Hey guys, Matt here. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with retired professional cyclist, two-time Olympian, fellow Peloton instructor, NBC sports commentator and my good friend, Christian Vande Velde. Christian and I met at Peloton a few years ago and we have enjoyed working together ever since. As many of you know, Christian had a tremendous career as a professional cyclist. Nowadays, Christian shares his cycling wisdom from the Peloton Studio and as a cycling analyst at NBC sports.
So who better to ask then Christian …”What does it mean to be a professional cyclist?” In this exclusive, guest-blog appearance, Christian gives us his real, honest account of what it REALLY TAKES to wear the title “professional” day in and day out.
Hey guys, Christian here. What’s the difference between professional and amateur? Being able to consistently execute…over and over and over throughout the calendar year. For example, “the pro” and the amateur ride together on a Sunday for 6 hours in the mountains. The pro takes one planned rest day on Monday and then back to the planned training program for the rest of the week. The amateur spends the entire week licking their wounds or worse, injured because of lack of prep. The pro has slowly built their engine over time to temper a massive workload and the amateur was way over their head as soon as the ride started. They both did similar work throughout the ride and the amateur actually pushed the pro a few times but the inability to absorb the workload was apparent. Coining the phrase “Weekend Warrior”. For the record, there is no problem what-so-ever about being a WW (I currently am one) but for the purpose of this article, bare with me.
Why is this?
There is talent, of course. The time needed for recovery. The fact that you have a real job! Other demands in your life? Those damn kids!
Take away raw talent, and recovery is the number one reason. Dedicating time to training is always first and foremost but recovery is sometimes more important than the work itself (if you’re already doing the work). Do you have time to get therapy after your workout? Plan or cook a meal with balanced nutrition values? Take a nap? Download your power files, then go over the workout with your coach and plan ahead? Make another nutritious meal and then plop yourself on the couch afterwards…..then in bed for 9-10 hours. Annnnnnd repeat. Walking around the mall or downtown by the shops? No way! Tabu to the professional cyclist. As the saying goes, “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lay down. Never lay down when you can sleep.”
I know what your thinking, this sounds amazing! And honestly I can’t argue with you, this lifestyle does sound like a dream and it is, albeit in short spurts. However the sacrifices and lack of balance is not for everyone. Not eating out with friends or hanging at the bar on the weekends….or more importantly, being constantly self-absorbed with your day-to-day starts eating away at you. (ok, bars and dining out were bad examples given our current circumstances….but you know what I’m talking about)
I often get asked, ”What if I started doing this when I was a teenager, like yourself, could I have been a pro?” Sometimes yes, most times no…..it’s complicated. Physical attributes/genetics are one thing, and the point where everyone starts, whether your 12, 25 or 55. Can you or can’t you do this task, are you adaptable? After that, it’s all mental and how much you truly want to make it happen. Of course I’ve seen crazy talented athletes, who are also smart to boot. These athletes inevitably end up asking themselves “why am I doing this, this is no way to make a living, I should be a (fill in the blank)”…that’s usually where the story ends. And to be honest, I asked myself this same question many times as well.
Often, I’ll flip the dialogue on them and ask the same question. “Could I do your job?” Most times the answer is no. I would be a horrible quantum physics professor, and I couldn’t work 70 hours in a office without losing my mind. Or, maybe I could be a defense attorney, but it would be a struggle, let alone become one the best. I’d soon be looking for something else to pursue.
What can you do to better yourself? Take a few things that a pro does in their life that you can realistically do in yours. Write down how much time you can realistically give yourself, in any given week, and work backwards from there. Take all the things that matter to you and the people in your life, into consideration.
If I was to look at three traits that a pro does exceptionally well and pluck them out, they would be the following. Again, part of the recipe for success is modifying it for you, not your friends or training partner, you. WHAT CAN YOU REALISTICALLY DO. Not burn out. Enjoy the process AND have a balanced lifestyle…….that is if you’re really good at time management.
1) Consistency Find the routine and balance that you can stick with and more importantly, have patience through the process. Patience is key in any process. Do not go from zero to hero in the first week. Just like any fad diet, it’s unsustainable. Do enough to commit to the process, without going “all in” immediately and throwing your life off kilter.
