Longer or harder? Is intensity or endurance the key to cycling fitness?

This is an article that Hunter wrote for Cyclist Magazine based in the United Kingdom. The author of the column Michael Donlevy also asked Hunter what he likes to call “quickes”, which are just some quick random questions.

Is there a best time of day to train?
I’m a morning person, but I have many clients who ride better in the afternoon. Best time of the day to train: when it’s best for you.

What’s the first thing I should do after getting off the bike following a training session?
Stretch! Stretch those quads, hamstrings, calves and shoulders, and open up the chest with some back bends or ‘up-dogs’.

Does a lot of sweat signal I’m unfit? Not at all. It just means you have an efficient cooling system.

Longer or harder? This is the million-dollar question and the answer, of course, is both. First off, you have to define the demands of your event. Is it five hours plus? Is it a short one-hour race? This is where you start to determine which is more important. Riding harder with more intensity close to or at and above your FTP will make you faster, period. FTP – functional threshold power, the maximum average power you can maintain for around one hour – is the most important physiological determinant of performance, so if you improve your FTP by 30 watts doing intervals, you’ll be faster.

When I coached the winning solo woman for the Race Across America, Janice Sheufelt, she did FTP intervals. I wanted her FTP as high as possible so she would be fitter, but she also did some huge 40-hour rides to make sure she had the endurance. So my answer is always to do your intensity first, increase your FTP, then work on the longer rides as you get closer to your event.

Endurance rides help to increase your aerobic ability, which helps to bolster your FTP and also increases your stamina, which is the ability to maintain as close to your FTP power for as long as possible. ‘Endurance’ is the ability to complete a long ride. Most of us can do that. ‘Stamina’ is the ability to hold close to your FTP for a long time, like six hours. Many events require more stamina than endurance.

Everyone has a ‘bathtub’, or level of fitness. Some bathtubs are small with tall walls and a small drain, like a track sprinter’s. Others are wide with short walls and a big drain, like a randonneurs. What most of us want is a large bathtub with tall walls and a big drain. The height of the walls represent your FTP, the size of your drain represents your aerobic
efficiency and the taps are the watts of resistance. The water represents the lactate and other byproducts of hard work, and the total volume of the bathtub is your overall fitness. To increase the height of your walls (FTP), you fill the bathtub up to the edge and hold the water there, just before it spills. To increase your aerobic efficiency, you fill the tub three-quarters of the way up and keep it there – water in equals water draining out – by ‘firehosing’ the bathtub for 30 seconds and then turning off the firehose just before the water spills over. This increases the size of your drain and the height of the walls. This is basically what intervals do.

In terms of a plan, do at least two days of work on your FTP each week and one long ride per week. Twice a month, your long ride should be at least 15% longer than your longest ride from the previous month until you reach 20% more than your target race/event time.

You can focus on one or the other, but ‘training stagnation’ is the enemy of improvement, and this is where intervals are so important. If you work on increasing your endurance for six months but all of your long rides are five hours, you’ll be adapted to that five hours and you’ll no longer see improvements. If you do 6×10 minutes at FTP
four times a week, your FTP will increase to a certain ceiling and no higher. By combining a long ride with hard intervals you’ll break out of that stagnation and challenge the body to adapt to the new higher level of training stress.
Continual improvement means continually increasing your total volume and intensity.
And rest helps too.

Training only one energy system will give you one-dimensional ability. Almost all cycling requires being good in all the physiological energy systems, so you need a good blend.

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. This has been the 25th year that he has conducted training camps in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

How much training can you handle?

With the advent of power meters, one of the age old questions asked by many can finally be answered.  How much training should I do before I rest?  When should I take my rest week? As coaches and athletes, we have never really been able to determine the best time for an athlete’s rest week other than going by the standard 3:1 work/rest ratio(which is very good btw)  or listening to your body (also a good thing).  However, these can be somewhat arbitrary and subjective.   Some riders can go longer than 3 weeks before needing a break, and others need a rest after only a week of focused training, while others might be able to go for 6 weeks before needing a true rest week.   Discovering your ideal work/rest formula is just as exciting as discovering your threshold improvement formula. This is one of the many changes that have occurred in training for cycling since the introduction of power meters and cutting edge software.  Now, that we can quantify training load and the corresponding response to that training load, finding your ideal work/rest formula is only a matter of time and data analysis.

What is your work/rest formula?

