase is a steady dose of Sweet Spot / Sub Threshold intervals (can build up to 2 – 3 times per week, if not more) of 20 minutes or more. Sweet Spot Intervals are intervals completed at 88%-92% of his FTP and typically done as 2 x 20 minute efforts with 5 minutes of rest in-between. These will raise his threshold by raising it from “below” and will avoid training at too much intensity for this phase.
With the FTP being targeted as the Primary Fitness Focus, we need to target Stephen’s anaerobic capacity as the Secondary Fitness Focus. I would suggest one day of working on anaerobic power every other week as we don’t want to push too much intensity through the winter and make a “January Star”.
Why focus on his FTP first? Two reasons; First, his VO2Max suggests there is room to grow there and FTP is the key indicator of success in road racing and cross. I get a lot of athletes who believe they are being “dropped” because of the high number of surges and “strength of surges” that really is a lack of threshold (review his fatigue profile below and you will see that he is actually pretty resistant to fatigue).
We need to make more of Stephen’s “time at race pace” occur below his threshold. This will make a significant improvement in his ability to respond to moves and attacks and not get popped. Second, improving his FTP in the winter will give us more fitness and sustainable power to work on his anaerobic capacity in the spring training phase. He will see a correlation of the improved FTP and the “number of anaerobic intervals” he can do.
A sample workout, based on Stephen’s 228 watt current FTP is, after warming up well, complete 2 x 20 minute intervals at 88%-92% of his FTP or 201 – 210 watts, with 5 minutes rest in-between the intervals. Over time, he should build up to 3 x 15 minutes and eventually 3 x 20 minutes.
The Power Profile provides one view of your abilities by giving you a clue about how your abilities compare overall to your peer group or your goals. For example, you may find that your 5 s power is very good compared to your other abilities and also your peer group. Perfect, that should mean you can just show up at your local crit in your podium clothes, right? Then how come you always end up 4th? It may be because you’re not using your great sprint to maximum effectiveness. How can that be? Let’s dig deeper by looking at your fatigue profile.
What the fatigue profile does is provide more relative information about, in this case, what kind of a sprinter you are. It takes your 5, 10, and 20 s maximal power output, and then looks at how much your “sprinting power” fades over time. Take a look at the table below of my best 5, 10, and 20 s power outputs in the first row of data:
My 5 s value of 1092 W is used as 100%, and then the fatigue profile is calculated by how much drop off there is when this sprint is extended to 10 s (991 W or a 9.2% drop off), or extended to a 20 s sprint (746 W or a 31.7% decrease).
Overall, what my neuromuscular power fatigue profile above tells me is that I can sustain a long sprint at close to my peak power. Therefore, the best way to use my sprint is to go from far out rather than wait to jump at the last second. This latter strategy would work best for someone with both a very high 5 s power output combined with a below average 10 and 20 s fatigue profile.
The key thing to keep in mind is that the above fatigue profile is all based on your current maximal 5 s power, so you’re comparing yourself to yourself. However, if that 5 s power is low relative to your peers, it doesn’t really matter how you sprint because you’ll still be far off the leaders!
The same kind of fatigue profiling can be done for your other power zones to give you a clue about both how to use your current abilities, and also to match that to the required demands of your key events. For example, my 20 min power of 273 W back in October is considered good overall. In comparison, my 60 min wattage of 269 W is “above average,” while my 90 min wattage of 230 W is below average. This may have been a concern during the summer in the middle of long group hammer rides and 60-80 km road races in my Masters races. However, considering my CX races are 40-60 min long, this is less of a concern for that discipline, especially considering that these values were obtained in the peak of CX season in mid-October.
The fatigue profile adds a lot of insight to Stephen’s diagnosis. As I stated earlier, he is pretty resistant to fatigue and actually can “repeat” his efforts with good frequency. This gives us insight into his limiter of anaerobic capacity. To generalize, you can look at each physiological system and further break it down to power vs. endurance. Stephen actually has good endurance at anaerobic capacity but needs to develop more power. As we move out of the foundation phase in the early spring we need to increase the training on this system, specifically targeting his ability to produce power at anaerobic capacity. We will focus his efforts on 30-90 seconds at maximum power, preferable on climbs.
A sample workout would be for him to warm up well, and then ride to a hill of 5% – 8% grade and complete 8 – 10 x 90 Second Hill Climb Intervals at max effort. Complete the first 75 seconds of each interval seated, then stand and power the last 15 seconds. Target these intervals at 276 watts and above (based on 228 watt FTP), discontinue if you fall below 265 watts for 2 consecutive intervals. Recover for 3 minutes in-between intervals.
The combination of improved FTP and better power at anaerobic capacity will help Stephen stay with the pack and respond when he needs to.
For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the middle of winter is the ideal time to assess your past season and make plans for the coming year. Therefore, this is the best time to review your past year of power data, and also to do specific testing to assess your current fitness after a winter R&R period.
In the meantime, have fun and ride safe!
p.s. Thanks to the Peaks Coaching Group for hosting and inviting me to present at their Fall Camp, and to CycleOps.com for providing the PowerTap SL+ wheelset with the Joule 2.0 computer.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 50 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. He has just published the book Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology dealing with environments ranging from heat and cold through to hydration, altitude training, air pollution, and chronobiology. Stephen’s currently writing “Cutting Edge Cycling,” a book on the science of cycling, and can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Tim Cusick is a USAC 3 coach with the Peaks Coaching Group, and is based in Dover, Pennsylvania. Tim began his endurance sports career as a runner. As a successful collegiate sprinter, Tim gained in-depth knowledge of blending aerobic fitness, strength / weight training and nutrition. After college and a hiatus from endurance sports while focusing on growing his own business, Tim began mountain biking on the advice of a friend and it was all over from there. He can be reached at email@example.com