Technology everywhere has come a long way, even in the lifetimes of the youngest readers here. Nearly all of us walk around with a computer in our pockets more powerful than what was available to the average homeowner 25-30 years ago. Cars don’t always need gas and soon may not even need drivers. Eventually, just as the Jetsons foretold, they might even be flying. Training for endurance sports has certainly not been lacking in innovation during this time. Power meters have become nearly ubiquitous (and arguably a necessity) in cycling, along with making in-roads to the running world. Indoor training technology and diversity has skyrocketed, with multiple platforms available in the interest of providing a better and more precise user experience. Does this mean the methods of the past are no longer valid? Certainly not! And here, we’ll explore some ways you’ll want to blend modern technology with old-school methods to optimize your results and understanding.
Let’s start with the power meter. Its development, acceptance and, now, prevalence has truly revolutionized the way we approach cycling training. Seeing power on our handlebars in real time was the first opportunity we had to objectively compare the work we did from one ride to another. The fundamental math of watts and kilojoules allowed us to quantify training like we never had before, and some of the spinoff calculations like Normalized Power, Intensity Factor and TSS have further refined the language that coaches use to plan workouts and communicate with athletes. From a coach’s standpoint, it can be very challenging to accurately assess an athlete’s performance in training, see progress over time or develop a race strategy for certain types of events without power, especially if you don’t interact with that athlete face-to-face all the time. There are now so many different power meters on the market across a wide range of price points, I would consider them a critical purchase for anyone serious about optimizing their training.
What about indoor training options? It used to be that we were limited to wind or magnetic resistance, which didn’t feel very realistic or provide a natural resistance curve. Rollers were also available, but often limited in how hard you could work on them. Fluid-based trainers came along and closed the gap to actual road riding a little bit, but still left a lot to be desired. Then came electronic “smart” trainers that could dynamically control resistance, maintain load and simulate natural terrain in a somewhat realistic manner, and that changed everything. Don’t get me wrong, “dumb” trainers still have their place: they can be more easily thrown in the back of a car to warm up before a race or tucked out of the way if you don’t have the space or need for an elaborate smart trainer virtual reality set-up. But some version of a smart trainer paired with purpose-driven training software is definitely the way to go for serious indoor training.
The training software is another area that has seen massive development. Early versions were simplistic, “just the facts” applications that often featured obscure and frustrating user interfaces. If you weren’t a computer programmer by day and a helmeted, spandex-clad crusader by night, you might have been left scratching your head. Newer options such as PerfPRO Studio©, TrainerRoad and Zwift have changed that game by providing more functional workout development tools and, in the case of Zwift, a video game-quality multi-user virtual environment. Training analysis software such as Training Peaks have also gotten onboard, offering the ability to create structured workouts available for export to these indoor platforms or the cycling computers mounted on our handlebars so that the workout can be perfectly followed on the trainer or the road.
So far, all this new technology sounds pretty great, right? Why would we look back? Having begun coaching at a time when power meters were gaining acceptance, but were not yet widespread, and indoor training options were less available and less appealing, I think one of the things some athletes lost touch with is how to dynamically adjust a workout to their own abilities. This is the case in both the bigger picture of months of training as well as within the smaller variations that happen workout-to-workout. My own coaching recommendations reflect this. When I started, we might have recommended an athlete complete a set of 8x1-minute MAX intervals. The point here was to identify a repeatable effort that was very challenging and try to replicate this for all eight 1-minute intervals. Now, I might recommend that athlete complete 8x1-minutes at 130% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Such a recommendation is readily transferrable to most training platforms, but is a generic target. In this example, 130% tends to be a good fit for many athletes, but, above threshold, there can be disparities in anaerobic fitness between athletes of similar threshold power, which means one athlete might find 130% too hard for 60-second efforts while another might not be challenged enough. These numbers could certainly be customized to each athlete if you have some previous data to rely upon, but that still doesn’t account for daily variations where a given athlete may be feeling really fresh and strong (and could therefore push a little harder) compared with another day when fatigued from a hard weekend of racing or long rides and can’t quite hit the same numbers.
Another feature of the indoor training options is the ability to dynamically control power variations, often referred to as ERG (short for ergometer) mode. In this setting, if the workout is planned to keep an athlete at a specific power or percentage of FTP, the fancy gizmos inside the trainer motor adjust continuously to maintain that resistance, no matter what the athlete does with regard to cadence or shifting. This can be a great tool to help athletes push their limits at times and target energy systems with maximum precision, but also removes a bit of the real-world variation they would encounter on the road. On the flip side, the training software might also contain a course or SIM functionality that offers a road-like experience to different degrees where resistance varies with the grade of the climb, as does the rider’s simulated speed relative to power output. It’s certainly possible to complete workouts on these courses, but that brings about the same challenge that comes with actual outdoor riding: variation in terrain/simulated terrain leads to variation in power output and potentially less-targeted workout stimuli.
If your head is spinning right now, you might be wondering how the modern athlete is to sort through this technological advancement and what of this promise to explain how to blend old school and new school? There is no single answer, as some athletes (and coaches) will have a preference for one approach over another. There are some general rules that should be helpful across most situations and I’ll dive into those below.
