The Power of No Power

10 years ago I got my first power meter. There were two "real choices" I can think of - PowerTap and SRM. There were some "other choices" - Ergometer, iBike, and probably some others I'm missing. At that point training with power was certainly popular and established, but it wasn't what it is today. Today it often feels like power meters are on bikes like bar tape - I'm sure there's some people out there riding without bar tap, but it's not really done, and why? A lotta folks are training with a power meter. I was just at a team camp, and these kiddos are rocking 3-4 different bikes, between training bikes, racing bikes, TT bikes, and they've definitely all got power meters. Well, point being - power meters are popular as hell. The pros have them, and trickle down economics is a thing. 

Where I'm going with this next is a place I believe is becoming a more popular topic lately, and one I've written on before - but today the mood is striking again. Are we blinded by data? At what point could power meters be hurting us more than helping us? My short fuse answer to both those questions is that, yes, we are blinded by data, and the point at which power meters hurt us is earlier rather than later. We (the "royal" we, of coaches, analytics software, etc) have gotten really "good" at coming up with metrics to track training loads, crunch power numbers, and generally "figure it all out". Honestly though - when I really start thinking about it, about what information is gained - it feels an awful lot like not that much information is gained, but rather it's turned into a game of synonyms. We're taking an end goal that is super simple - go faster - and breaking it up into a million different pieces. My question is, does having more pieces make a puzzle simpler or harder? I'd say harder, but that is also a metaphor and we're not trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, we're trying to ride bikes faster. 

Don't get me wrong - I am a big believer in the data, and it has a ton of value to me, but I also find myself getting more and more confused by it and having more confidence the simpler I can make a process. Here's a scenario - 5k climb, rider does a maximal effort, time of 15:24. Goes and trains for 6 weeks, does same climb again - 15:24, but cadence was up, HR was down, CTL says "fitness" is high - look at that, they're just cruising. BUT - the time was the same. OK so to me yeah, no progress. Now that's probably oversimplified, obviously maybe weather is different or something. But saying weather is the same, etc, I think one thing the limitless amount of data we have available has taught us to do is ignore the elephant in the room because we can always find some metric that says we're making progress. Surely, there is value to that - but at some point I also believe it's not supposed to be warm and friendly - the elephant in the room should be realized - sometimes progress isn't made, despite our best efforts to draw a data picture that convinces us it has.

OK - so this sentiment is common at the moment, I think. There is a reason that less people are doing cat 3 RR's, and more people are grinding gravel wearing jeans (which is another post - that can't be comfortable!). Cool is in, and maybe power meters and data isn't cool? So at the risk of trying too hard to be cool - I'd say those folks have a point. Maybe they don't have a point about it being "fun", it's not supposed to be fun - it's supposed to be snowing and uphill both ways. However, I think it's a very worthwhile challenge to simplify the task, ditch the meter, focus on going fast - which folks don't need ten metrics to judge - and make it happen. There's easily a whole other post about the benefits of riding without a meter to also train speed development that's not necessarily accomplished by just doing more watts. However, the attention span is waning, and the inbox is filling out - so rant over for today. Take up the challenge - ride a week without a power meter, without analyzing data, and tell us about it.

This is Just a Test

Testing.  You either love it or you hate it.  Or maybe it’s a little of both. Your opinion probably changes depending on how well you did during the test. Either way, we all know it’s important.  So, what kind of testing will help you improve your performance? Funny you should ask.  I’ve got some thoughts on this topic…

Maybe the most well known physiological test is the VO2max test.  This test determines your ability to consume oxygen, with higher values considered better.  When you go from couch potato to athlete, your VO2max will increase.  However, at a certain point, your VO2max will plateau – thanks largely in part to genetics. 

This means that no matter how hard you train, your absolute VO2max won’t get higher (side note: your relative VO2max (VO2max divided by body weight) can change with weight loss which may explain significant performance improvements (1 – although there are now questions about the athlete in this study…)).  Thus, for beginners, it’s one way to establish training zones but for most well trained athletes, a VO2max test isn’t always the most useful test.

