The Maximum and the Minimum.   A contrast in focus between training and racing.

I have written many times about the relationship between training and racing, training for the demands of the event, conserving energy in your races, optimizing your training volume and how to use your powermeter effectively in racing.   All of these articles have focused on improving in one way or the other, and that’s because that’s the name of the game, right?  No one wants to stagnate or heaven forbid, get worse!  So, when one of my clients, James Kramer, made the observation that his first races of the year were so different than all of his hard training done this past winter, I was curious to what he meant.  Of course, I had him training specifically for his first races, tracking his CTL ramp rate, making sure he was on target for his first peak of the season and definitely giving him plenty of hard workouts.  James explained, “Hunter, that race was easy. I mean, I am not even really tired after it. My training has been much harder than the racing so far and I even feel like I am losing fitness going to these races because they aren’t that hard.” Of course, this is music to my ears as his coach and I know when an athlete tells me this, he’s going to be on the podium soon enough.  This also means he adhered to my coaching/training philosophy of training harder than the competition, doing ‘intervals to exhaustion’ and pushing himself to the max fairly regularly. James expanded on this first comment and said, “In races, it’s all about conservation, holding back, saving yourself for the right move or final sprint and that’s very different than in training, where you have me killing myself in nearly every interval and there are hard rides after hard rides every week.”   This great insight and awareness is something that many of us reach when we begin racing and winning.

What it means to do the Minimum to Win.

It is this incredible contrast between doing every interval and every workout to your personal maximum, exhausting yourself daily in order to improve, but in racing making sure you are smart and expending effort only when you need to so that you can win. I remember a particular pro racer back in my old pro days in the mid-90’s and this guy was a ‘horse’,  I mean, he would attack you until you gave up or he would just grind your legs into little stumps with his hard pulls in the breakaway.  Often times, he attacked so many times or rode so hard in the breakaway that he dropped himself and would say afterwards, “wow, you guys are so strong.. you just dropped me..”.  We definitely weren’t going to tell him that he was riding too hard or attacking too much!  It really came down to the fact that he thought the only honorable way to win a bike race was to be solo off the front and just prove to everyone that he was the strongest(he should have quit road cycling and taken up Mt. Biking!).   Naturally, his tactics didn’t work well, as there is this thing in bike racing called the ‘peloton’ and its collective energy can run down just about any single racer if they want to.  Unfortunately for him, he never got it through his thick skull that you had to be strong and smart to win bike races and it really is “chess on wheels”.   He didn’t know how to conserve, how to save his energy, how to race with the minimum needed effort in order to be a winner and that prevented him from ever living up to his potential.

How does this relate to training with power? 

Well, let’s take my client, James.   James is sharp, he listens to his coach, he does the hard work, has a racing strategy for each race and then he watches the race unfold listening to his intuition while at the same time making sure he checks back in periodically with his overall strategy for the race.  He won’t make a move unless it’s a real threat for the win and then when he’s in the move, he’s racing smart so that he doesn’t expend any more energy than necessary.  He’s learned a lot of these things from his past bike racing career when he was in his 20’s, and he’s also recently learned a lot from training and racing with a power meter.    Let’s examine a recent race win from an early season race so you can learn from his correct execution and smart racing and begin to understand how the minimum can make the difference between winning and being pack filler.

In this race, James spent much of the race conserving his energy as he knew it was likely that it would come down to a field sprint, which he could win, but he did make a few hard attacks to see if he could initiate a breakaway, since he also knew that he could win this way as well.   In figure 1, we see the overall power graph for the race itself which shows just how variable his power was over the race, but also how much time he spent below his threshold power.   I have added two gridlines in here in order to give some perspective to the graph, the lower gridline is at his FTP power- 345 watts and the upper gridline is at 700 watts where he had to do much of his surges in order to stay near the front of the race.  The race had two distinct hard sections in it when he had to push himself close to his FTP.  The first one occurred about 12 minutes into the race when he attacked and attempted a breakaway and then the 2nd hard effort was in the last 5 minutes when he had to jockey for position, maintain that position and prepare for the sprint.  The rest of the time was really pretty easy for him as evidenced by his heart rate barely going over 160bpm for much of the race.

In figure 2, we see the cadence distribution chart from the race itself which shows how much time he spent pedaling in different cadence ranges along with how much time he spent not pedaling.   James spent over 22% of the race not pedaling and even in a short race like this one, that can make a difference.  Conservation of energy is definitely critical here as it is in any race.

“The sprint before the sprint”

Examining the two minutes of the race leading up to the finish in Figure 3, we see that the old bike racing saying, “the sprint before the sprint” proved accurate and was critical to his positioning so he could sprint for the win.  We see that he did 4 fairly hard sprints in those last  2 minutes and his average wattage was 444watts, which is nearly 100 watts over his threshold power, but clearly sustainable for a short period of time.  Those sprints were not very hard for him as he can do over 1300watts for 5 seconds, and these just barely cracked 1000 watts for 2-4 seconds, however they do have the ability to pre-fatigue those sprinting muscles which means that quick recovery from sprints, along with doing sprint repeats in training is critical to success.  Notice that between the sprints, James didn’t pedal much and was doing everything he could to recover for the next sprint and truly minimizing his effort.

Training at your Maximum

For racing, doing the minimum needed to win is one of your key goals in every race, since you want to conserve energy and only use it when you need to and want to for the most effective effort.  Let’s look at the maximum of training now, so that we can see the stark contrast between a race and a tough ‘kitchen sink’ workout.

James did this ‘kitchen sink’ workout leading up to his first peak of the season and I really like prescribing these kind of workouts, as they simulate closely the different demands of racing, fatigue the cardiovascular and muscular system and also help to get the athlete to learn just how fatigued they can be and still go hard.  A ