Pacing and Variability in Cycling

By Coach Nick Morrison

If you ride with a power meter, one of the most beneficial metrics to analyze after you ride is your variability index (VI). VI tracks the fluctuation in your power output. Low fluctuation means you held a relatively constant power output during the whole ride and the VI score will be in the 1.00-1.05 range. Lots of fluctuation means you were constantly changing your power output – at times going really hard and at other times going really easy. These are two very different approaches to riding – sprint/recover/sprint/recover vs. pace evenly. As shown in the example variability chart below, these may still end up with the same average power. So, which approach is more appropriate for you?

Variability Comparison

If you are training for time trial style (non-drafting) triathlons or for endurance cycling events like century rides, low variability is the way to go. These events are all about pacing. In triathlon, you need to look at your bike portion not only to look at your bike split, but also to make sure you set yourself up for a good run. Riding with low variability will set yourself up for a great run while riding with high variability will make you struggle through the run (even if you get through the bike alright).

Some courses and conditions will challenge you more than others. On nice calm days with a flat straight course, it’s pretty easy to ride with low variability. You’ll barely even need to change gears. If it’s a windy day or if you’re riding a winding or hilly course, the conditions will be more challenging to keep a low variability. When you’re riding in those challenging conditions, keep an eye on your power output and try to keep it constant. Shift frequently. Avoid the temptations to attack hills (even short ones) or accelerate aggressively out of corners – both cause your power to spike. Challenging courses and conditions are just that – challenging. But if you’re smart about how you approach the ride, you can still do well.

There are times where high variability is the norm. The biggest factor here is if it is a draft-legal event. Drafting completely changes race strategy because riders can tuck in behind the riders in front of them or the full peloton and save a ton of energy while maintaining speed with the other riders. Then when it comes time to try and create separation from the other riders, you must be able to produce a tremendous amount of power to sprint ahead and lose others on your tail.

Take a look at these two power files: Rigoberto Uran’s 2017 Stage 9 Tour de France win and Lionel Sanders’ 2016 Ironman World Championships. Both had impressive power outputs – Uran’s normalized power was 291 watts and Sanders’ NP was 306 watts. The big, big difference is that Uran’s VI was 1.24 while Sanders’ VI was 1.02. That clearly and dramatically shows the difference between a Tour de France ride and an Ironman ride. Uran spent much of his day drafting, but then when the time came to create separation from the pack, he opened up! Sanders on the other hand needed to set himself up for a good run and didn’t have anyone to draft behind nor anyone drafting behind him that he needed to create separation from.

Keep this info in mind next time you’re out for a ride. What is the appropriate pacing strategy for your workout or event?

 

Special thanks to Training Peaks, Rigoberto Uran, and Lionel Sanders for making these power files available!

Bike Safety

Happy Spring! If you’re like me, you’re excited to be getting off the trainer and biking outside more. The weather is warming up, the days are getting longer, and we can ride outside more consistently. Enjoy the nice weather, but keep in mind these few things to make sure you’re being safe.

#1 Wear your helmet.

Please, please, please wear your helmet! That should be the first thing you always check to make sure you bring when you’re going out for a ride.

#2 Leave your headphones at home.

When you’re riding outside, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you which means you need to be able to hear. Leave your headphones at home for the trainer rides.

#3 Pick a good, clockwise course.

Get to know the area you live in. Where are the good roads to ride? Look for bike paths, marked bike lanes on streets, and roads with wide shoulders. Look for roads that are well-maintained with minimal potholes and debris. If you’re riding a loop, ride clockwise. That means that you’ll be making mostly right turns which means you don’t have to cross in front of traffic to turn.

#4 Check your blind spot – way back.

If you do need to merge across traffic, make sure you check your blind spot. Remember that cars are going significantly faster than you, so they come up fast and from a long way back. When you check your blind spot, you should be looking a few hundred yards behind you – not just a couple car lengths – to make sure it’s clear.

#5 Signal with your left arm.

Always signal with your left arm. This keeps your right hand on the handlebars and your back brake – if you need to hit only one brake in a pinch, you want it to be your back brake because your front brake would send you into a front flip. Cars will also be on your left, so it’s easier for them to see your left arm. Pointing up signals a right turn, pointing left signals a left turn, and pointing down signals stop.

