Cranking Away

Believe it or not, this marks our fifth post on Catalyst Content. We hope everyone has been enjoying it, as we certainly enjoyed having a spot to do some writing and ranting. If folks have not been enjoying, well we’ve still been enjoying writing it, so we’re still happy. Folks will remember our kick off post was a feature with the charming Matti Rowe, taking a look at one of his favorite workouts. Well, the spotlight turns today to Stephen Bassett, as we ask him the same question.

Stephen is a professional road racer, with the Silber Pro Cycling team. Concurrently, Stephen is a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, pursuing a degree in English. With a big road season on tap, but also a limited of time to train due to school in the fall, getting the most bang for the buck out of his workouts is the key for Bassett. We asked Stephen what his favorite winter workout is, and here is what he had to say:

One of my favorite things to do in the offseason is train with PowerCranks. For those of you who don’t know, this is a crank system that isolates each leg. Both cranks drive the chainrings, but they don’t connect in the middle. This makes it impossible to “cheat” your way around the pedal stroke by compensating with the opposite leg. So, if you can imagine doing single-leg drills, with both legs simultaneously, for a couple of hours, you can see how this is a pretty unique training challenge. I’m convinced that with the proper application they can really help your efficiency on the bike by eliminating wasted wattage and keeping you engaged all the way around the circle. If this all sounds very out there, it’s because this is one of the weirder training methods you can find. They had a brief period of popularity in the early 2000s, but have since faded from favor. It’s a big investment (you have to designate a whole bike for it, plus scrounge around on the internet for a used set) and it hurts a lot for at least 6 months as you struggle to figure out the neuromuscular coordination requirements. I also notably got dropped trying to use them on the Saturday shop ride and have yet to live down the shame.

I started training on the PowerCranks in 2014, mostly inside for the first few weeks. It took about 6 months to be able to stand up on them. At this point I can train on them and not really notice any difference, which is the goal. I like to ride a lot of different kinds of bikes in the offseason (fixed gear, mtb, etc), but sometimes I want to go in too many directions at once. So this year Nate and I decided to limit our focus and felt like the PowerCranks were the most worth spending a good deal of time on. I’ve been riding them once a week, mostly Zone 2 pace. Totally anecdotally, I can tell you that the day after riding these you will feel like a champ back on your normal cranks.

In essence, these things are pretty wild, but if you’re into the unconventional and a lot of pain in muscles that were doing JUST FINE BEFORE, there are gains to be made using them. Plus, you can freak people out by demonstrating the “Kangaroo” pedaling method! Thanks for reading my nerdy but non-scientific assessment of this contraption. I wonder what Nate has to say about them...

As we hit on, while Stephen is in school the aim is really to make every ride count. With the power cranks, every pedal stroke counts, and in that they are super valuable. With all the data we have right in front of us, it is really easy to get so focused on power production, that we can lose sight of the goal of efficient power production. The power cranks, as Stephen said, are super challenging, but they are also really good at building an efficient pedal stroke. It’s not fair to say that we don’t use our technology to work on pedaling efficiency. There are tools like the Pioneer power meters that look at stroke efficiency, and plenty of power meters that measure (or claim to measure – angst) left/right power balance. However, at the end of the day, more often than not the athlete goal is make more wattage. If the wattage is applied super inefficiently around the pedal stroke, athletes might just be burning up a bunch of kJs going nowhere fast – like that badass revving his Camaro at the stoplight – burning some gas for sure, not creating a lot of speed.  Pedal stroke efficiency does not solve the world’s power production problems, but it is probably a piece of the puzzle.

Well, why don’t we just have Stephen ride them all the time, and have a super baller pedal stroke? Everything with an upside usually has a downside. The power cranks are really fatiguing on certain muscles (especially the hip flexors!) so it is easy to overdo it and get a muscle strain. Additionally, the volume and intensity an athlete can put in on them has a relatively low ceiling. At this point (after 3 years of use), Stephen has worked up to comfortably doing 3 hours, all of which is at a comfortable aerobic pace. So if that is our training objective for the day, by all means, the power cranks are great. We get the aerobic stimulus we need, and some bonus muscular recruitment work. However, when we need to focus on higher volume, or higher intensity, or both, the power cranks need to go away.