A lactate threshold test is another common test conducted in a lab.  The lactate threshold indicates the point at which the body begins accumulating lactate in the blood.  This threshold can change with training (occurring at greater and greater power outputs). Therefore, a lactate threshold test can be very helpful for training.  It is one way to create training zones.  The shape of the curve can also indicate where more training should be focused. In addition, a lactate threshold test is a common way to verify that a training plan is working.

To measure anaerobic power (think “high-intensity power for short efforts”) there’s the Wingate test.  This test is essentially a 30sec all out, seated sprint.  This test can be beneficial for tracking high intensity performance (anaerobic power and capacity).  However, a true Wingate test must be performed in a lab on a specific cycling ergometer.  Not many labs have the required ergometer, so this somewhat limits the usefulness of the test. 

Now what about testing outside of the lab?  There are waaaaaaay too many testing variations to describe here.  Probably the most common test is the 20min max test.  All you’ve got to do is hop on your bike and time trial for 20min.  This test is best done on an uninterrupted and slightly uphill road.  It’s one way to get an estimate of the lactate threshold without going to a lab.  So, much like the lactate threshold test, this is a great test for tracking fitness. 

There are also ways to incorporate testing into everyday training.  For example, if you’re doing an interval set and it feels really easy, pace the last 1-2 off of heart rate and RPE (“rating of perceived exertion”). You can then use this data to make some changes to your power zones without doing a true fitness test.  Power is a great tool for training but if you don’t increase your power zones as you get stronger, you’re no longer training as well as you could.

Whatever testing you choose, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, treat a test like race day.  Eat right beforehand so that you’re able to perform your best.  You’ll also want to pick a test that you can repeat.  Perform your tests on the same stretch of road at roughly the same time of day.  Or if you visit a lab, record the testing protocol so you can repeat it again. You also want to use the same equipment during a test that you’ll use in training.  I had an embarrassing meltdown after I set my training zones based on a power meter that read 10-20W higher than the power meter I was training with.  Be better than me.

Whatever test you (or your coach) choose, be sure to enjoy it.  This isn’t school so you shouldn’t be stressing about it.  Thanks for reading!

A Day in the Life: Tyler Williams at the Great Ocean RR

Today kicks off a new feature for us, here on Catalyst Content, “A Day in the Life”. We’ll use this feature to give folks an inside look into a day in some of our athletes lives, whether it be at a race, training day, or maybe just a day they’re kicking it at the café. Today, we are graced by the smooth stylings of Tyler Williams, reporting from Down Under (Australia). Tyler is about to kick off his season, on Sunday, at the Cadel Evans’ Great Ocean Road Race. It is a one-day World Tour race.

Tyler has been training hard in California. Leading up to this race, the past six weeks have consisted of three weeks focused on volume, aerobic capacity, and sprinting on tired legs. We followed that three-week block with a rest week, and then a two-week block focused more on race specific intensity. The goal is that Tyler is fit enough to race, and have a shot at racing well, but that we haven’t spent so much energy getting him here that it is going to have him dropping down as the rest of the season goes on.

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Described below, is a typical day for Tyler prior to the race. He does some recon with the team, and a bit of a workout, check it out:

7am: Breakfast, which is quite good here in the hotel. Generally it seems like the World Tour races that are outside of Europe are really good with the food and housing of the teams. So that is something that is always a plus!

9am: Roll out from hotel for approximately 4 hours on the main drag of the course down the Great Ocean Road. We have been leaving quite early for rides here since it has been so warm, and as it we are getting closer to racing now it’s best we avoid too much heat exposure. We ride together but everyone has a bit of there own agenda for days like this. Nate had me just getting in some tempo work and 4x2’ vo2 to wake up all of those systems before the Melbourne Crit which is Thursday. On a recon day I think it’s important to pay attention as much as you can to the details of the course. Where the wind is coming from and where it is open and exposed. Things like that can be difference makers, so it is important not to just zone out in conversation and not pay attention to where you are riding.