#6 Ensure you can see and be seen.

Especially if you ever ride at dawn or dusk, but also if you ride on overcast days, make sure drivers can see you well and that you can see well. Wear clothing with reflective paneling. Ride with a headlight and taillight on your bike. I know they’re not aerodynamic or lightweight, but most lights clip on easily so you don’t have to keep them on for race day.

#7 Establish yourself in the lane.

As I write this one, I know it will be the recommendation that is the most contentious. When there is not a shoulder or bike lane – and there won’t always be one – I believe it is important to establish yourself in the lane. Many cyclists will try to ride to the far right side of the road, literally tiptoeing the edge of the pavement. I don’t. When there is no shoulder, I will ride to the right side of the lane but still with a few feet on my right before the edge of the road. I do that to leave a margin of error on my right before the edge of the pavement – basically, space to swerve if a car passes too close. When I see other cyclists completely hug the right side of the pavement, I also see cars pass them dangerously close while trying to share the lane. By establishing yourself in the lane, but on the right side of it, it communicates to drivers that they need to cross over to the next lane/oncoming traffic in order to pass you. If oncoming traffic isn’t clear, then they need to be patient and wait. I will say that some drivers don’t particularly like being patient and I have been honked at many times in situations like this. I would rather have them honk than have them pass dangerously putting my life in danger. Better yet, review #3 above, and avoid this situation entirely.

If you want to get technical on this one, Colorado Law states, “…a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist…” As the bicyclist, you’re in control of what you consider to be safe. Familiarize yourself with what the law is in your area if you live outside Colorado.

#8 Follow the rules of the road.

Stop at stop signs/stoplights and signal your turns. Doing something like running a stop sign or red light on your bike not only puts your life in danger, but it also builds animosity between you and any driver that just saw you break the law. As cyclists, we need to show drivers that we respect the rules of the road, and they’ll in turn respect us. I know it can be frustrating if you hit a stoplight right in the middle of an interval. I’ve been there too. Regardless of what you’re training for or what workout you’re doing, it does not justify running the light. Plus, look back to #3. In picking a good course, you should also consider things like whether or not your ride includes higher intensity intervals and if so, try to hit those intervals on sections of the course without stops and intersections.

Have fun and enjoy the nice weather, but above all, stay safe!

Bike Safety

If you’re like me, you’re excited to be getting off the trainer and biking outside more. The weather is warming up, the snow is gone, and we can ride outside consistently. Enjoy the nice weather, but keep in mind a few things to make sure you’re being safe.

#1 Wear your helmet.

Please, please, please wear your helmet! That should be the first thing you always check to make sure you bring when you’re going out for a ride.

#2 Leave your headphones at home.

When you’re riding outside, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you and you need to be able to hear. Leave your headphones at home for the trainer rides.

#3 Pick a good, clockwise course.

Get to know the area you live in. Where are the good roads to ride? Look for marked bike lanes and wide shoulders. Look for roads that are well-maintained with minimal potholes and debris. If you’re riding a loop, ride clockwise. That means that you’ll be making mostly right turns which means you don’t have to cross in front of traffic to turn.

#4 Check your blind spot – way back.

If you do need to merge across traffic, make sure you check your blind spot. Remember that cars are going significantly faster than you, so they come up fast and from a long way back. When you check your blind spot, you should be looking a few hundred yards behind you – not just a couple car lengths – to make sure it’s clear.

#5 Signal with your left arm.

Always signal with your left arm. This keeps your right hand on the handlebars and your back brake – if you need to hit only one brake in a pinch, you want it to be your back brake because your front brake would send you into a front flip. Pointing up signals a right turn, pointing left signals a left turn, and pointing down signals stop.

#6 Ensure you can see and be seen.

Especially if you ever ride at dawn or dusk, but also if you ride on overcast days, make sure drivers can see you well and that you can see well. Wear clothing with reflective paneling. Ride with a headlight and taillight on your bike. I know they’re not aerodynamic or lightweight, but most lights clip on easily so you don’t have to keep them on when you ride during the day or in races.