What can folks do that want to work on the pedal stroke, but don’t want to ball out on a set of power cranks? One leg drills. Someone probably mentioned them when you first started riding, athlete tried a few, and they were not super fun. That did not last long. Well, they are probably still not super fun, but maybe now athlete read this post, wants to be like Bassett, wants to build some pedal stroke efficiency, does some one legged drills. Start out with 5x30 second one-leg drills, at a low cadence (70-80 rpm) on an endurance ride. Build up to doing 60 second reps, at 100 rpm. Need a bit more of a challenge, throw them in as a “bookend” to a long ride – do a set of 5x60 second reps one hour into the ride, and another set 3-4 hours into the ride – see if you have a noticeable drop in cadence on the one leg drills, as fatigue sets in. If you do not, congrats!

Some Thoughts on Load Tracking

        Load tracking has been a component of athletics for as long as we really know, whether it be miles, weight x reps in the gym, hours, or more popularly as of late, effort based metrics like TSS and CTL. TSS and CTL are hugely popular, with both coaches and athletes. I use them myself on a daily basis, working with athletes and training prescription. I think they have a lot of value, however I also see people consistently place more stock in those values than I think is merited. What follows is an open table discussion, between me and myself, about the idea of “load”, is it worth tracking, how should it be tracked, what can we extrapolate from it. Be forewarned, all that follows goes no farther than opinion and trial and error. This is far from an objective science, but potentially that is where the greatest value lies.

Philosophy of Total Load

        Every athlete can run at a given “total load”, which individual to that athlete, let’s call it Load_ind (Load for an individual). Load_ind must consider not just an athlete’s workouts, but also EVERYTHING that adds STRESS to the system, such that components of Load_ind, may include:   

  • Workouts that give an objective load score (i.e. TSS)
  • Workouts that do not give an objective load score, but could be applied a subjective load score (i.e. fatigue ranking, RPE, etc)
  • Relationship stress
  • Sleep quality
  • Work stress
  • Nutrition and hydration state, in relation to optimal, a workout is undertaken in
  • List goes on, but the point being that "total load" must comprise more than what shows up in TSS and/or CTL (or similar such metrics)

        The graphic below shows an athlete, in three different scenarios. The athlete is running at their hypothetical 100% of Load_ind in each scenario, but you can see the composition is different.

Three scenarios, of an athlete at 100% of Load_ind, with varying composition.

Three scenarios, of an athlete at 100% of Load_ind, with varying composition.

        In each scenario, in theory the athlete really cannot take on any additional load, whether it is from training, health, or psychological stress. Certainly, everyone as a coach and athlete, has likely crossed over that Load_ind max point, and typically the result is unsustainable, until we return back below 100% Load_ind. The trap to fall into is thinking that if in June of 2016 an athlete handled “x” amount of training load, with no work obligations, and in June of 2017 an athlete has 20 hours per week of work, that they are going to handle “x” amount of training load in the same. That is a simple example that most people would agree with, but in reality it gets more complex and the lines between where the stress is coming from, and how to manage it, get blurred.

Load as a Tool for Forecasting Performance

        It is becoming more and more popular to use training load (i.e. CTL) as a forecasting tool for performance. When there is a possibility to replace grey area of guesswork, with black and white of trustworthy quantifiable data, I am all for it. However, I would venture to say that using CTL as the main driver in performance forecasting, and the target in driving training, such that the priority is getting CTL to a certain level, that is just trading grey area for a different grey area. Here is why:

  • Load does not account for variances in composition, such that a CTL of 100 can be achieved a myriad of ways
  • Equivalent loads of differing compositions are almost always going to result in different performances, in the same competition context. Load composition is just as important as load.
  • Load, measured as CTL, is influenced to a greater degree by aerobic powers than by higher intensity powers. Such that an athlete's perceived increase in load (and fatigue) for a weekly increase in volume of high intensity, may not be duly reflected in a metric such as CTL.