2) Rest Sleep is so underrated! Lack of sleep and injury go hand in hand…..the negatives are endless. Find a way to make sure you give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Change those patterns in your lifestyle that take away from that opportunity. Go to sleep 30 min earlier at first for example….stop binging Tiger King or Ozarks etc!
3) Nutrition Just like putting bad gas in a car, same goes with putting McDonald’s grade nutrition in your body. (full disclosure, I have McDonald’s in France every year during the Tour de France, but I’m on TV and not on the bike). For many, even professionals, this is difficult. Again, find that balance and slowly change those negative patterns in your diet. From ordering pizzas regularly to semi…from fried foods to grilling…you get my point.
What training looked like for meduring the season:
+/- 30 hours on the bike a week
Massage and or chiropractor every other day if you’re lucky, everyday if you’re extremely lucky.
200 days a year on the road. (Training camps/races/appearances)
70-85 days of competition per year.
+/- 20,000 miles a year on the bike. You’ll probably crash…or more likely, somebody is going to crash you. Recovering from this ASAP and getting back into competition where you can show your worth, especially during a contract year, is extremely important.
These are all suggestions. So many times throughout my career I thought I was doing everything correctly, only to run into someone who had one piece of the puzzle dialed in way more than myself. Being adaptive and constantly looking for new ways to do things greatly impacted my career. I hope you’re able to extract some wisdom from me that will help you fulfill or even exceed your goals.
God speed, Christian
I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look from Christian. Hopefully we’ll get Christian back with us again soon. Please leave us a message at Team Wilpers Instagram or Facebook with your thoughts, comments, questions … or concerns 🙂
Have you increased your training now that you have a little more time at home? Maybe you are riding twice a day or adding in strength sessions you normally don’t have time to do? If so, don’t forget to recover properly between sessions. The better you recover, the better your next workout will be. I promise!
So what do I mean by proper recovery?
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Rest: Put your feet up and resist doing something that requires you to stand between workouts. We know this is impossible for many people, but just make an effort to sit down as much as possible. And, yes literally elevate your feet. Your legs will thank you.
Don’t forget to finish things off with a healthy dinner.
Hydrate: Think about those puddles of sweat under your bike. Keep drinking all day. Try making fruit water or herbal tea. And of course, mix up your favorite sports drink for during your workout. (1 bottle every 45 min).
Stretch & active recovery: Cooling down after a workout is KEY. Matt has some great 5 minute stretches on Peloton to tack on to your rides and runs. Also, a 15 minute active recovery walk or jog can do wonders to flush out the legs.
Here at Team Wilpers our goal is for athletes to arrive at the starting line armed not only with a scientifically backed training program, but also with the practical knowledge of how to execute a triathlon and the tools to do so.
As race day approaches, we want our athletes to focus on going fast and far, knowing that the race day logistics have been planned and practiced. One key element to reduce stress in those hours before the horn blows is having a rock solid race day bag, packed and ready to go.
We’ve put together a list of essential items for race day that can be used as a starting point. It’s also helpful to create an additional checklist based on the race location, distance, and your specific needs. We recommend organizing items in 4 separate gallon-sized ziploc plastic bags: one for swim, one for bike, one for run, and one for everything else.
Below, I’ve answered a few questions from some of our athletes based on my personal experiences.
– Coach Rebeccah Wassner
What kind of bag should I use?
A backpack with side pockets for water bottles and some interior pockets, like the Speedo Teamster 35L. Why a backpack? Because you might find yourself riding your bike or running to and from the race site. I once saw a fellow athlete tumble off their bike the morning of a race because they were trying to manage a duffle bag slung over their shoulder. The bag I’ve been using for years is a skateboarding backpack with velcro straps that are for attaching a skateboard to the backpack, but they are perfect for strapping on a wet wetsuit after a race.
Why do I need nail scissors and electrical tape?
Electrical tape is one of the best ways to attach gel packets or other fuel to your bike frame. The scissors also come in handy if you need to cut your race numbers down to size if they don’t fit on your bike frame and the tape can be used if the numbers lose their stickiness and need reinforcement (this happens often!). Also, it’s just good to have these two items on hand in case you need to make a last minute repair or adjustment. I even used my nail scissors to cut a few inches off the legs of my wetsuit right before my first World Cup race because my coach was worried I wouldn’t be able to get it off fast enough. So you never know!
Why do I need throw-away shoes?