#7 Establish yourself in the lane.

As I write this one, I know it will be the recommendation that is the most contentious. When there is not a shoulder or bike lane – and there won’t always be one – I believe it is important to establish yourself in the lane. Many cyclists will try to ride to the far right side of the road, tiptoeing the edge of the road. I don’t. When there is no shoulder, I will ride to the right of the lane but still with a few feet on my right before the edge of the road. I do that to leave  a margin of error on my right before the edge of the road – basically, space to swerve if a car passes too close. When I see other cyclists completely hug the right side of the road, I also see cars pass them dangerously close while trying to share the lane. By establishing yourself more towards the middle of the lane, it communicates to drivers that they need to cross over to the next lane/oncoming traffic in order to pass you. If oncoming traffic isn’t clear, then they need to be patient and wait. I will say that some drivers don’t particularly like being patient and I have been honked at many times in situations like this. I would rather have them honk than have them pass dangerously putting my life in danger. Better yet, review #3 above, and avoid this situation entirely.

If you want to get technical on this one, Colorado Law states, “…a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist…” You’re in control of what you consider to be safe.

#8 Follow the rules of the road.

Stop at stop signs/stoplights and signal your turns. Doing something like running a red light on your bike not only puts your life in danger, but it also builds animosity between you and any driver that just saw you break the law. As cyclists, we need to show drivers that we respect the rules of the road, and they’ll in turn respect us. I know it can be frustrating if you hit a stoplight right in the middle of an interval. I’ve been there too. Regardless of what you’re training for or what workout you’re doing, it does not justify running the light. Plus, look back to #3. In picking a good course, you should also consider things like whether or not your ride includes higher intensity intervals and if so, try to hit those intervals on sections of the course without stops and intersections.

Have fun and enjoy the nice weather, but stay safe!

Cycling Technique for Triathletes

On the spectrum of technique sports to fitness sports, road cycling leans pretty far to the fitness end. A triathlete’s and cyclist’s ability is primarily dependent on their fitness level. Nevertheless, there are a few key technique elements that will make a significant difference in your race day performance. Master these skills and you will become a more efficient rider as well as dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Pedal in Circles

The single most important thing to learn to do appropriately is to pedal in circles. Sounds easy, right? Your crank arm is a fixed length, your pedal attaches to the end of it, and the pedal is forced to go in a circle. The big question is, “Are you pushing on the tangent of that circle at all times?” Many cyclists – new and experienced – are not and instead they pedal up and down. They slam their foot down like they want to kick through the pavement thinking that they’re generating more power. In reality, they’re wasting energy. You need to teach your body to pedal in circles and round out the bottom of your pedal stroke so that you’re pulling back at the bottom of the stroke.

There are a lot of trainer drills and ways to think about pedaling in circles that can be effective to improve your pedal stroke. What I have found to be most helpful is to do spin-ups at a low resistance (easiest gear) and a high cadence (30-40 rpm or even higher than where you normally ride). At this low resistance, you’ll immediately feel your hips start to bounce around in the saddle when you’re pedaling up and down. When you do it right, you’ll feel your hips sink into the saddle and stay in place as you increase the rpms. This immediate feedback from your body is why I like the drill.

Another drill that I like is the single leg drill. By pedaling with only one leg, you can feel if there is a disconnect in where you are applying power. Unclip one foot and rest it on the back of your trainer then pedal with the other foot. Focus on pulling back at the bottom of your pedal stroke, then all the way up and over the top. Since you only have one foot clipped in, you won’t be able to cheat and let your opposite foot pushing down lift your foot that’s clipped in. Work on this first sitting up with your hands on the handlebars. Once you master that, drop into aero position for an extra challenge. When you do it right, your pedal stroke will feel nice and smooth, but when you do it wrong you’ll feel a clicking/jerking pedal stroke. Again, I like this immediate feedback.

Relax Your Upper Body

The power you generate on your bike is coming from your legs – relax your upper body! If you’re riding a road bike, support your upper body with your core, keep a slight bend in your elbows, and make sure there is very little weight in your hands. If your hands/fingers start to get sore/tingly or completely lose feeling, that’s a sign that you’re putting too much weight in your arms. The same principles apply when you move to a tri bike with aero bars. Make sure you support from the core. Avoid letting your chest drop too far and your shoulder blades pinch together across your back.