During the ride I just kinda listen to my body and look for ideal times to make sure I do my work without being “that guy”.

As Tyler hit on, our goal with the workout is doing a bit of top end work, so that those efforts are not totally foreign on race day. However, it's important to balance those goals of staying sharp, with not over doing it, and not clutching at straws trying to build last minute fitness. Hopefully folks picked up on Tyler saying "I just kinda listen to my body". That is a huge key for us. Right now it's 100 deg F in Australia, and he's just flown half way around the world to get there. What that all translates to is a precarious balance between not doing the work to open up, and over pushing it and cooking himself in the athlete. The bottom line being, no power or HR number is going to tell me and Tyler where he's at, better than him being tuned into what he's feeling and trusting himself. That takes time to develop, but strive for it!

Also first kangaroo sighting happened 2 hours in.

2pm: we returned from the ride took a quick shower and then went straight to lunch. As we had a pretty free afternoon I organized to go walk around a bit with a couple of my teammates. My roommate, from Girona, on Lotto NL Jumbo, who I hadn’t seen since last season also joined us. Geelong seems to have a good coffee scene so that was a nice way to kill a couple hours in the afternoon and get out of the hotel.

5pm: Quick massage, we only have one therapist here till tomorrow so we just had fast rubs instead of killing poor Tomaz with 3 hours of massage. Then some stretching and just trying to be somewhat productive with my time here which generally poor at doing, it’s easy to just zone out and stare at a screen. Which I’ll do plenty of over the next few weeks.

7:30pm Dinner, followed by bed at 10!

Then tomorrow do it all again but a shorter ride so probably a lot of staring at a screen, to kill time. I’m excited to start my season finally, after having a long layoff from racing. It’s good to have the exhibition race to at least get some feeling of racing back before a World Tour one day race. There is a fair amount of nerves especially in the first races, because I have been training really well but you also have to remember that everyone else also is training and the field is at a high level down here. But it’s nice to be in the sunshine and it will give me a good gauge of where I am at and what work is still left to do.

At the end of the day, the goal is to do a good ride, so I certainly have high expectations for myself and the team.

Thanks for writing, Tyler, and good luck on Sunday!



The Tale of Low Carbohydrate Training

Story time! It’s the best way to talk about the hot topic of fasted/low-carbohydrate training… 

A prelude.  Carbohydrate is needed to perform high-intensity efforts.  However, the body only has so much carbohydrate stored which gets to be a problem because carbohydrates are also used during low-intensity efforts.  As a result, an athlete can use up their carbohydrate stores before the end of a race when carbohydrates are needed the most (i.e. during a sprint stage).  Conserving these carbohydrate stores could therefore theoretically improve performance. 

Now, onto the story… It’s an overcrowded and poorly lit lab space and a researcher is thinking about how to help athletes perform better.  Or maybe it’s an athlete pedaling along during a long sweltering day at the Tour.  Just like we’ll never know how a rainbow is made, the origin of this story is unknown.

So, what’s the big idea?  Train the body to use more fat so that carbohydrates will be conserved for when they’re needed most.  To do this, all you’ve got to do is train while eating a low carbohydrate diet or in a fasted state (to keep it simple, I’ll just say fasted training – in other words, training before breakfast and without eating food).  Training in this way will use up whatever carbohydrate stores you have and then require the body to use fat so that you can keep exercising (even if you’re skinny, you’ve still got ample fat stores).    

Not only does this idea make sense physiologically, evidence supports the idea that fasted training improves the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source.  Research has found fasted training increases the reliance on fat metabolism as well as increases a number of cellular markers associated with fat metabolism1,2,3.