Let’s examine an athlete that I have coached for five years in order to better illustrate the principles behind this concept.   The rider is Gilbert Ducournau, a young rider, 22 years old and a Category 1 that was striving to turn professional at the end of 2015.   He has been racing seriously since he was 17 years old, and each year has progressed up the ladder in both categories and FTP. As he has progressed and matured as an athlete, his ability to recover has also improved and over the years we have had to update his work/rest formula.   In year 1(figure 1) of his training, he was barely able to train hard for two weeks before he needed a rest week.  Gilbert was new to endurance sports and really struggled with the initial training and frequently needed breaks in order to recover in the first four months of training.  After the fourth month, he was able to handle nearly 6 weeks without a rest week.  However at the end of the 6th week, he did get sick and had to rest for two weeks.  Therefore in retrospect, he still wasn’t ready for that long of a block of training. 

Know your goals

As we jump forward to year 4 of his training, where Gilbert achieved a Category 2 ranking, and he was able to sustain a very hard two weeks of training, followed by 3-4 days of rest and then train hard again in the early season.  As Spring approaches, he was able to consistently increase his training load for 8 weeks with short micro rests, so that his TSB(Training Stress Balance) never dipped too low, hovering around -24 and -12.  In the middle of this phase, he went to a training camp which significantly upped his training load and now his TSB dropped to -50 and this created the needed rest week.   During the summer, he was able to consistently train hard for two weeks with one week of rest.    This was an interesting year and one that will be important for you to understand and look for the pattern in your own workouts. 

The pattern here was:

1) He was able to train very hard for two weeks, but then needed a rest week.  


2) He could train relatively hard, and then only take 2 to 3 days easy and continue on this schedule for 8 weeks. 

This brings about the questions, which was better for him? Which is better for you?   Will a 2 week very intense block of training be better than 8 weeks of steady hard work?  The answer to this question depends on the goals of the athlete.  If you are in the beginning of the season and need to improve your FTP quickly with some hard focused weeks of training then that will be a good choice.  Another scenario to use the 2:1 formula, is if you are in the middle of racing season and/or need to get a quick bump of fitness, then do the 2 week intense block.  If you are building to a peak of fitness and your “A” goal, then stick with the longer, and steadier progression.  The take home here with Gilbert is that I was now seeing a nice pattern of improvement based on two different work/rest formulas.  This could now be used in future seasons.

In Year 5, we finally saw his true sustainable training ability come to fruition.  His season was up and down, as he had a great spring, but unfortunately crashed and fractured his hand in 3 places which required surgery, and then a month later, a second surgery.  These two events dramatically slowed down the middle of his season, however, if we looked at his season as two separate parts, we saw a very different rider in this 5th year of hard training.   The first half of the season, he was incrementally building his CTL up to the middle of February and then pushed very hard for 4 weeks driving his CTL to a career high of 96.  This was a new pattern, but made sense in that his previous year he was able to train hard for 2 weeks and not quite as hard for 8 weeks, so was now splitting the difference with a hard 4 weeks of training.  At the end of that 4th week, he didn’t need a big rest period(more than a week) like previous years, but a solid 7 days of easy riding brought his TSB positive and then he now maintained between 90-98 CTL for the entire month of April and kept his TSB just barely positive for good results on the weekends.   While, I had predicted that he could hold a solid 4 weeks of training, it wasn’t obvious that he could do this from his data, so I had to rely on his previous year 4 data to see that the expected outcome would be 4 weeks splitting between 2 and 8 weeks.

The “holy grail” of training

The middle of the year was a bust with recovery from his broken hand. But, the fall and winter have been very good for Gilbert as he has been training for the Vuelta a Tachira in middle of January .  Looking at Figure 4 below, he has been able to maintain an incredibly steady and incremental ramp rate of 5-8 TSS/week as an increase in CTL that peaks at 137CTL at the end of 2014.   This has been his longest, continuous block of training and his highest CTL ever.  This long ramp of training load increase has been sustainable because of two things: 1) Ability to handle this type of training.  2)  Short rests within the build period that allow for some recovery.  These short rests are critical to keep fatigue at a level which still allows for hard training and focused efforts.  