Shift, Shift, Shift

I’m still amazed at how many triathletes I see that shift poorly. First, make sure you’re comfortable using both the gears in your big and small chain ring (left hand shifter) and all the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter). Next, think of shifting as a way to make the resistance level that your legs are feeling constant for the whole ride. Strive to make it feel like you’re riding on an indoor trainer where the wind and grade never changes. If the grade of the road starts to increase (uphill), shift down to an easier gear. Likewise, as the grade decreases (downhill), shift up to a harder gear. Listen to your legs and be in tune with how hard they are working so that you can shift immediately with the variations in terrain. Same goes for the wind – as that changes, shift as necessary.

If you have a power meter, you’ll be able to measure the difference – watch your power while you ride and keep a low variability index. It is eye-opening for most cyclists when they first start using a power meter and can see how much their power spikes from even small hills if they aren’t shifting appropriately. Triathlon, time-trial, non-drafting cycling is all about energy efficiency – especially over longer and longer distances. To be efficient, you need to reduce the variability through shifting.

Work on these tips next time you’re out riding or working on the trainer. Pedaling technique and relaxing your upper body are great things to work on during trainer rides in the winter. You’ll see the benefits by the time race season comes around.

Focus on Form

Use your base building phase to improve and perfect technique in each sport to be efficient and injury-free

Most of us are getting back into a normal training routine after some down time in the fall and over the holidays. Now that winter is here, we enter what is called the base building phase of training. A well-structured training plan consists of multiple phases each focused on different key elements of improving an athlete’s performance. The key to the base building phase, is improving and perfecting technique in each sport. Improving technique means working on drills in each sport and that means lots of repetition. This will accomplish two major things. First, it will lower an athlete’s risk of injury later in the season as we increase volume and intensity. Second, it will improve efficiency and in turn performance. Here’s more info on what the base building phase is and how it works.

Swimming is the most technique oriented of the three triathlon sports. Athletes need to focus on things like an early catch, strong pull, and appropriate body position. Cycling technique for triathletes is largely about pedaling efficiency (we won’t worry about the technique that mountain bikers need to master), body control, and appropriate shifting. Great run technique includes landing lightly on the balls of your feet and maintaining a slight forward lean. During base building, it’s important to work on all of these elements. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be publishing articles that go into greater detail on each sport.

Strength training also plays a large role in injury prevention and is a great thing to focus on during base building. Leg strength and core strength play a crucial role for triathletes, so be sure to emphasize those areas in your training. Not only that, but endurance athletes also need to focus on lateral strength (moving sideways). We spend so much time moving straight forward, that we create muscle imbalances which can lead to injury – particularly with running. Improving lateral strength will help reduce that risk.

As you move into base building, keep this info in mind so that you focus on the right training elements.

Summer is Coming!

As the weather warms up, we can finally stop worrying about freezing in the cold and shift our focus to getting in longer workouts outside in the sunshine. For anyone training for a race that lasts longer than about an hour and a half, it is extremely important to stay hydrated. Not only that, but the longer the race, the more important hydration becomes – marathon, half Ironman, and Ironman people I’m talking to you! There’s more to staying hydrated than just drinking water. You need to consider your sweat rate and sodium intake in addition to the water that you drink. Here’s a breakdown of how it all works.

Sweat

Your sweat rate is simply how much you sweat during your workouts. If you know how much you’re sweating (water out), you can figure out how much water you need to drink (water in) to stay hydrated. It varies depending on how hot it is, how hard you’re working, the sport you’re doing, and the weather conditions (sunny/cloudy, hot/cool, calm/windy). Not only does it vary depending on external variables, but it also varies by internal variables – you! Sweat rates vary tremendously from one athlete to another. In fact, if you compared sweat rates to shoe sizes, it’d be like shoe stores having to carry size 2 to 200 to accommodate everyone! Because of this, I highly recommend doing a sweat rate test. If you can do multiple tests in varying conditions, it’s even better.

