Training and Racing with Power – A Case Study

As most of you know, I started a coaching business a little less than a year ago.  I named it Progressive Endurance, because of the concept the name portrays.  It gives the picture of moving closer to an athlete’s fitness goals.  When someone says, “we are making progress,” they are typically talking about reaching a goal that may take a long time or doesn’t have immediate results.  This is very true in the racing triathlons, or any other endurance sport.  Gains are made to the goals with hard work, and typically don’t come immediately.

In this article, I want to talk about the benefits of using a power meter for cycling.  I started using a power meter about 2 years ago now and it has revolutionized my training and racing.  I also have a few athletes that use power for training and racing.  I want to talk about how one of my athletes made some big gains this year by uploading data from her workouts I gave her and how we were able to make big gains in her cycling fitness over the course of about 9 months.  I won’t use her real name, so we will call this athlete Tiffany.

I started coaching Tiffany a little under a year ago.  Tiffany has been racing triathlons for several years and has used other coaches in the past to guide her training.  When she switched to me, she had just come off a 3 or 4 week recovery from the end of the season.  After building her base fitness a little to get her body used of training again, I started doing some tests to find out what her FTP (functional threshold power – essentially the amount of power someone can hold at max effort for one hour) was so we could define her training zones.  Her first test, she came out at 154 watts.

At this time of the year, the goal was to build aerobic fitness and also improve her FTP.  I gave her workouts that focused on raising the FTP a couple times a week.  We also worked on cycling specific strength to give her legs more power.  In some cases, I told her what zones I wanted her to shoot for, and in other workouts, I gave her percentages of her FTP to hit.  Most of the workouts aimed at improving FTP were 1:30, give or take a 15 minutes.  We maximized the time she had available, because of life situations and also because the weather prohibited outdoor riding most of the time.  And, let’s face it, riding a trainer can be mentally difficult if you’re doing it by yourself all the time.

About a month went by and we tested her FTP again.  This time it was 178 watts, which is a 13% improvement.  I think a large chunk of this improvement was simply due to the fact that she was exercising more consistently again, so we continued to work on the same things, but just readjusted her training zones to align with her new FTP.  We tested her FTP a few more times over the next few months with the last test in May.  At this point, racing season was in full swing, and if any adjustments needed to be made, I could pick up on them with her race data.  The last test she did was a club time trial that lasted just under an hour.  Since it didn’t last an entire hour, I made an educated guess on what her FTP would be if she had continued on for the remainder of the hour.  I calculated it at 195 watts!

Over the course of  7 months, her FTP had improved by 26.6%!

Using this information, I was able to use a few different equations and algorithms to figure out what wattages she should push in her OLYs and HIM races and still be able to run well off the bike.  Almost every race for Tiffany this year was a PR on that course, and most of the races involved less than favorable conditions with rain and/or windy conditions.  As good as that is for Tiffany, the real test came this year at her A race, Rev3 Cedar Point Full Iron distance.

Leading up to the race in the final 6 weeks or so, we did very specific Iron distance training.   I gave her specific wattages with a range of about 10 watts to try to shoot for.  Tiffany was able to hit all these watts and managed to run well off the bike in race simulated training brick workouts.  I was confident that she was going to have a phenomenal race at Rev3 CP as long as she stuck to the plan and had no mechanical problems on the bike.

For her race, I gave her wattage range to hold on the bike of about 10 watts.  At the beginning of the ride, she was on the high end or just slightly above that.  And the last few miles she managed to stay within the low end of the wattage.  She averaged 149 watts for the entire 112 miles and managed to pull off a 5 minute bike split PR for an iron distance race.  Her previous best bike split came in IM Florida where the conditions weren’t nearly as windy, the road surfaces weren’t chip and sealed, and less elevation changes.  At the end of the day, she pushed through the run and hung on to a podium spot in her AG.  If it weren’t for the much longer run from the water to T1, Tiffany would have PR’d for an Iron Distance in tougher conditions.

Another thing that Tiffany mentioned to me that she noticed this year was even though she was getting several course PR’s this year, she wasn’t nearly as sore and recovered faster.  I believe this is due to a number of things, such as racing/training with power and race day nutrition (which I also provided some guidelines for her to follow) in addition to general, day-to-day nutrition (which I gave some advice).

So, if you’re on the fence about whether to buy a power meter or a pair of race wheels to get faster.  Let me encourage you to buy a power meter.  Real progress will be made with a power meter.  It won’t be free speed like race wheels, but your fitness will get better, and run times will also more than likely improve (improving your cycling will naturally improve your running).  It will take hard work, and will take time, but in the end you’ll be a better athlete.

And, if you’re a local athlete and looking for ways to improve your cycling fitness, please consider doing my winter spin classes starting on Nov. 14th.  If you come consistently, I guarantee improvement in your cycling fitness.