You do not always need to have throw-away shoes or clothes, but some races have long (sometimes a mile!) walks from the transition to the swim start. If you have sensitive feet or if it is cold out, you will want something on your feet. Unless you have someone with you at the race (and they can keep track of you), you will have to donate or throw away the shoes when you get to the start area. I usually save a pair of old running shoes for this cause, but if I don’t have a pair that I want to throw away, socks are a good substitution.
Do you unpack these items between races?
No. After a race, I replenish my supplies, repack my bag, and put it away until the next race. I’ve had the same plastic bags for a few years!
As a cycling coach and a Power
Zone Training Instructor for Peloton, “FTP Testing” is a frequent topic of
conversation as well as debate. “FTP” stands for “Functional Threshold Power”
and is typically described as the power or output one could sustain for around
one hour. While there are many types of “FTP Tests”, the most well-known is the
20 Min test. Having completed many FTP
tests in my life, it’s easy to understand why this is: They are hard!!
The purpose of this article is to discuss the background behind FTP Testing, revisit why we should care about measuring/estimating FTP and address some common questions I have received. But, before we dive in, it’s important understand what “Power” or, as we refer to at Peloton, “Output” is and how it is used in FTP testing.
In order to improve one’s fitness, you first must measure it. FTP testing relies on one of the most accurate forms of measuring intensity available to cyclists: Power. Power is a performance-based metric measured in Watts. In physics, the definition of power is work divided by time or, plainly speaking, a rate of work. It essentially combines how fast you are pedaling with how much resistance you are pedaling against in order to calculate how many watts you are producing. Thus, power is a measure of intensity or effort. Therefore, the harder that you work, the more watts you produce and vice versa.
The FTP Test is simply a test to see how much power you can maintain for a certain amount of time. This leads us to our next topic of conversation: What is “FTP”?
What is “FTP”?
“FTP” Stands for “Functional Threshold Power” and is thus an estimate of the power one could sustain while working at threshold intensity. More specifically and according to the creators of the 20 Min FTP Test, Hunter Allen, Dr. Andrew Coggan and Dr. Stephen McGregor define FTP in the third edition of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” as:
“…the highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing. When power exceeds FTP, fatigue will occur much sooner (generally after approximately one hour in well-trained cyclists), whereas power just below FTP can be maintained considerably longer.’
While we could certainly dive deeper into the chemistry behind what “lactate” and “threshold” mean, I think it’s easy to see that at a surface level, as a cyclist’s fitness changes, so does their FTP. This is an important point because it means that your FTP responds to changes in your fitness. Thus, changes in your FTP can not only indicate changes in your fitness but can also help predict performance, specifically endurance performance.
Knowing that one’s FTP is essentially a physiological benchmark of how much power they are producing at threshold intensity gives us a starting point to estimate how hard they are working at other levels of power. Scientists can then study what is going on inside the body when working at different percentages of FTP. These percentages of FTP make up what is called an “intensity continuum” which has been broken down by coaches and exercise physiologists into the generally accepted seven zones that we know in Power Zone Training. These percentage ranges as well as their associated descriptions are provided below:
The zones provided above are the “Classic Levels” that suit the training needs of most people. Notice that 100% of FTP falls in Zone 4, this is why Zone 4 is labeled Lactate Threshold.
The truth is that there are many ways to estimate one’s FTP. The most accurate method is generally considered to be testing in a lab. The problem with this is that it is inconvenient and typically expensive. The other reality is that the data has proven the efficacy of lab testing is not much better than the less expensive field tests like our good friend, the FTP Test.
No matter the test however, none are perfect in that they all have advantages and disadvantages. For example, those who are more aerobically gifted will do better with the longer tests whereas those more anaerobically gifted will do better with the shorter tests. Another disadvantage of most field tests is that even though it might not involve riding all-out for an hour, it is still hard. Most of the well-known tests however will likely get you in the range of +/- 5% of what you find in a lab.
Below is a brief list of some of the existing options to estimate ones FTP:
Riding all out for an hour (i.e. a one-hour time trial)
20 min Test
30 min Test
8 min Test
5 min Test
Reviewing power frequency distribution charts and/or normalized power data from your training and/or racing
Estimating based on feel
While I am not positive that I listed all the possibilities, I am nearly positive that I know what works: Picking one and sticking to it! I say this because if you are constantly changing testing methods, it’s hard to know whether the change is due a change in fitness or simply a change in testing. Isolate the variables and stick to one. The gold standard is the 20 Min FTP test developed by Hunter Allen. I believe this is a good one (at least to start with) for primarily the same reason he does, because “the best predictor of performance is performance itself.”
