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!

Training with Power

Training with a power meter is hands-down the most effective way to train and race on a bike. If you’re new to using power meters or are considering getting one, this will help you understand how to make the most of it.

Power is the most accurate way to measure a cyclist’s work effort and in turn to use for training zones and race pace targets. Speed fluctuates far too much with hills and wind to be helpful on the bike. Heart rate is better than speed, but still leaves a lot to be desired since it is a lagging metric and because it is influenced by too many other variables than just current effort. Power though instantly tells an athlete how hard they are working. It is a factor of the resistance level (how hard you are pushing on the pedals) and cadence. Increase one while maintaining the other and your power output will go up.

I further like to think of the resistance level in two forms – internal and external factors. The internal factors are the ones you control and the external are the ones out of your control. The main internal factor is gear selection. Shift down to an easier gear and you reduce resistance or shift up to a harder gear and you increase resistance. The main external resistance factors are wind and grade (uphill/downhill/flat). Handling these external factors is what really gets at the heart of why power is so beneficial.

Imagine you are riding on flat ground at a given power output and given speed. Now the road changes to a slight uphill. If you were pacing by speed, you would have to increase your power output to maintain the same speed up the hill – you shouldn’t do that. Instead, with a power meter you can see that you can maintain your cadence and shift down to an easier gear to balance out the uphill grade. The result is that you maintain a constant power output and accept that your speed drops on the uphill.

That example also illustrates the importance of shifting frequently. With every change in grade and wind, you should be shifting. In a non-drafting triathlon, your goal should be to maintain a constant power output at your race pace target. How well you do this is measured by something called the variability index (VI). VI measures how much your power fluctuates during a ride. VI of 1.00-1.05 shows that you kept your power output relatively constant while higher VI numbers show that there was a lot of fluctuations in power. Notice that I did say in a non-drafting race.

Different race types require significantly different strategy. You can see this by comparing power files from Lionel Sanders during Ironman Arizona (non-draft) and Ben Kanute from the Rio Olympics (draft legal). Sanders kept a VI of 1.01 – that’s about as steady an output as you can get. Meanwhile Kanute’s VI was 1.20 and the article also shows his time in zones which shows that he was constantly going from sprinting to coasting/drafting and back. Both were fantastic races, and both are fantastic athletes, but as you can see from the power files, the races themselves are very different.

The last thing that I want to point out is that exact power numbers are only worth comparing you to you – not to other athletes. What I mean by that is that you can track your power output during training and see that you increased your average power during a 20-minute test from 240 watts to 260 watts and know that you have improved. You cannot however compare one cyclist’s 20-minute test of 240 watts to a second cyclist’s 20-minute test of 260 watts and assume that the second cyclist is faster. If the first cyclist is lighter, it’s very possible that the first cyclist is actually faster. If you want to compare two cyclists, the best way is just to compare their race or time trial times over the same course.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of what power is on the bike and how you can use it to benefit your training. With this understanding, the next step is to work with your coach to determine your functional threshold power (FTP) and to set training zones to use for pacing during workouts and races.

Pedal Power

By Coach Nick Morrison

Pedaling efficiency and technique is an important skill to master for all cyclists. It’s key for success at all race distances, and especially over longer and longer distances. Not only that, but offseason/winter/indoor training is a great time to focus on it.

The goal

An efficient pedal stroke is when the cyclist is pushing/pulling on the tangent of the circle that the pedals make at every point. Imagine looking at a bike from the right side like in the diagram. Think of the pedal stroke like a clock. At 12, a cyclist should be pushing forward, at 3 pushing straight down, at 6 pulling back, and at 9 pulling up. Avoid the tendency to just think about pedaling as an up and down motion.

Pedal Stroke

Drills

There are a couple of drills that I like to have my athletes work on to improve their pedaling efficiency. Both are easiest to do on an indoor trainer but can also be done riding outside. If you try these outside, just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings and pick a safe path, quiet road, or parking lot to try these out.

The first drill is called spin-ups. Shift down to your easiest gear and lower the resistance on your trainer all the way down. Then spin-up to the highest cadence you can maintain. As you reach your limit, you’ll probably feel your hips start to bounce around on the saddle. We want to try and eliminate that, so really focus on rounding out the bottom of your pedal stroke and pulling back at 6 o’clock. Also think of pedaling forward and backward instead of up and down. As you improve, you should feel your hips settle into place in the saddle and you should also notice that you can hold a higher cadence.

The second drill is called single leg or peg leg. Again, shift down to your lowest gear/easiest resistance. Unclip one foot and rest it against your chain stay (avoid rubbing your heal against the wheel!). Then pedal with just one leg. Focus on keeping a constant pedal stroke speed and applying power all the way around the pedal stroke. When you first try this out, you’ll probably feel a disconnect as you round the top of the pedal stroke and you’ll feel a distinct jerk somewhere between 12 and 3 as you connect back and reapply power. Focus on pulling up and over the top of the pedal stroke so that you can maintain the connection to power and eliminate that jerk. If you’re having trouble, practice first sitting more upright with your hands on the handlebars and as you get the hang of it, challenge yourself by going down into aero position.

