You may or may not be aware but alongside my role as a coach I am also an active sport scientist, conducting research into how we make cyclists go faster!
I am very aware that often the latest research isn’t particularly accessible. This means that all the hard work that goes into conducting research can go to waste as the information isn’t getting into the hands of coaches and athletes!
Alongside colleagues we recently published a paper looking at the training characteristics of U23 professional cyclists. Over a period of 3-years we collected data from every training session and race and ended up with 30 sets of data to analyse!
You can find and read the paper here (its open access!!): https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/8/12/167/htm
We split the season up into 4 periods (pre-, early-, mid- and late-season). We conducted formal testing in the pre-season and then tracked several training and performance metrics throughout the entire season.
Here are the 3 take home messages that you can implement!
Take Home 1: You can’t use training data to determine threshold power!
One of the things we were interested in was if you can use the power data collected during training to get an accurate measure of critical power (CP)
(CP is what you might call your ‘threshold’ power – the power you might ride at in a 40km TT).
There are a few ways you can estimate CP –you can estimate it from formal testing (a 3- and 12-minute test) and you can estimate it from the maximal power duration curve (the best power you have achieved for various periods of time plotted on a graph – where the line flattens (the asymptote) also gives us a good estimate of CP.
We had all the athletes perform a formal CP test in the pre-season so that we had an accurate measure to compare against. We then used the power duration curve to estimate CP in early- mid- and late- season. We did this twice for each period, once with power outputs recorded exclusively in racing and once with power outputs recorded exclusively in training.
What we found was there no significant different between CP from the formal test and CP estimated from power outputs in races across the season. This tells us that a pre-season CP test accurately predicts performance across the rest of the season.
However, we saw that the CP estimate from power outputs in training was significantly lower in every period than the CP estimate from racing data.
This tells us that the power outputs you are doing in training are not predictive of the power outputs you can do in races. They will be lower! This is particularly important if you have a long block of training between races.
It is likely that in training you are always carrying a little bit of residual fatigue. This affects the power you can produce. It is only after you taper, prior to a race, that you strip away that residual fatigue and you then can hit the power numbers that give an accurate measure of your CP.
Another explanation is that because you don’t need to go all-out to get a positive training effect, and when training athletes are normally doing multiple efforts in a training session, the pacing of efforts (to make sure all efforts can be completed) means athletes produce their maximal power outputs for a given duration.
The likelihood is that both these factors influence the power outputs recorded in training. However the take home remains the same - don’t use training data to predict your CP – you need racing data or formal testing to be able to do that!
Take Home 2: Don’t try and up your training when the season kicks off!
Because we tracked both training characteristics and performance characteristics throughout the season, we were able to look at the relationship between the two. To do this we looked at the change in performance from one period to the next alongside the change in the training from one period to the next!
For example, we plotted the change in the amount of total work an athlete did from pre- to -early season against the change in their best 2- and 5-minute power outputs.
We saw something quite interesting….
There was a strong trend that showed that athletes who increased their overall training load at the same time as they started racing performed WORSE!
The introduction of racing at the start of the season is enough of an extra stimulus to help athletes improve. They don’t need more volume, more intensity AND racing! Therefore, it is key that coaches don’t increase the training load at the start of the season. Simply let athletes settle into racing, give them enough recovery between races and the athletes will continue to improve.
Take Home 3: As the season progresses make sure training is polarised!
In the mid-season we noticed a very interesting trend in the relationship between training and performance. We saw that athletes that trained more <VT1 (that is below the first threshold – nice easy endurance pace) showed the biggest improvement in 2- and 12-minute power outputs. The nice easy riding was improving their performances!
We also saw that athletes who spent more time above CP increased their CP the most.
There was however no relationship between the change in time spent between VT1 and CP and any changes in performance.
This tells us that once athletes have become accustom to racing, and it is time to introduce some harder training sessions again, it is key that coaches keep the longer rides easy and the hard rides hard! This is a polarised training distribution.
What you might see in the overall training distribution during the season is a lot of time spent between VT1 and CP – this is likely mostly accumulated in races. When racing, coaches cannot control the intensity so don’t worry about that too much. However, when it comes to training (where coaches are in full control of the intensity) it is important that the easy stuff is easy and the hard stuff is hard!
I hope this helps to take the findings of a complex study and translates them into something that you can apply to the sessions you set for athletes (or for yourself)! We have several other papers on the way, and I will be breaking each one of them down into their take home messages on my blog! Stay tuned for those!!