What is the 20 Min FTP Test?
The goal of the 20 min FTP Test is to record your highest average power for 20 min. An important part to this test (as well as any) is following the same warm-up protocol. While at Peloton we have structured 10-15 min warm-ups designed for this test, Hunter Allen’s warm-up is 46 min and some are longer! In general, the trend I have seen is the more experienced the athlete, the longer the warm-up. Again, what’s important is that you stick to a protocol that works for you before starting that 20 min effort.
During the 20 min effort, a common question I get is, “What’s the best way to attack the 20 min effort?” In general, the answer is avoid going out too hard too soon and having to stop early. To help people avoid this, I coach them to start on the lower end of where they think their FTP is and build from there. For example, if you think you could average around 180-200 Watts for an hour (i.e. your estimated FTP), start around 180 Watts as you will feel more confident that you are not going out too hard as the test is only 20 minutes.
Since the goal of the test is to record the highest average power possible, you don’t want to stay at the same power you started at. So, I like to break the test down into 4 x 5 min quarters with the goal of raising power a little each quarter. Of course, this is tough because you start to walk a fine line between pushing so hard that you want to stop and not pushing hard enough. That said, it’s a great way to get those new to FTP testing through it with less risk of having to stop early. As you get more experienced with the test, you will get better and better at executing it and probably less reliant on the four-quarter approach. In terms of cadence, I coach the athletes to not worry about a specific cadence but instead stick to whatever feels best in the moment and stay in the saddle as much as possible.
Once you have completed your 20 min FTP Test, you have to remember that “FTP” is the power you could sustain for around an hour. Having only cycled for 20 min, you have to decrease your 20 min average power by around 5% in order to arrive at an estimate of your FTP.
Where should you test?
Choosing where you test is very important, and the answer is: test where you plan to train. If you are primarily training indoors, test indoors. If you are primarily training outdoors, test outdoors. If you are training both indoors and outdoors, I would test both because there will be a difference with outdoors generally being higher than indoors.
For those of you testing outdoors, be careful! Try to select a course with little to no street crossings and a gently upward sloping terrain. As someone who lives in NYC, we used to test at 5:30am in Central Park in order to limit the risk of running into anyone else on the roads.
When should you test?
In general, you want to test when you are feeling good and ready for a challenge. Avoid testing tired or fatigued. In terms of timing of when to test within a consistent training schedule, it’s generally best to test at least a few days into a recovery week. This way you have had a chance to shed some residual fatigue from the previous week(s) buildup in training load.
How often should you test?
If you are new to Power Zone Training, coming back from time off, and/or are committing to consistent training schedule it’s a good idea to test more often vs less. The following is a brief list of reasons why testing more often in these cases is recommended:
You want to do this so that you are sure your training levels (based on your FTP) are appropriate for you. For example, if your training levels are too easy, you will not be progressing as quickly as you could. On the flipside, if your training levels are too hard, you could be overstressing your body and risking injury or burnout.
Testing more often helps you get comfortable with testing and helps reduce anxiety around “testing”. I tell my athletes to look at them as hard workouts vs some big event. Testing not only gives you an idea of where your FTP is but also teaches you how to prepare to perform. This is a very important lesson, especially if you plan on racing.
During your first few tests, part of your improvement will simply be learning how to test. A good analogy is multiple choice exams in school: With a little practice on strategy, you can improve your results. Eventually however, you will start to get a good read on where your body is at.
When you are a beginner or are coming back into consistent training after time away from the bike, your body adapts to the training in much the same way. The best way to visualize what to expect as your training progresses is graphically. Below are two graphs that help represent how your body adapts to training over time. Graph #1 is the “30,000 ft view” whereas Graph #2 is more granular and shows the performance peaks and valleys that we all experience along the way.