Track your progress

As you practice these drills, challenge yourself by recording the highest cadence you can maintain before your hips bounce around in the saddle and time how long you can do the single leg drill without that jerking feeling. You’ll also probably notice with the single leg drill that you have a dominant leg. Try to even those out so that you can get the same score with each leg. Set a benchmark for yourself and try to improve from there!

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!

Race Day Hydration and Nutrition Planning

A complete race day hydration and nutrition plan is crucial to an endurance athlete’s success. With the right nutrition plan, you can enable your body to reach its full potential in order to perform your best on race day.

The most important thing to stress before you start to build your plan is that this gives you a starting point. From there, you need to try it out in training and make adjustments as necessary.

I break my race day nutrition plan up into 3 components: hydration, electrolytes, and calories. Follow along with this handout to start building your plan.

Hydration

As you are working out, your body sweats to cool itself. You need to replenish this water so that you stay hydrated and maintain performance. This is the most important part of the hydration and nutrition plan. Proper hydration allows your body to maintain central nervous system function – literally your brain sending electrical signal to your muscles to fire. While it is true that athletes can actually lose 2-3% of their body weight due to dehydration before their performance starts to decrease, for practical purposes and from my experience with numerous athletes, we still need to aim to replace all of the sweat that you lose. That means that we want to try and drink enough water to replace the sweat that you lose.

To determine how much you need to drink, you can calculate something called your sweat rate. Your sweat rate is the amount of weight that you lose through sweat in one hour. To calculate it, weigh yourself before and after a workout to determine how much weight you lost. Weigh yourself nude both times and dry off for the post-workout weigh-in. Divide the weight lost by the duration of the workout. In order for this to be accurate, don’t eat or drink anything during the workout and don’t use the restroom. Your sweat rate will be different for different sports and based on the weather (heat and humidity). For the most accuracy, try to calculate your sweat rate a few times for different sports and at different temperatures to get a complete picture.

Follow these steps to figure out how much water to drink.

  1. Sweat rate

Sweat rate = (pre-workout weight in lbs. – post-workout weight in lbs.) / Workout Duration in hrs

  1. Drink rate.

Drink rate = Sweat rate * 16 fl oz

Electrolytes

Electrolytes – particularly sodium – are necessary to ensure that the water you drink can be absorbed properly and again to maintain proper electrical signals in your nervous system. Sodium concentration varies dramatically from one athlete to another. There are a couple ways you can determine the sodium concentration in your sweat. The first and most accurate way is to go to a lab and get it tested. The second way is to estimate your sodium concentration based on observing yourself. This is less accurate, but most athletes can actually estimate this relatively well. To estimate it, ask yourself if you finish workouts with salt crystals on your skin and if you crave salty foods. Then put yourself into the low, medium or high category and follow these targets.

Low: 500 mg of sodium/hr    Medium: 1000 mg of sodium/hr        High: 1500mg of sodium/hr

Calories

Calories are fuel. As we compete in any sport we burn fuel. Race cars need to refill their gas tank during a race and endurance athletes need to take in more fuel too. There are two elements to this equation: the number of calories you burn and the number of calories you consume. Here’s the catch though, during a workout or race, you do not need to consume as many calories as you burn. The reason for this is that your body already has calories stored as fat that will fuel you through your workout. During endurance activity, you are primarily burning fat for energy. Primarily, but not only. You also are burning carbohydrates. You need to consume new calories in the form of carbohydrates in order to allow your body to burn the fat that you need to fuel the entire workout. Here’s how to calculate the number of calories from carbohydrates that you should consume during a workout.

1.27 x (body weight in lbs.) = calories/hour to consume during a workout

*If you are doing an ultra-distance event (ultra marathons, Ironman triathlons), you can increase that up to 1.81 x body weight in lbs.

If you consider yourself to be on the slower side of things, you may not actually need this much. Consider how many calories you are burning per hour and if this equation has you eating a significant amount relative to how much you’re burning you will probably be fine consuming less. This is where testing out these targets in your workouts comes into play.

Put it all together

Now that you have hourly rates for everything, try to break it down into servings every 15-20 minutes. It is better to take smaller servings more frequently than to take large servings less frequently. Take a look at the nutrition info on the nutrition products that you want to use and start to plug them into your plan. Use this handout to help you write down your plan.

Remember, this gives you a starting point. Try it out in your workouts and adjust accordingly. You may find that you need to eat or drink more or less. You will also need to experiment with different nutrition products to find out what you like and what sits well for you.

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.