Hard training does not always require absolute freshness and the mark of a successful cyclist is one that can train hard while tired and still gain a tremendous training response from it.   If you have made it this far in the article, note that you have now gotten to the magic of using a power meter.  Pay attention closely!    By using a power meter, and watching your Performance Manager Chart to modulate the exact amount of fatigue(negative Training Stress Balance) and freshness (positive Training Stress Balance), you can continue training while fatigued for a very long period of time.   Let’s examine Gilbert’s PMC with a higher level of detail (Figure 4), so you can easily understand this concept and how to use it in your own training.   The most important detail in this Figure 4 is that the blue CTL line continues its steady march upward with short bumps of hard training followed by short rests.  This allows Gilbert to continue to train hard and rest just enough in order to train hard again.  He continues to increase his CTL to the peak of 137, without a single day of positive TSB in the entire 12 weeks of training!  Practically speaking, what does this mean from day to day, week to week training?  I planned his training so that he would do 3-4 days of hard training, followed by 2-3 days of easy riding.

 This can also be viewed as “block” training, where the athlete trains in a “block” of days, and then rests until he is ready to resume training.   In this case, I did not allow him to have full recovery and forced him to return to training with some fatigue in his legs.  The combination of work/rest changed radically from the two weeks on and one week off, or just steady hard training.   Now, he has been able to achieve the holy grail of training, the ability to train very hard to near exhaustion in 3-4 days and then recover quickly in 2-3 days, ready for another block.  These micro-rests are critical in the equation as it’s that small recovery that allow the TSB to move toward a positive number (not become a positive number though!).  It is critical in your own training that you watch your Performance Manager Chart closely so that you don’t become too fresh.  I would recommend allowing your TSB to get to -10, but not any closer to 0, in order to maintain the constant ramp rate.

Work/Rest Strategies

Training has always contained a bit of “Art” along with the science of exercise physiology, however there are 3 strategies that you can use in your own training.   First, try the strategy of two weeks hard and one week easy (also try the 3:1 ratio as well), especially if you are relatively new to the sport.   Secondly, try to extend the length of your harder weeks, so that you can do up to 4 weeks without a full rest week.  This period will contain the micro-rests, and the first time you embark on this journey, I recommend you reduce your overall intensity just a little and by that I mean reducing the number of intense days, not reducing the percentages in your training zones.  This will be the toughest transition for you, but if you can do it and keep your CTL ramp rate between 5-8 TSS/week, then you will be on the right track.  At the end of the four week block, take a mandatory rest week no matter if you feel tired or not.  This will guarantee that you don’t over-reach too much.  The third strategy is to employ the full blown “block” training method for a period of 8-12 weeks.  After you have been successful in strategy number 2, and you have enough time leading up to your priority “A” event, then employ this strategy. 

Remember, on your hard training days, you have to ride hard or long, it can’t be a medium intensity workout, and you have to do this for a minimum of 3 days in a row, followed by days off and easy days.  Your rest days are a minimum of 2 days where you ride easy or completely rest.  Do not take more than 4 rest days though, as that will raise your TSB too much.  Constantly watch your Performance Manager Chart to see your TSB numbers making sure that you continue to stay in negative territory (from -10 to -70).    What you have successfully accomplished now is determining exactly when you need to rest!  This is obviously a more advanced concept, but anyone with a power meter and TrainingPeaks WKO software can easily understand the data behind all the training. 

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. This has been the 24th year that he has conducted training camps in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Where did the time go?   We don’t know, but it’s time for you to come to a camp! www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com/camps

Balance: An Introduction to Left/Right Power Data

By: Hunter Allen

originally published November 2015 and expanded in the 3rd edition of Training and Racing with a Power Meter.

About three years ago we were introduced to power meters that separate left-leg and right-leg power from combined power. Since this ability to capture each leg’s contribution to total power is a relatively new concept in the power world, it has been difficult to really discern whether or not this information is useful or meaningful, mostly because we didn’t have software to analyze the new channels of data. This was not unlike the early 2000s when we first had power data but no real way to analyze or understand it.

Since then we have come to a standstill in our knowledge. I have been studying left/right power data intensely for the past two years. I wanted to discover for myself and my clients (and ultimately all cyclists) what it means and how to create meaningful analysis and coaching advice from it. In these two years, I have worked with the core development team of TrainingPeaks’ WKO4 software (Dr. Andrew Coggan, and Kevin Williams) to create some new analytics from this information, along with unique charts and graphs to more completely understand how each leg contributes to total power. As you can imagine with any new analytic tool, there are many new concepts to learn, and I’m sure you’ll hear a lot from us on this topic to help you decide if a left-right power meter is in your future and how best to use it.