Graph #1 – Illustrates the relationship between performance improvement, rate of adaptation and training complexity over time. Notice how rate of adaption and performance improvements are significant at first. In order to ensure your FTP represents your current fitness level during this time, you need to test often because your fitness is changing often. As your training progresses, FTP improvements will become harder and harder to achieve. This is where training complexity needs to increase and is thus a good time to sit down with a coach and/or get more strategic with planning out use of the training variables: frequency, intensity and duration. For tips on this, please check out my post on the topic located here.
Graph #2 – Shows how fitness (or “CTL” illustrated in grey) has peaks and troughs from year to year and season to season with the athlete’s focus on improving from peak to peak. Notice how peak performances follow significant decreases in performances. This goes to show that not only is the idea of consistently maintaining peak fitness level not realistic but also the importance of analyzing one’s approach to achieving peak fitness each season. For example, in the final peak, this athlete clearly ramped up their training much quicker and for longer than in the past…and it worked!
When it comes to planning out your testing schedule, you can follow a structured or unstructured approach. A structured approach towards testing could be every 3-4 weeks at first. Then, as you gain more fitness and experience you could shift it to every 4-6 weeks or even every 6-8 weeks. Following a consistent testing schedule makes sense for when you are training towards a goal or event because it can serve as a way to not only keep your training levels/zones updated but can also be used to set goals and targets. For example, “My target on my next FTP test is to average XYZ Watts and achieve a 10% improvement from my previous test.”
A less structured approach towards more frequent testing is where you and/or your coach look for signs in your workouts that it’s time to retest. For example, your zones are starting to feel too easy or you start blowing away your testing averages in workouts on accident. These are great signs that it is time to retest and I recommend that you do so because FTP tests are designed to not only help you maximize your average output, but they also offer a standardized approach towards assessing your fitness.
Lastly, testing is often beneficial when your goal is to improve. When your goal is to maintain or just exercise, testing often may not be necessary. Many non-competitive athletes find this approach most enjoyable and throw in tests whenever they feel like it and/or when they feel like their training levels are off (harder or easier). This is certainly okay but know that this approach comes at the cost of slower progress.
Common mistakes and misunderstandings:
Below is a list of some of the common mistakes and misunderstandings that I have seen during my time coaching:
Using your 20 min average power to calculate power zones – Remember to use the 20 min avg power minus 5% of your FTP. Remember that FTP is an estimate of your one-hour power. Therefore, using an average power number of anything less than one hour needs to be discounted.
Expecting that your FTP is going to go up infinitely – Per Graph #1 above, we are all limited by our genetic potential. As we get closer and closer to that potential, the rate of adaptation decreases and thus our performance gains start to get smaller and smaller. Furthermore, don’t expect your FTP to be at its max all the time. Athletes have seasons for a reason. In-season they are working on specific fitness towards achieving specific goals (in most cases, performing better than they did the previous season). Off season they are focusing more on general fitness and relaxing a little. This is a healthy way of looking at your training. Lastly, remember that even during “in-season” training, there are peaks and troughs along the way, so patience is very important.
Hitting structurally hard workouts with new zones – If your zones/levels go up after testing, remember that this means you will be expected to hold higher power in future workouts than you did in the past. This alone can make structurally hard workouts feel impossible. Focus first on building comfort with the lower zones after retesting before blasting yourself with long intervals at higher zones.
Guessing one’s FTP based on perceived effort in order to set zones/levels – While this is likely the least accurate way of estimating your FTP, it makes sense in certain situations, for example if you are pregnant or if you are coming back from injury or sickness and your body isn’t ready for an FTP test. In the cases where this makes sense, the athlete is usually more focused on exercising just to exercise vs monitoring their progress. That said, getting into a habit of guessing vs testing beyond the reasons just described can result in a false sense of reality. This is why I tell all my athletes that if they think their zones are higher, they must earn them by proving it in testing.
Going too hard too soon – Coming back from injury or time off, it’s important to take it easy at first. In general, the longer the time you have had spent away from the bike, the longer the time you should take it easy when building back up. Just focus on pedaling easy at first and don’t test until your body is ready and you have cleared it with your doctor.
Having a higher FTP than someone means that you are faster than them – Not necessarily. You need to look more at what’s called “Power to Weight Ratio” in order to have a better idea of where you stack up. The formula is simple: FTP divided by body weight. There are many charts out there that will show you how your ratio compares. Fair warning: these charts assume that you tested on an accurate power meter. Since many power meters are not calibrated properly, this means your results can be skewed in either direction.