So far, so good.  But here’s where the story takes a turn.  You may have heard that the person with the highest VO2max doesn’t always win the race.  In other words, lab findings don’t always translate to race day performances.  This initial research focused on a variety of markers for fat metabolism but failed to look at actual athletic performance.  When actual performance was measured following fasted training, researchers have found no improvements in performance or even worse performance compared to training with a traditional high-carbohydrate diet2,3,4

As you might imagine, this is when the townsfolk began to think about overthrowing science.  But physiology is complicated. Yes, fasted training improves fat metabolism. However, it has some other unintended consequences.  Maintaining training intensity and even completing planned training sessions is difficult when fasted1,2. The immune system is highly reliant on carbohydrate5, so the ability to fight infection may also decrease with fasted or low carbohydrate training1.

But one of the main pitfalls of fasted training is that the body’s ability to use carbohydrate gets worse6.  When training fasted, the body isn’t using carbohydrate so it can down-regulate the machinery needed for using carbohydrate (if you don’t use it, you lose it).  And remember, carbohydrate metabolism is needed for those race-winning, high-intensity efforts.  As a result, athletic performance suffers.

In an attempt to maintain carbohydrate metabolism machinery, some have suggested athletes train with some sessions fasted and other sessions fed (a “periodized” style of training)2,7,8.  There have been a handful of these studies with somewhat conflicting findings.  For example, a couple of studies found periodized fasted training resulted in greater performance benefits compared to a traditional high carbohydrate diet7,8.  On the other hand, another study found no differences2. Why the difference in findings?  One reason may be that the studies included participants of different ability levels and elite athletes may not respond as well to fasted training.

Now, before you go thinking that this story has a sad ending, there are some cases where fasted training can be beneficial.  Ultra-length endurance athletes who compete at a consistent lower intensity may potentially benefit from fasted training.  Fasted training might also be a way to introduce some novelty to what can otherwise be boring winter base miles (just don’t do it near target races). 

For this story, a lot has been simplified.  If you’re interested in learning more, let us know!  But for now, I’ll end story time.  I hope you enjoyed it while eating (or not eating) a high-carbohydrate snack…  Thanks for reading!

A Tale of Two Files

Dickens, am I right? Well onto the interesting stuff...or rather, stuff, we'll let you decide if it's interesting.

File 1 - Marathon MTB Race at 2000m Elevation

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Athlete Metrics

  • 61 kg
  • 180 bpm threshold HR
  • 320w FTP (at race elevation)

Race Load

  • 6:48 race time
  • 4998 kJ
  • 377 TSS
  • 205w average power, 246w normalized power
  • 1.2 variability index
  • 156 bpm average HR (87% of threshold HR)
  • -0.64% Pw:Hr drift

Peak Powers

  • 30 sec - 543w, 83rpm (170% FTP, produced at start)
  • 60 sec - 477w, 82rpm (149% FTP, produced at start)
  • 5 min - 347w, 91rpm (108% FTP, 824 kJ completed prior)
  • 20 min - 280w, 90rpm (88% FTP, 824 kJ completed prior)
  • 60 min - 240w, 92rpm (75% FTP, 3042 kJ completed prior)

File 2 - European Climbing Road Race at Sea Level

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Athlete Metrics

  • 60 kg
  • 183 bpm threshold HR
  • 360w FTP (at race elevation)

Race Load

  • 3:47 race time
  • 3112 kJ
  • 283 TSS
  • 229w average power, 286w normalized power
  • 1.25 variability index
  • No HR metrics

Peak Powers

  • 30 sec - 556w, 89rpm (157% FTP, 2612 kJ completed prior)
  • 60 sec - 485w, 89rpm (135% FTP, 2601 kJ completed prior)
  • 5 min - 393w, 88rpm (109% FTP, 2560 kJ completed prior)
  • 20 min - 364w, 86rpm (101% FTP, 2560 kJ completed prior)
  • 60 min - 297w, 88rpm (83% FTP, 2053 kJ completed prior)