The Fix

        The reality is, if looking for a black and white, quantifiable metric, there is no fix. As I hit on with the idea of Load_ind, training load is just a slice of the pie. If there is already a lot of grey area in the total load, how much does it even matter if whatever metric we use to track training load is an accurate portrayal of how fatigue ebbs and flows?

        Well, it probably can be a more useful tool the more clear of a picture it paints. My opinion is that the more aerobically driven the training, the more closely a metric like CTL correlates to the performance and perceived fatigue of the athlete.  However, as training gets more “polarized” and incorporates a higher volume of intensity, the correlation starts to decrease. A specific example, we’ve already hit on,  a plateau in CTL, followed by a change in training composition. Athlete’s perceived fatigue changes, as do contextual competition performances, none of which is reflected in any real change in a metric like CTL, ATL, or even TSB. Are there metrics the specifically address the idea of changing how intensity is weighted, in a load tracker?

·      Yes and no. Chris Baddick has really chewed on some of these issues, and created the metric of CIL (chronic intensity load). CIL will display bifurcations from CTL, as the volume of intensity (measured by IF) changes, but Chris will be the first to argue that even IF is a really poor portrayal, as depending on the total volume of the ride, IF can easily be diluted. I continually come back to the idea of eschewing “advanced metrics” such as TSS, CTL, and IF – for more simple measures such as volume of intensity and total volume.

        Looking at training in hours, may be “old school” in this era – but it also seems to correlate, depending on the goal.  Sure tracking training by hours has an even bigger flaw in ignoring composition than CTL does, but if you combine that with weekly volume of time spent in different zones of intensity, maybe you start to get closer? It may not all feed into one catch all metric – but you can also see a black and white change in time spent riding at various intensities. Without diving into too much depth, I can say that after looking at a pool of riders very closely for three years now – continually the metric I see the highest correlation with summer competition performance is very simple, total hours ridden from November to February, of the prior winter.  Maybe cutting out the grey area means going back to simpler, but more black and white, metrics?

        The bottom line is that, no metric is perfect, and never will be. We can spend time tweaking the metrics to try and get them closer to perfection, but for me the whole idea of thinking about a “total load” – Load_ind – is that metrics do not, and will not ever paint the whole picture.  At the risk of now sounding like an infomercial, that is the value of a coach, in my opinion. The role of a coach should be to get much deeper than what is displayed by the popular metrics. The role of a coach is to cut through the grey area – which usually takes some trial and error, and it may take years for a coach and an athlete to build their successful model [aside - successful model is a total unicorn in my opinion, and if you believe you have one, you are settling]. If eliciting top performances was as easy as correlating it to a given training load, no one should have a coach. It’s not to say that having a coach all of a sudden makes it easy – but perhaps with the right relationship an athlete starts to get closer? The counter to that is that a coach can only be successful with clear athlete communication, due to the highly subjective, and oscillating, nature of everything that contributes to Load_ind. Good luck finding perfection, I certainly plan to keep searching!


Do You See the Light?

As you may have heard, winter is coming.  This transition always hits me the hardest when daylight savings time ends.  And it’s not just me.  There’s an increased incidence of depression when we turn our clocks back an hour (1). To understand why this is (and what we can do about it), we’ve first got to learn a little physiology.

Nearly all of your body’s tissues, organs, and cells have an “internal clock”.  This internal clock allows your different organs to operate at their best when needed.  For example, your ability to regulate blood sugar levels is greater in the morning compared to the evening (2).  This also holds true for athletic performance with peak performance typically occurring in the early evening (3). 

While we have all accepted that there are 24 hours in a day, our internal clocks have not.  Everyone has an internal clock that has chosen how long it wants the day to be.  Some folks have internal clocks that want to operate on a day that’s shorter than 24 hours and others have an internal clock that’s slightly longer.  This difference in internal clock length is thought to determine whether you are a morning (shorter clock) or night (longer clock) person (4).

Your internal clock would work without any outside stimulus, but there are things that can influence it (5).   The big influencer (and the way we’re tying this all together with daylight savings time…) is light. Abrupt changes to light exposure, as is the case with traveling across time zones or changes following day light savings time, can cause disruption to your internal clock. 