Confusing Power Zones with Heart Rate Zones – Workouts are designed to use either heart rate or power to guide intensity, never both. If you are taking a “Heart Rate Zone Class”, focus on heart rate during the workout, not power. If you are taking a “Power Zone Ride”, focus on power during the workout, not heart rate.
Focusing more on Heart Rate than Power during a Power Zone Workout – In general it is usually not beneficial to focus on heart rate during a power zone workout. An exception, of course, is if you have a heart condition and need to keep your heart rate below a certain BPM. I coach athletes not to look at heart rate data during power zone rides for four reasons.
Heart rate date is more variable in nature than power. For example, maybe you had a strong espresso before you hopped on the bike. This alone could spike your heart rate.
Focusing heavily on heart rate can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, simply worrying about your heart rate can cause you to breathe heavier, which can make your heart rate go up.
For longer efforts you will likely see cardiac drift occur which is where power stays the same, yet your heart rate drifts up.Instead, looking at heart rate data after power zone workouts can be very insightful as you can see general trends in how your body is handling your zones.
Looking at heart rate data after power zone workouts can be very insightful as you can see general trends in how your body is handling your zones.
Expecting FTP Improvements while focusing on improvements in another sport – Running is great example here. Many runners include cycling as part of cross-training however they forget that there are both central and peripheral aspects to performance. The same central (for example cardiovascular) improvements can happen from both forms of exercise however the peripheral (for example musculoskeletal) improvements are very specific to the sport. Thus, my advice to runners is to focus on achieving improvements in running and keep their cycling light and aerobic.
I’m too old to train like this – Ha! Studies have shown that most of what we consider “aging” is due to our lifestyle choices. I firmly believe in not training less as we age but instead changing how we train to better accommodate changes in physiology. A good example is taking more time to warm-up as well as stretch. Furthermore, we can improve our fitness at any age. If your goal is to improve, FTP testing can help.
Assuming your cycling FTP is the same as your running FTP – While running with power is still pretty new, running FTP’s and cycling FTP’s are typically different because they involve different muscles, biomechanics, and measuring devices. Therefore, it’s best to test them separately.
FTP is the only metric that matters – Genetics can make you more gifted aerobically or anaerobically. More simply, you can be more gifted at endurance efforts vs sprints and vice versa. You can also train your body to improve aerobically or anaerobically. FTP is a measure of your ability to ride hard for a long time, thus it’s highly aerobic in nature. That’s why there are three other metrics of interest: VO2 Max, Anaerobic Capacity, and Neuromuscular Power. While there are other tests for these, all four together make up what is called your “Power Profile.”
As you can see, it makes sense
that FTP Testing is a frequent topic of conversation and debate in cycling. While
the field tests can be challenging, there is tremendous value in estimating
one’s FTP. From helping us train smarter to helping us predict race performances,
FTP is one of the best measures we have available to pretty much everyone.
Just like most things however, there
are always exceptions, and nothing is perfect. That’s why I hope this article will
help better explain what FTP testing is and how you can use it make more
informed decisions about your training in the future!
Train hard, train smart and always have fun!!
Training and Racing With A Power Meter (Third
Edition) – Hunter Allen, Andrew Coggan, Stephen McGregor
The Cyclist’s Training Bible (5th
Edition) – Joe Friel
The Time-Crunched Cyclist (3rd
Edition) – Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg
If you were going to start running to improve your fitness or even train for a race, how would you structure your training? What factors would you consider? While these may seem like daunting questions at first, training to see fitness improvements in running (and in most endurance sports for that matter) boils down to managing three training variables which include: frequency, duration, and intensity.
No matter if you are a professional runner training to win the New York City Marathon or if you are simply running to improve your fitness, the necessary training is based on the same three variables. By appropriately manipulating and monitoring frequency, duration, and intensity, we are able to avoid injury and achieve improved fitness and/or performance.
Provided below is a brief explanation of each as well as some tips on how you can use these variables to train smart!
Frequency, or how often you train, is important from both a workout and recovery standpoint. While training more allows us to get closer and closer to our fitness potential, it must be balanced with time spent recovering so that the benefits of training can be realized. How often we train must also fit in with our everyday lives so that we are not compromising the most important factor of recovery: sleep!