Just like the first steps of power training, we start with some testing. You tested your functional threshold power (FTP) and power profile values when you first bought your power meter (and hopefully are continuing to test regularly), and you’ll need to do a little additional testing with a left-right power meter. The first test to complete will take four consecutive days of testing, so be sure to plan this in advance so it won’t significantly impact your overall training plan. This first test should ideally be conducted on a five-minute hill, but if you don’t have one of those nearby, you can also test on a flat road, preferably into a head wind to give you a little more resistance to push against. For the hill test you’ll be alternating between standing and sitting while climbing. For the flat test you’ll be alternating your focus (intention) on your left and right legs. I’m going to describe the hill-climbing test here, and as we go I’ll provide alternates if you’re using the flat test. The goal is the same for both tests: to learn how you create power from each leg and how that contributes to the total power output. Before you can embark on your new journey, however, you’ll need to understand some of the new analytics in TrainingPeaks’ WKO4 software, so that you can interpret the data you generate.

Gross Power Released and Absorbed

The first concept to understand and review is gross power released and absorbed. During pedaling, each leg releases power and absorbs power throughout each pedal revolution. On the down stroke, the left leg releases power while the right leg absorbs some of the power released by the left. It’s highly possible that the opposing leg can significantly absorb more power than you might expect and negatively impact your total power. The opposing leg’s job is really to get out of the way on the up stroke while preparing for its own down stroke. This allows you to produce more releasing power, which is what ultimately moves the bike forward faster. When the left leg is on the down stroke and the right leg is opposing it on the up stroke, we call this the left power phase. When the opposite is occurring with the right leg on the down stroke and the left leg on the up stroke, we call it the right power phase.

Every rider has a unique pedal stroke. Some of us release more power through the left leg than the right. Some of us punch at the pedal stroke with one leg while the other leg smooths the power over the circle. Still others absorb more power on one leg than the other leg. There are other things happening during the pedal stroke too, and we’ll discuss those in later articles. For now let’s stick with gross power released (GPR) and gross power absorbed (GPA); they are the more important concepts to understand in the first tests.

Gross Power Review Charts

Take a look at the gross power review chart above (the lower part of the screenshot with the red, blue, green, and purple lines). This is the first chart to look at in the pedaling metrics pack bundled in the WKO4 software. The red line is right-leg GPR during whatever time period you’re reviewing, and the blue line is left-leg GPR. (Remember, GPR is the power you release on each pedal stroke to propel the bicycle forward.) The green line represents right-leg GPA, and the purple line is left-leg GPA. (Remember, GPA is the power that is being produced that does not move the bicycle forward; it is generally resistance, or negative power.) Minimizing GPA produces more overall power.

The chart above provides a bigger-picture understanding of how asymmetrical one leg might be compared to the other. We see here that the blue line (left GPR) is generally higher than the red line (right GPR), which means that the left leg is releasing more power than the right. At the same time, we notice that the green line at the bottom of the chart is generally above the purple line, which means that the right leg is absorbing more power than the left leg. So from a quick glance we could infer that while the left leg is releasing more power, it’s also absorbing more power, so the left phase does not contribute any more power to moving the bike forward than the right phase. We need a closer look to see if this is indeed the case. The chart above shows a five-minute standing interval test (five minutes at VO2Max, standing the entire time) to demonstrate the relationship between left/right and standing/seated power outputs. This chart is the mean max gross power curve. It contains the same data as the gross power review chart, only plotted on a logarithmic curve to more clearly reveal which leg is releasing and absorbing power. This chart is highly useful when reviewing intervals or very hard efforts. Again, reducing the GPA while maximizing the GPR will increase your total power.

In the chart above, the left leg is releasing more power and both legs are absorbing the same amount of power. When standing, the left leg contributes to more total power than the right leg, as the GPAs are nearly the same, but the GPR on the left leg is almost always 10-15 watts higher than the GPR on the right leg. These two charts (gross power review and mean max gross power curve) are going to be the main charts to study, along with the pedaling reports, in order to understand your left/right power.

Leg Asymmetry Pedaling Tests

Now that we know the concepts and charts, let’s dig into the pedaling tests! Each day will have the same essential test, but each day will have a different goal and pedaling emphasis. Each day you will complete three five-minute intervals at your VO2Max power (roughly 113-115% of your FTP). The first interval will be standing the entire time, the second will be seated the entire time, and the third interval will be alternating standing and seated: stand when you want to and sit when you want to.

Pedaling Asymmetry Hill Climbing Test

Day 1: Complete the test with no emphasis on either leg. Just climb naturally. Day 2: Emphasize the leg that releases less power to see if you can balance out the GPR/GPA. Day 3: Emphasize the left leg only for all efforts. Day 4: Emphasize the right leg only for all efforts.