The first and most important is to understand what the workout is and how it should be completed. It’s great that structured workouts can be exported to indoor training software or handlebar computers, but if an athlete takes a minute to read through and understand the workout, many can be relatively easily replicated even without relying on such a cheat sheet during the ride. Note that some workouts intended for indoor applications might be more complicated than those that are more ambiguous. The assumption that a workout will be done indoors following some sort of controlled workout creates an opportunity for more varied efforts that might be more engaging but also not practical in another environment. Key factors to note when doing a read of a workout are, of course, the number and duration of intervals, as well as the planned intensity, for instance, 2x20-minutes @ 95% of threshold. Also take note of the rest period between intervals, then any special conditions, such as a target cadence for the intervals that might not be spelled out in all cadences, unless it’s something different than what the athlete might normally adopt. With my workouts, I might also add some more explanatory notes relating to the specific goal of the workout. For instance, in some cases I may give a power target, but also the direction that this is a starting point, and the athlete should adjust based on ability/freshness. In other cases, I may give a power target, but recommend sticking to this target rather than pushing harder, even if capable of going harder.
The second element is understanding what the workout means relative to what you can do. If you’re to do 2x20-minutes at 95% and your current FTP is 250 watts, this means the target effort should be 235-240 watts for the intervals. If your FTP is well established, there should be no problems here, but if it’s been a long time since you confirmed that reference point, you should also look to other recent training. Has your best 10-minute effort in the last six months been 230 watts? Your FTP might be lacking then, and trying to complete longer efforts at this power likely won’t end well. On the other hand, if you’ve recently completed several 10-minute efforts at 270 watts, maybe your FTP has grown a bit, and you can actually push these efforts a little harder, depending on how your coach wants you to approach the workout. Also consider what this means for you on the day. Even if you’ve completed previous 20-minute intervals at 235-240 watts, on a given day your legs may feel fatigued to the point where this power output will take you over the top, resulting in shortened intervals or power decaying to a point that is not beneficial. If you can recognize this early in the workout and make an adjustment to target 230-235 watts, it could be enough to help you complete the full set with a better outcome than the other alternatives. Or if you start at the appropriate wattage and it feels really easy on a good day perhaps you can build your power in the second half of the interval to hit some new bests, provided the workout format encourages that.
Finally, how do we deal with this whole ERG vs. course/SIM thing? Some athletes really like the feeling of a controlled workout, feeling they work harder when they’re “told” what to do in ERG mode than if they have to do it on their own. Others prefer the opportunity to vary their effort a little more naturally. There is a place for both, and I would choose different options for different types of workouts. In general, I like the steadiness that comes with ERG mode for longer efforts at constant power, especially if they are sub-threshold. In this range, the athlete is normally unlikely to hit a failure point. If they are a little better or worse than their own normal on a given day, they likely can absorb that difference. ERG is also useful for athletes trying to increase training specificity. For instance, if they live in flat or even rolling areas and are preparing for a long mountain climb, it might be difficult for them to generate consistent resistance in a big gear at low cadence outdoors, but this can be accomplished while training with ERG mode.
For workouts that include efforts approaching maximum for a given duration (either short or long), I generally prefer a course-style option or at least a free-ride mode where the athlete is not being held at a constant resistance. This freedom allows the rider to vary power more dynamically. In many cases, you might go through periods of high and low effort within a single interval and being able to make these nuanced adjustments in effort can lead to a stronger performance overall than constant load. And if you feel stronger, you can always exceed the target or, if the legs are fatigued (often true later in a set), there is room for power to decay a bit while you continue working hard--as I like to say, give 100% of whatever percentage you have left! The challenge, if you are actually outside or on a simulated course, is that you might encounter a long or steep downhill in the middle of your effort that makes it impossible to maintain power. This could be perfect if you’re preparing for an event in which the terrain will be similar, but if you’re more focused on the workout quality, you may want to stick to a more consistent terrain or choose an option in the virtual world that either attenuates the climbs or allows the freedom for adjustment without terrain-based interference.
At Vision Quest, we use PerfPRO Studio for our indoor workout software. One of the great features in this software is the ability to plan a mixed-mode workout which blends elements of ERG and course-riding. In practice, we might plan a set of intervals with a couple of ERG reference intervals at a percentage of FTP. After completing one or two of those, athletes should have a sense of about how hard we want them to work, as well as what’s realistic for them--if they need to dial back a bit or push a little harder. It’s also possible to toggle ERG on and off in other platforms, but will require manual input to do so.
Wrapping up, there is a lot to be gained by taking advantage of the technology we have available to us now. It’s certainly more engaging than some of the historical options and may even border on FUN at times. All of the data that is generated presents the opportunity for more precise training and detailed analysis as well. Whether you’re training indoors or outside, be sure to understand the nuances of your training apparatus, as well as the intention and specifics of your workouts so you can better understand how they are related to you, know how to execute them more effectively and make the most of your training time.