The Punch Line

It is what you make of it, huh, so what do you make of it? Well in a lot of ways, I’d say the demands of these races are super similar. On a simple level, physiologically, both races/tasks demand excellent aerobic efficiency for success. Meaning the efforts the athlete needs to make, must not take so much out of the athlete, that they cannot repeat them, and that they cannot complete the total workload at a high effort. It is 3000 to 5000 kJ of energy demand, and meeting that demand is the baseline minimum. This is in contrast to say a short track or cross country MTB race, where as total workload goes down, the absolute intensity goes up. In both of these races, a big common factor is that the driver in the result is not absolute, one time, power for say five or twenty minutes (more like a TT or a shorter event), but the ability to absorb a large workload and then go fast enough to be competitive. In a lot of ways I think about races like this as, “weathering the storm” races. Whoever can weather the storm best, and then go still fast, wins.

Now, as the cliché tells us, the devil is in the details. So while on a simple level these races are about the same thing, handling a big aerobic workload, when you drill a bit deeper, the differences show up. First off, just looking at the two power files, visually we see that the road race is actually more stochastic, and just consistently having more oscillations in power. This is a key component of road racing, especially in Europe. You can look at the first 2.5 hours of the race and say, “ok, 220w average, that’s what I train for”. What is easy to miss is, that there is a < 5sec burst over 400w, probably every 5-8 min on average. None of those efforts in isolation are challenging for this athlete, but what they do is add up to a significant amount of cumulative time over threshold, which shifts things metabolically, as well as adds to muscle fiber fatigue. Both of these are things, which are totally manageable, but they increase the carbohydrate/glucose demands on what the athlete needs to take in exogenously, and if they haven’t trained to do the workload prior to the race finish with some of it coming from anaerobic efforts, they will be more tapped than expected. That is an initial big difference right off the bat. The marathon MTB race, you can see the 30 sec and 60 sec peak powers are pretty much the same as the road race, but they happen right at the start and then it’s over. As the race goes on, you can see the file just gets smoother and smoother. The competitive power under fatigue in the marathon MTB race, is a much lower, more aerobic power than in the road race. So not only is the storm to be weathered different in each race, but the “competitive finish” at the end is different. Looking at where the peak powers occurred in the road race, you see the absolute intensity for the 30s and 60s powers are the same, but come much later in the race. Again to try and make things simple (complex can be fun, but simple is productive) the road race gets more intense as the race gets closer to the finish, the MTB race gets less intense and more about diesel aerobic power. The higher the power, the more the effort relies on carbohydrate, simple trend. To the point, if we look at the final hour of the road race vs. the MTB race, the final hour of the road race is almost all power that is either above FTP, or coasting (descending). Whereas the MTB race has a lot less oscillation, a lot less high power effort in that final hour. The MTB athlete can be competitive, on quite different nutrition and ability to tap over threshold powers under fatigue.

So what is the takeaway? Well, I don’t know, two different races, two different detail sets, yeah that’s probably pretty expected. There are a lot of ways you could look at these different files, and ways you could call them similar or different. The big applicable point that I like to draw from them is that a good way to break down race demands may be to break them into two simple categories. The first demand and priority should be what is the general workload (i.e. duration, energy demand, TSS). The second demand and priority should be what is the composition of the general workload. This is where we really start to see the differences. It all feeds back into probably the most basic ideology of endurance sport training, that athletes should start with general preparation and move towards more specific preparation. Now that I have typed all these words and am reaching this conclusion, I am a little disappointed, not to bring something more interesting and controversial to the table. However, often the oldest and most practiced philosophies are the best and most secure. To leave it with a counter I would say that it is never too early in training to start incorporating specificity towards the task demands of an event. It is easy to go overboard with that, and lose some of the key general preparation, but in bits and pieces, why not train specifically for what you’re going to race?

The punch line? 5th in the road race, 1st in the marathon MTB race.