Because nearly all of your cells have an internal clock that helps them function properly, disruption to your internal clock influences most everything.  A plethora of consequences have been shown with both mental and physical health (6).  These negative consequences include depression and weight gain and other factors which contribute to athletic performance. 

So now you have a bunch of fun facts for your next cocktail party.  But that’s not why you are reading this.  You want to get faster and stronger.  How can we use this science to improve performance?  Well, what we can do is use light exposure to our advantage. 

One way to improve performance is to increase alertness.  Dark mornings in the winter can make it hard to get out of bed.  But turning on the lights can help you wake up. For folks who work-out in the morning, get those lights turned on early.  In addition, if you’re like me and are restricted to riding the trainer early in the garage, set up some lights to brighten up your space and help you get through those intervals. 

Increasing alertness is not the only way to improve performance. As you know, rest and recovery is just as important.  So, if light helps you wake up and get going in the mornings, then we want to do the opposite at night.  Light exposure reduces melatonin secretion which makes you less sleepy (7).  Therefore, to make it easier to fall asleep, turn down the lights and stay away from computer screens. 

Now let’s put it all together and look at a case study. A former roommate of mine was traveling to Israel and wanted to limit jet lag so that he could hit the ground running as soon as he got there. In the late afternoons/evenings before his flight, he reduced his light exposure by turning the lights low and wearing sunglasses. In the mornings, he’d get up real early and turn the lights on to help him wake up.  Thanks to these pre-travel changes in light exposure, when he arrived in Israel, his internal clock was less disrupted and he was able to get the most out of his trip.

Hopefully this post has helped you see the light in that a little knowledge of physiology can help you feel and perform your best. And when the bad puns start up, it’s time to end. Thanks for reading!

Unsolicited Advice on Reviewing a Season

An athlete has just finished up a big season of training, racing, and travelling to events. They are now taking an off-season break (we hope!). They are freshening up and ready to jump, head first, into preparation for the next year’s big objectives, everything is possible! Time to leave last year in the rear view mirror, right? No!

So much can be learned from a good review of a past season. In that review, coaches and athletes, together, can always find lessons to apply to the next season.  It could be how an athlete responded to certain training sessions, nerves the evening before a race, race day nutrition, and so on and so on. The information revealed in reflection almost always outweighs the information we thought we had going in. The saying “20/20 Hindsight” rings pretty true.

OK, so we have sold you on review (wow, you’re an easy sell!), what is the first step? We believe there are two, equally important, aspects in reviewing a season. The first component, in a good review, is the qualitative, or subjective, component. Often this is where the coach can learn the most, from the athlete. For us, the qualitative component of a typical season review involves asking our athletes a series of questions. What the exact questions are is less important, than the questions being asked. In the day and age of data that we live in, it is easy to get blinded by numbers.  However, at the end of the day, every athlete is unique, and every athlete knows what he or she is feeling, better than a number can portray. The goal is to create a dialogue, where a season is examined, from the subjective sense. Here are some questions we have found to be a useful spring board, for this dialogue:

  • Regarding execution and preparation for races, what did you do well this year? What did you do poorly?
  • Regarding training, what do you feel worked well for you? What would you want to try differently going into next year?
  • What do you see as your biggest strength as an athlete? What do you see as your biggest weakness?
  • Were there moments, in this past season, where you felt exceptionally good? Were there moments, where you felt exceptionally bad?
  • What did you enjoy about this past season? What did you not enjoy?

The analytical tools at a coach and athlete’s disposal today are massive, which means it is very easy to get overwhelmed by numbers. Numbers are only useful if they make a difference in performance. This sounds simple, but is difficult to implement.  Our approach is to outline a few task specific metrics, such as peak powers or course times, and track them. These task specific metrics are going to be different for different athletes, because different athletes have not just different events, but also different limiters within those events. Inevitably, when tracking metrics, there are going to be components that contribute to performance, which you may not track. By narrowing it down to a few metrics, it also means coaches and athletes avoid drowning in a sea of numbers. Pick metrics that have a high correlation to how an athlete performs in competition. If you notice that the metrics you are tracking are improving, and competition performance is not, or vice versa, it does not mean the metrics are worthless. It could mean that the nature of the competition is changing and training needs to be focused elsewhere, or conversely, that the athlete is improving other performance parameters, such as tactical sense, and that is outweighing the fact that quantitative metrics have reached a plateau. All possibilities lead to really valuable information that can positively influence preparation for future events.