Pedaling Asymmetry Flat Test

Since you aren’t standing here, do the first interval with your hands on the hoods, the second with your hands in the drops, and the third with your hands wherever you’d like them to be. Complete the four days of testing exactly as in the hill-climbing test except stay seated the entire time and modify the hand positions as described. If you have aero bars, you could do the tests in and out of the aero bars to see if this might have an effect on your pedaling asymmetry as well.

Pedaling Asymmetry Testing Protocol

Pick a route you can repeat each day. It must be the same route, and all efforts must start at the same location. Try to make each of the four testing days as identical as possible. Warm-up: Ride for 20 minutes toward the testing area. If you have to ride a little longer, that’s fine, but maintain a nice endurance pace (56-75% of FTP). Main set: After warm-up, do 5 x 1-minute fast pedals to get your cadence to 110-120 rpm. Hold it there for one minute, then recover for one minute at 80 rpm. The goals here are to ensure you’re properly warmed up and to preserve muscle glycogen for your intervals. Once at the testing area, get psyched and do 3 x 5-minute VO2Max efforts. Remember, the first interval is standing for the entire five minutes, the second is seated, and the third is standing when you want to and sitting when you want to.

If you’re doing the flat test, the first interval is on the hoods, the second is in the drops, and the third is wherever you prefer throughout the interval. Rest for 5-8 minutes between each interval. After completing the third interval, ride home at tempo pace (76-90% of FTP). Once home, connect your power meter head unit to your WKO4 software to look for key data and to make notes in your post-ride descriptions. This is important so you can compare notes from each day of testing. First, determine if one leg releases more power than the other when standing and sitting. If there’s a difference in the GPR between the left and right legs, then check for a difference between GPA when seated and standing. For example, we see in the chart below that this rider releases 10 watts more power with the right leg than the left while seated. This is a significant difference. At the same time, the GPA of the left leg is also higher by 5 watts. From this data we can calculate the net power released (NPR). For the left phase, we take GPR Left (165 watts) – GPA Right (12 watts) = NPR Left (153 watts). For the right phase, we take GPR Right (175 watts) – GPA Left (17 watts) = NPR Right (158 watts). In this case, not only is the right leg releasing more power, but it also has to overcome a higher GPA from the left leg. So if the GPAs were equal, the right phase would be 163 watts, a full 10 watts higher than the left phase.

Addressing Bilateral Leg Discrepancy

What can we do about right/left power discrepancies? In this case, the rider can try two things. First, simply using more effort/intention to push harder on the down stroke with the left leg will help close the net power release. Second, lifting up with the left leg may increase the net power released on the left phase. Since the left GPA seems to reduce the net power released in the right phase, subtracting that resistance would make the right phase even higher than the left. I suggest starting with pushing harder with the left leg while seated and then reassessing. Fortunately this is exactly what you’ll be doing in the next test! In the chart above we see the results from the second day of testing for the seated 5-minute effort. Here the rider’s right leg GPR is much higher than the left for natural pedaling, so he emphasized a higher force with his left leg to release more power on that side. The left leg indeed got much closer to balancing the left/right GPR, but the left-leg GPA stayed the same, effectively reducing the NPR on the right side. This second test indicates that better symmetry on both the right and left legs while seated requires the left leg to both push and pull to even out the power production.

As we will see, the following two days of testing prove this theory correct. The third day of testing emphasizes the left leg for all efforts to possibly prove some of the observations from day two and to demonstrate the impact on the GPR/GPA of the left leg while both standing and seated. With this athlete, the left leg becomes more balanced in GPR, but the GPA of the left leg remains around 4 watts higher than the right, which is very close. In the chart below, notice how much closer the GPAs are for the entire five-minute interval. This is most likely an indicator of more pulling up on the left leg. The fourth day of testing emphasizes the right leg and shows a very high right leg GPR when seated, thus giving the rider no real actionable intelligence. However, day four was highly revealing regarding the standing interval; I’ll have to save that for another article! While it might take some time to understand all the theory behind left/right power analysis, the four-day testing protocol will help you appreciate the wealth of new data. The built-in pedaling chart pack in the WKO4 software makes it really easy to understand the charts, so you can save the hard work for the intervals. The goal of all this testing is to find out if you have a leg strength imbalance that might be effecting your power output. It can also identify a problem with the way you ride your bike (your actual position and form). These issues can be tough to find without digging deep into the analytics and throwing in some testing for good measure.

Remember, testing is training, and training is testing.

If you’d like expert help with analyzing and using your left/right power data, contact us today! We can help.