As a Level 2 cycling coach, I get data. I have the ability to analyse efforts, sessions, weeks and seasons with the help of complex training software at my fingertips.
I can build to a CTL, daily TSS, weekly ATL and target a ramp rate. We can do power efforts in any of the targeted zones to achieve optimisation. And we do. But the reality of coaching is that unless you’re training high-level track-letes (track athletes, I made that up, go me!) or very dedicated power-equipped roadies only, the data needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
For example, I work with many power-based athletes, however a number of these lack power on their primary race bike (either a cross-country or gravity mountain bike) but do utilise it in their primary training bike; their road bike. Does it make training these athletes harder? Yes and no. No, as traditional training zones are easier to implement and less variable than power zones. Yes, in that relying on heart rate for some training sessions leaves a bit of a query about the effort and intensity of the session.
While a 2hr tempo road ride will consist of sitting between your endurance and threshold zones, a 2hr tempo ride on the mountain bike likely consists of a significant time descending in a recovery or aerobic zone, and multiple bursts above threshold. On the flip side, mountain biking uses more ‘whole body’ energy output, so even a power metre equipped bike won’t tell the real tale of energy spent (whole-body kinematic mountain bike energy expenditure suits? Could be a market…). Thus, quantifying this can be difficult. Add in the heart rate lag and there is a potential to underestimate energy expenditure.
More often than not, this variation between power and heart rate-based sessions isn’t the thing that will undo the amateur self-coached athlete; it’s the reliance on what the computer says and steadfast belief that one is a machine.
As an athlete and a coach, even I find objectivity in my own training difficult at times, so I can only imagine how difficult it could be for someone who buys software and a power metre or heart rate monitor and struggles with the intricacy of balancing life and training in a sensible manner.
Here are some examples of man vs machine type problems I unravel for athletes;
My ramp rate is stuck /or my CTL is trending downwards
For athletes that have a small ramp rate that even trends into negative at times, you first need to review their data at a macro level. At what point does the ramp rate reduce? What volume and intensity was going on, and what were you building from? Many athletes fall outside the realms of an ‘ideal’ ramp rate (cited as being somewhere between 5-8) due to not being pro athletes.
Often a more conservative approach can yield a better long term result without stagnation, or a short period with a strong ramp rate may be followed by a more neutral phase before increasing training; remembering the adage that overload then rest yields results.
The other thing to consider is the data sampling; what time frame are you looking at ramp rate from? 7 days? 14 days? 21 or 90? Check your input before freaking out about any ramp rate anomalies.
Consider the role of recovery weeks and illness in augmented the carefully orchestrated plan for ramping up the training. Similarly, CTL—Chronic Training load (a rolling 42 day average of training expressed as Training Stress, or TSS/day*)—is only one indicator of fitness, but one that can be tracked and provide valuable data amidst and between multiple seasons for a long term athlete.
For a few athletes I know, the difference between their high and low CTL is not huge; they don’t have a huge amount of time to train and even when not ‘training’ they’re still maintaining a large percent of their training time on the bike. Reaching towards a greater CTL would push these athletes into overtraining, and thus their CTL gets to a sustainable point, however we use their microcycle planning to craftily increase their gains in specific areas despite appearing flatlined on the CTL.
For a declining CTL firstly I would check the sampling rate again. Then I would have a more thorough look into the sessions. Frequent assessment of an athletes training should give you some insight into how this is tracking regardless, however having another look and specifically scanning for missed sessions, periods of illness and unexpected time off.
Looking at the bigger picture can also be beneficial; sometimes looking through and pinpointing a huge day can precede a drop in CTL and sometimes this is an error. Twice recently I have been reviewing two athletes’ remarkable downtrend. It seemed unexplained; they were both dedicated and were heading to the end of their seasons without their taper period started let alone finished or heading towards a transition. When I was able to pinpoint a 700+ TSS day a few weeks prior in both of their cases, and looked to that day of their program I was able to see that their computer file had uploaded multiple times, and hence it had augmented their training data for the rest of the season.
Deleting the duplicates and knocking that session back to 250 TSS showed a much more reasonable graph!
My power is the same as X but I am going slower, what gives?
Power is a fickle mistress, it has incredible….er…power when used correctly however when not used well it’s just a bunch of useless numbers. For an example like this, we need to firstly account for the variables.
• power metre and calibration
• weight of self
• weight of bike (weight of water bottles etc)
• any other pertinent bike modifications
• weather/time of day/wind factor
An example of this is a local climb whereby it’s long enough to complete solid SST (subthreshold) efforts. If I were to compare watts from the start of the year to now I would be like ‘yippee, putting out 10w/more for the climb!’. But when looking at the time and seeing it’s almost 2min slower it begs to question what’s going on.
• Check and calibrate the power metre If it’s a climb; take your weight into consideration and work out w/kg. Or brownies/day in off season. If it’s a climb, but you’re training for a flat TT then chill; outright power is going to be better than w/kg in a flat TT in all but the most marginal of cases, work on increasing outright power and getting aero.
• Have you changed equipment? Take note of the change in weight and fit of bike (ie: upgrading to a lighter bike, or making note of a heavier set-up is important too, including carrying an extra water bottle)
• Check the ride notes from last time; if it was a fine day with a bit of a tail wind that could be of benefit if the more recent one was in a wet gale.
Some very, very basic power analysis: First effort, a year ago. Rated as 'very hard' towards end. First and only effort but began with 50min less riding in legs than effort below. Slight tailwind, average 235w/average, good weather. 59-ish kg, 7.5kg bike. 16:50 effort. Obviously went hard and 'blew up' little towards end augmenting power.
Second effort, last week. Rated as moderate. Second of two efforts. Started this effort earlier into ride. Blustery winds and rain, self-paced subthreshold (more consistent as seen by less oscillation in power line) an nil blow up. 245w/average. 61-ish kg, 8.5kg bike + extra bidon. 18:50 effort.
If you look at all these factors as outlined in the captions above, and not just a power chart, it’s likely you will find a culprit. If not, having another good look through the power file for analysis will allow you to see if there are any drops or unexpected glitches from within the file.
The message behind this post is; power only works when you do. Put in the effort to train consistently, test frequently, upload consistently, talk to your coach and write good feedback and then you can work together to reach your athletic potential.
As a coach, work both within and outside the data to unravel the mysteries and joys of training athletes to be their best.
*TSS is a numerical measurement of intensity/duration of a given session based on heart rate and power thresholds