Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cycling, testing, wattage and body weight

A number of people have asked me a bunch of questions on approaches to training on the bike so I thought I best write. Spring is on its way so the first thing I suggest is to do the season's first on-road test and here is how:

The best way is to use a power meter and periodically perform tests at different distances. Watts let you objectively measure increases in power output regardless of the wind or road surface. However, many riders still don't have a power meter due to expense or complexity. This isn't a showstopper if you have a heart monitor or can borrow one. Using it, you can come pretty close to a power meter's objectivity.

The trick is getting enough data points during several months. March is a good time to start. Test your form coming out of winter, which will also give you a reference point for tests through the spring and summer.

Here's how:

---Set aside one day every 2 weeks for testing. Follow an identical protocol each time: a rest day before the test, same diet, same bike, same warm-up.

---Use the same 8 km stretch of road; either an out-and-back or a loop. Ideally, it'll be low-traffic, sheltered from the wind and without traffic control devices.

---On test day, warm up well. Then ride the course out-and-back like a time trial or go around a loop. The idea is to reduce the wind's effect by riding both into it and with it.

---Keep your heart rate just below your lactate threshold. This is the point where heavy breathing turns into panting. This isn't a flat-out time trial, but it's close.

---Record the elapsed time in your training diary, along with average heart rate and weather conditions that may have had an influence. Environmental factors will vary from one test to another, but they'll average out during several months.

Chart your times on graph paper or a spreadsheet. If your training is effective, you'll see a definite curve of progress (lower times). If not, you'll know that your program needs changes.

A common question people ask is about hill climbing and how to get better at it. As we know, climbing primarily depends on a rider's power-to-weight (PTW) ratio. If a friend puts out more watts per kilogram of body weight than you do, she'll climb steep hills faster even if you generate more power in an absolute sense.

Example: A 90-kg (198-lb.) rider who can produce 360 watts for 20 minutes has a PTW ratio of 4.0. A guy who's 70 kg (154 lbs.) and produces 300 watts for 20 minutes has a ratio of 4.3. He'll climb the steep stuff faster even though he's putting out fewer watts.

Conversely, a big, powerful rider will go faster on the flat where gravity isn't an issue. That's why the strongest time trialists typically are horses like Fabian Cancellara.

As the grade steepens, the advantage of pure power decreases and the advantage of a superior PTW ratio increases. So, if you're pretty big and typically ride strongly on the flats, this explains why climbs get harder for you as they get steeper.

If you struggle when you stand, that's often the case with larger riders, it's because when you get out of the saddle, you have to hold up your body weight as well as push the pedals. The more you weigh, the more of your available power goes to supporting your body.

How can you improve on steeper climbs?

---Lose weight if you carry extra body fat.

---Increase power with well-designed interval training.

---Be at the front of the group before hard climbs. You'll gradually slip back and may even lose contact, but big riders can descend faster and catch up.

---Steer clear of superlight equipment. Realize that for a big rider, a 1-kg reduction in bike weight represents 1% or less of total bike/body weight.

---Suffer! Climbing is hard work and you won't get better without pushing yourself.

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