Here is an example of some metrics we are tracking with one of our athletes that competes in events where the critical moments are often about the power one can produce under fatigue.  We have picked some metrics tailored to that:

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 7.34.11 AM.png

Now that all this information is collected, the next step is to set some goals for next year, and go smash them! We wish anyone reading, good luck, in their upcoming pursuits…but if you’ve done a good review of the previous season, it will not have much to do with luck!

Don't Chase Base Wattage

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re excited to introduce “Catalyst Content”! It’s our new blog where you’ll find updates on training, racing, Catalyst athletes, and what’s new in the sport science world. 

Today we’re kicking off a feature where one of our athletes shares their favorite workouts. It is always fun, and valuable, to see the athlete perspective, because a lot can be learned from it.  There’s no silver bullet to training, but we’ll give you a few bronze ones…thanks for reading!

We asked, our athlete, Matti Rowe what his favorite workout is, and here’s what he had to say:

“My favorite workout isn’t a workout, it’s more of an injunction that I see pop up from time to time in the workout description of my workouts and that is ‘don’t chase base wattage.’

I like that, because in the age of STRAVA, and with a certain group of friends you can get into the bad habit of spending a lot of time on the bike not going fast, not going slow, but spending lots of time at a middling pace adding a lot of fatigue that looks good on paper but isn’t actually going to do much for you when you’ve got to jam hard for 20 seconds to follow a move.

Physically, ‘not chasing base wattage’ stops me from being such a diesel because I’m not adding unnecessary fatigue that’s going to take the quality away from my interval sessions.

But really, I think the biggest benefit is upstairs.  There’s a big difference between high zone 2/low zone 3 and low zone 2 mentally.  The former requires a bit of mental exertion while the latter is effortless. The thing is, you’re still doing good work in low zone 2 and since so many hours are spent on the bike at a comfortable base pace it makes the riding so much more pleasurable then kind of going hard all the time.”

First off, a translation is in order, what do we, as coaches, mean by, “don’t chase base wattage”?  When we say, “don’t chase base wattage”, the idea is to ride at a comfortable pace.  What pace would the athlete settle at, if they were riding without a computer?  That is the pace we want.  That pace is going to vary day to day; it is a sensation, not a number.

It is really easy to get caught up in shooting for a high average power, at the expense of doing the true quality pieces of a session below where the athlete is really capable. A perfect example is if an athlete has a big session of intervals, and they perform the intervals 5% below the target, but their average power for the whole ride is comparatively quite high.  This is something that we come across all the time, when we start working with our new athletes.  If an athlete can buy into the idea of “not chasing base wattage”, their quality efforts will improve, because they’re less fatigued going into them.  In addition to the quality aspects of the individual rides being better, the total ride typically does not tax the athlete as much, so their recovery is better and they can do more work in the week and month, as a whole.

Circling back to what Matti noted, about the mentality of “don’t chase base wattage”, the total stress of a training session, is much more than what shows up in the TSS score.  It also includes how much it taxes an athlete mentally.  On paper, someone might have no problem riding around at 250 watts as their “base pace” on all their training rides.  However, in reality, there is always a pace that is doable, but is just a hair uncomfortable.  Year in, year out, we see athletes that insist on trying to ride that pace all the time, and it just grinds them down mentally.  On paper everything might be ok, but if it translates to showing up on the start line 10% less fresh, and not able to race at maximal capacity, then all that training did not really elicit the end goal, best possible performance.  Counter to that, there are plenty of days where high average power is the target.  On those days we, as coaches, definitely believe in the tool the power meter can be in keeping an athlete on track. 

Always good to end with a dichotomy, so we’ll wrap it up there!  Thanks for reading!