For this reason, time available for training is a scarce resource for most people. Often, careers, families, social lives, and other personal responsibilities limit the number of training sessions we can complete every week, thus, making each training session even more valuable. For example, most recreational runners are only able to squeeze in 3-4 runs per week, whereas elite and/or pro runners can fit in closer to 10-12 runs per week!
For beginners, training frequency is more important than both duration and intensity. Also, there is no need to train as often or as intensely as an elite runner. In fact, this would be more detrimental to performance than helpful. By simply establishing a consistent training routine of 3-4 workouts each week, with limited focus on duration or intensity, the results can be astonishing.
With less time available for training, this makes every session more important. In fact, this is a big reason why many people hire coaches. By allowing the coach to take care of the planning and monitoring required to ensure that the athlete is using their limited time wisely, they can instead focus on their training as well as their everyday lives.
Duration is a measurement of how long your training session is based on time and/or distance. When combined with intensity, the balance between the two in a given training session will provide training stress. For example, two workouts of different lengths could provide the same level of training stress but in different ways – A longer workout at a lower intensity aims to improve endurance whereas a shorter, yet more intense workout functions to improve efficiency, speed and power.
Regardless of the sport – running, cycling, etc. – our bodies respond to the amount of time spent at various intensities. Not to distance. Thus, if you are following a running program based on mileage it’s important to recognize and accommodate for different abilities. For example, a runner at an elite level will complete an extra two miles tacked onto their weekly long run much faster than a beginner, creating a larger training stress for the beginner than the elite runner.
While both frequency and duration are important elements, it’s the combination of frequency, duration, and intensity that allows us to achieve fitness levels closest to our athletic potential. Thus, monitoring and manipulating workout intensity is most important for more experienced runners.
Similar to frequency and duration, intensity must be measured in order for it to be applied correctly. However, intensity is unique because there is no single best method of measurement. While most programs rely on pace, one could also use heart rate, rate of perceived exertion, or even power. That said, it is important to realize that each method has limitations that must be taken into consideration.
Hopefully the information provided above helps explain how frequency, duration, and intensity influence your fitness and thus your training decisions. Although training for runners at all levels is based on these three variables, the appropriate blend differs from athlete to athlete. Two important factors that help determine this include the runner’s experience as well as their response to training stress.
A great way to start monitoring your frequency, duration, and intensity in your own training is to simply keep a journal or log of your workouts. After a few weeks, look back and see how you incorporated these variables. Think about how you did during this time and what blend of frequency, duration, and intensity you might need to accomplish your goals. Then, make a plan and get after it!
One reason I love training with a power meter is because the data that it produces can give you great insight into your fitness as well as your training. So far, we have discussed a variety of Power Zone Training concepts such as Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and Power to Weight Ratio. In this post, I would like to highlight yet another useful training tool derived from Power Zone Training called “Training Stress Scores” (TSS).
In addition to the intended purpose of each cycling workout, you often hear me state that it’s “The duration (or length) and intensity of the intervals that drive the desired results.” While what we certainly feel first is the fatigue caused by the intervals, once we recover, we realize (or see) the resulting fitness improvements. This same concept applies to your overall training as well. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do one workout, go to bed, and wake up with the results that we wanted? For example, what if we could complete one hard workout, and 24 hours later, we are ready to take on a 100-mile (or century) ride. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t work that way. Instead, we have to train and control fatigue over time to achieve results. To avoid injury or burnout from excessive fatigue, monitoring what we do and how often we do it matters.
Whether it’s simply to improve our health or to prepare for an Ironman, fitness improvements are driven by three training factors:
· Duration: The length of your training sessions
· Frequency: How often you train
· Intensity: How hard you work during your training sessions
When these three factors are combined, it is called your “workload”. Workload can be used to describe a single workout or a series of workouts over a specific period of time. When our workload increases, our fitness and level of fatigue increases. When our workload decreases, our fitness and level of fatigue decreases. However, fatigue decreases much faster than fitness at first, allowing us to control fatigue by balancing our workload with recovery. The next question is then, how do we monitor our workload?
We often speak about our training in terms of how many miles we ride in a week, or how many days a week we spend riding, or how much saddle time we have logged. But notice how these descriptions do not cover intensity but only address frequency and duration. We have a hard time incorporating intensity into descriptions without saying general things like, “speed work” or “intervals” etc. Thus, we are not monitoring our training with three factors, frequency, duration, and intensity in mind. This is where TSS come in.
