article by Taylor Thomas
Training with a power meter is the absolute best way to get the most out of both your training time and effort. Unlike heart rate-based training, power allows us to measure the muscular demands of the effort instead of just the aerobic. The metrics-based approach to training that power provides is invaluable in helping athletes reach their goals, but what is it that we need to focus on, and how do we decipher all of the available information when one wants to get started training with power?
There are a few key places we can direct our attention to begin to understand the information generated from our power meters, and how to best utilize it to inform the decisions we make regarding training prescription.
What is Threshold?
In order to grasp and apply power metrics to our training we first need to understand the foundation on which everything is built: threshold. Threshold is simply the maximum wattage (power) you can maintain while your body can still remove the lactic acid being produced by your working muscles.
It’s also the point at which your body begins to recruit greater amounts of fast-twitch muscle fiber. Working for longer periods of time above your threshold creates the familiar “burn” in the legs as a result of accumulating lactic acid. Athletes can increase their body’s lactic acid clearing potential by spending significant time training in specific ranges below and right at threshold.
Time in these ranges also trains the body to slow the rate of carbohydrate utilization. Once you understand the concept of threshold we can take it a step further with FTP (Functional Threshold Power). FTP is the linchpin of power-based workouts, and the key to executing them properly.
Setting and Maintaining FTP
By now you’re no doubt at least familiar with FTP, how it impacts your training approach and your overall performance on the bike. However, knowing what produces a strong and accurate FTP, how to establish it, and how maintain it are vital to keeping your training on track.
Setting your FTP, or rather producing efforts that yield the results you want, takes some practice and know how. With tools like TrainingPeaks and WKO4 we can understand and analyze power numbers more accurately and consistently than ever before.
So how do you know what your FTP is? With the tools we have available to us today there are a couple of things you’ll want to do and look at to ensure your FTP is accurate. The first step is to produce threshold level efforts in training. The “field test” is a tried and true method, and usually the first step in setting your FTP. To perform the field test use the following protocol.
Once you’ve performed the FTP test, upload your data and analyze your performance. To calculate your FTP take 95 percent of your 20-minute, all-out effort. This will serve as a good approximation of your lactate threshold, and a strong baseline number for your training. However, while the field test is a strong indicator of FTP and a great place to start, physiological adaptation and performance is more nuanced than a simple 20-minute test.
The Power Duration Curve
WKO4 takes things a step further with the concept of modeled FTP (mFTP), which plots your performances across a curve and generates an mFTP based on historical efforts. Since everyone’s strength isn’t necessarily a 20-minute TT, the PD Curve can be a good way to gain insight into where you’re strongest, and what efforts you may need to focus on to elicit critical adaptations.
If you’re using mFTP and the PD Curve, it’s best to perform all-out efforts of varying durations anywhere from 30 seconds to one hour to get the most out of the “curve.” When establishing any power-based metric, the importance of valid and accurate data can’t be overstated. Power spikes and inaccurate data can drastically skew test results, and can even result in an inaccurate FTP or other power-derived metrics. Whether you’re using the field test, the PD Curve, or a combination of both, you’ll want to perform FTP level efforts four to six times a year so that your FTP is set correctly at key points in the season. It’s tools like this that make training with power so insightful!
Now that you’ve determined your FTP, and understand what it is you need to do maintain an accurate threshold, you can calculate your training zones. Power-derived training zones are what you’ll use for every workout and ride to decipher how intense the ride was, and whether the planned intent of the ride or workout was achieved. Zones allow you to establish the appropriate intensity to induce the adaptation necessary for aerobic, metabolic, and muscular development. Power zones also further highlight the importance of an accurate and up to date FTP. There are several different zone structures available for athletes to use, but ultimately the more detailed and accurately the zones reflect your physiology the better. Below is one example of a seven zone format that can be used:
Zone 1 Active Recovery (AR) = < 55% of FTP
Zone 2 Endurance = 56%-75% of FTP
Zone 3 Tempo = 76%-90% of FTP
Zone 4 Lactate Threshold = 91%-105% of FTP
Zone 5 VO2max = 106%-120% of FTP
Zone 6 Anaerobic Capacity (AC) = 121%-150% of FTP
Zone 7 Neuromuscular Power (NP) = Maximal Power
If you’re using WKO4 you can also use Dr. Andy Coggan’s Individualized Power Levels that allow for an even more granular approach to workout prescription and ride analysis.
Training with Power
The reason that you purchased a power meter is to enhance your training and improve your fitness. So, how do you go about training with power? The variations of workouts that can be performed are endless, but there are several key areas that you can focus on to elicit the greatest response.
Sweet Spot – These efforts are performed at 88 percent to 94 percent of your FTP and are a great way to strengthen and build your FTP. Typically they’re performed earlier in the season, or mid-season to rebuild toward priority races. The duration of Sweet Spot intervals can vary depending on the athlete, but the goal should be to extend the duration and number of intervals throughout the season.
Threshold-Level – Threshold workouts are meant to directly improve your FTP and should be completed at 96 percent to 105 percent of your FTP. These should take you to your limit. Much like Sweet Spot intervals, the goal is to increase the length of time you can spend at this level. Typically these FTP-specific efforts build off the time you’ve spent training in your Sweet Spot.
Steady State Tempo – Tempo workouts are the foundation for most cyclists, especially those looking to increase muscular endurance and/or those training for longer endurance events. Tempo workouts occur between 76 percent and 88 percent of FTP, and should be long sustained efforts lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.
VO2max – These efforts are often the focus for traditional criterium and road racers looking to improve sprint and lead out performance. Lasting from three to eight minutes, they’re very challenging and should be planned for accordingly, as they require proper recovery upon completion of the workout. Depending on the duration of the interval, the intensity may range from 105 percent to 120 percent of FTP. These are valuable when matching race specificity for climbs, sprints, etc.
Analyzing and Tracking Training
Power-based training is only as good as you and/or your coach’s ability to track and analyze it! To get the benefits of training with a power meter you have to analyze your workouts and chart your progress over time. Again, the beauty of training and racing with power is our ability to quantify the effort and assign values to it. Here a some key areas to focus on when it comes to analysis:
Often times the barrier to entry for athletes that are new to training with power can be the learning curve as it relates to power-based metrics. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of metrics and numbers that an athlete can pay attention to, but here a some of the most important ones:
Taylor Thomas is a dedicated endurance athlete with over a decade of experience as a competitive cyclist. He’s been involved in all facets of the sport, from working professionally with top brands like Trek and Specialized, founding race teams, organizing events, and personally competing at all levels. His racing background includes road, cyclocross, triathlon and ultra endurance events that push both the mind and body to the limit.
As a USAC certified and Training Peaks level 2 coach he enjoys sharing what he’s learned with his athletes to help them achieve their goals. As a professional mountain biker and coach he’s intimately aquatinted with what it takes to be successful at any level. He knows what it’s like to balance family, work, life, and training. Taylor works closely with all of his athletes to ensure that the training they receive is designed to fit into their life.
Data is very powerful! Whether it’s TrainingPeaks, WKO4, or others, he uses a variety of tools to analyze each athlete’s progress individually. By understanding the data, and knowing how to apply it, every athlete receives a truly individualized approach to their training. These insights are also applied to writing customized workouts, training blocks and developing comprehensive race strategies for every athlete. Coach Taylor believes that understanding the science of coaching is vital in helping athletes of all levels achieve their goals.
When he’s not on his bike he can be found on long trail runs, rock climbing and skiing in the mountains with his wife and dogs.
Thomas Endurance Coaching
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