A sweat rate test will tell you how much you sweat. With this info, you can figure out how much you need to drink so that your performance doesn’t suffer from dehydration. All you have to do is weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much weight you lose. Make sure you weigh yourself right before you start and right after you finish. It also works best to take off any sweaty, wet clothes. 16 oz. of water weighs 1 lb. So, if you weigh 153 lbs. at the start of a 40 min run and 152 at the end, that means that you lost 1 lb or 16 oz of water and that your sweat rate is 24 oz of water per hour running. Repeat the test in different conditions and for different types of workouts to get an idea of how much your sweat rate varies and so that you can better predict what your sweat rate will be on race day.

Drink Water

Now that you know how much you’re sweating, you need to replenish most of that with water. Water from sports drinks like Gatorade, Infinit, or Skratch counts too. You don’t actually need to replenish all of it though. You can lose around 2-3% of your body weight to dehydration before it starts to impact your performance (some studies show even more). That means you can compare your sweat rate to how much you’re drinking and aim to be 2-3% lighter at the end of the race and you’ll be great. That also means that you might have different hydration plans for races of different durations.

Role of Electrolytes

The last thing to consider is the role that electrolytes – particularly sodium – play in hydration. Proper sodium levels allow your body to absorb the water that you drink. Too much or too little can cause issues. There are two ways to determine the right amount of sodium for you. The first is to get a test done that measures the sodium concentration in your sweat. You can get great info from an official test, but it will cost around $100 depending on where you go. The second way is to estimate it based on your own observations like whether you crave salty foods when you finish a workout or notice your skin covered in salt crystals after working out. Put yourself on the range of high, medium, or low saltiness and pick 500-1500 mg of sodium per hour accordingly. This is what you should shoot for in terms of sodium intake. You can get sodium from your sports drinks, salt pills, or solids like granola bars during your workouts and races.

Put it All Together

Now you should know how much to drink and how much sodium to consume to make sure you absorb the water appropriately. Keep in mind that since your sweat rate varies based on the conditions, you may need to adjust things on the fly. For example, if it’s really hot on race day, you’ll want to drink more water than usual. Not only that but you’ll want to increase your sodium intake proportionally along with it.

Keep this all in mind and take the time to do a sweat rate test. It truly is priceless information to have and can make the difference between a great race and a terrible race. I speak from experience. There was one 50k that I ran where I was fighting serious stomach pain the last 8 miles of the race. I finished and literally lay in the fetal position in the finish area for over an hour. Finally, I ate some potato chips that they had in the finish area for the runners and immediately started to feel better. I ate 3 more bags and was back to normal within minutes. My sodium intake was off, I wasn’t absorbing the water I was drinking, and it was causing serious gut rot. If I had had that dialed in better during the race, I probably could have finished 20-30 minutes faster.

Bike Safety Tips

If you’re like me, you’re excited to be getting off the trainer and biking outside more. The weather is warming up, the sun is up longer, and the snow is (almost?) gone. Enjoy the nice weather, but keep in mind a few things to make sure you’re being safe.

#1 Wear your helmet.

Please, please, please wear your helmet. That should be the first thing you always check to make sure you bring when you’re going out for a ride.

#2 Leave your headphones at home.

When you’re riding outside, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you which means you need to be able to hear. Leave your headphones at home for the trainer rides.

#3 Pick a good course.

Get to know the area you live in. Where are the good roads to ride? Look for marked bike lanes and wide shoulders. This time of year, also look for roads where the street sweepers have cleared up all the sand from the winter.

#4 Ride clockwise.

If you’re riding a loop, ride clockwise. That means that you’ll be making mostly right turns the whole time which means you don’t have to wait for other traffic and also means you don’t have to cross in front of other traffic.

#5 Use your signals.

Always signal with your left arm. This keeps your right hand on the handlebars and your back brake – if you need to hit only one brake in a pinch, you want it to be your back brake because your front brake would send you into a front flip. Pointing up signals a right turn, pointing left signals a left turn, and pointing down signals stop.

Have fun and enjoy the nice weather, but be safe! The last thing you need is to get in an accident that will keep you out of training.