Training Stress Scores
TSS, developed by Dr. Andrew Coggan and Hunter Allen, combine duration and intensity of each workout into a number. This number can then be considered by itself or added together with other TSS over a period of time to determine how much training stress has been placed on our bodies. By quantifying the intensity and duration of each workout, coaches can give their athletes TSS to target in workouts and/or develop workouts that achieve a specific TSS number. This gives coaches the ability to plan and monitor all three training factors. The concept of TSS not only applies to cycling but also to other sports including triathlons, swimming and running. For the purposes of this post however, we will use cycling as the target sport.
Instead of going into the mathematical details behind TSS, I want to delve into the variables that make up the TSS equation. If you are interested in learning more about the mathematics behind TSS, please refer to Training and Racing with a Power Meter. The inputs to the TSS equation include:
· Functional Threshold Power or (FTP): An estimate of the Average Power the rider could sustain for one hour
· Normalized Power: Adjusted average power that better accounts for the physiological demands of a workout
· Workout Duration: The length of the workout (in seconds)
· Intensity Factor: Normalized Power divided by Functional Threshold Power (or FTP)
60 mins spent at 100% effort (or FTP) is equivalent to 100 TSS*
90 mins spent at 100% effort (or FTP) is equivalent to 150 TSS
60 mins spent at 95% effort (or FTP) is equivalent to 90 TSS
90 mins spent at 95% effort (or FTP) is equivalent to 135 TSS
* Note: A maximum of 100 TSS can be accumulated at 100% effort in one hour. Many times, workouts are completed at less than 100% effort. Thus, you can gain more than 100 TSS in a given workout but no more than 100 TSS in any given hour.
Recovery is where our bodies shed fatigue and are able to positively respond to training stress. That said, different amounts of training stress will require different amounts of time to recover. The following are generally accepted assumptions about the recovery necessary from a ride of a given TSS:
<100 TSS = Low (Easily recovered the next day)
100-200 TSS = Medium (Some residual fatigue present the following day, gone by the 2ndday)
200-300 TSS = High (Residual fatigue usually present after 2 days)
300-400 TSS = Very High (Residual fatigue usually lasting 2-4 days likely)
>400 TSS = Epic (Residual fatigue requires 5 days to dissipate)
Note: Other factors may delay your recovery including not getting adequate sleep, excessive stress from work/life, performing other workouts in addition to cycling, improper dieting, etc.
How to Use TSS
A given weekly TSS total of 300 may seem difficult for a less conditioned cyclist and easy for a more conditioned cyclist. As the less conditioned rider trains more, 300 TSS becomes easier and she is then able to comfortably accumulate more TSS points within a given week. The ability to take on more TSS over time serves as proof that her fitness is improving.
Once you become comfortable monitoring your own TSS, you can to start to use TSS to identify patterns in your fitness and plan future training. For example, how many weeks can you handle incremental increases in accumulated weekly TSS without needing a week to recover? For those that want to simply maintain their fitness, what weekly TSS do you want to target to ensure that you do not over or under do it? Before a big event or race, what peak weekly TSS do you want to achieve before you start to taper and prepare for your event?
TSS can help athletes and coaches answer these questions and fine tune their training so that they are peaking at the right time. TSS can also help coaches steer their athletes away from injury when too much training stress is applied too soon. While I will certainly discuss this more in future posts, this should give you an idea of how TSS can be used to your advantage.
From a training perspective, planning out your weekly or even annual TSS goals is a great way to get started. Of course, this is also something you can outsource to your coach. For example, Joe Friel does a great job of providing guidance in his book, The Cyclist’s Training Bible. Here is an example of how one could plan out their weekly workouts based on TSS:
As you can see, there is a lot of insight we can gain from monitoring and even planning out our training using TSS. That said, remember that TSS do not give us insight into the specifics of the fitness that is being built. For example, the workouts to complete when training for a criterium bike race are very different from those for a century ride. So, while the TSS for two different athletes training for two different events could be the same, their workouts, and thus the specifics of their fitness being developed would be very different. This is yet another part of your training to consider or have a coach to consider for you.
If you are interested in learning more about TSS, links to references I used in this post can be found below. I hope you find the concept of TSS as useful as I do in our quest to continue training smarter and removing guesswork.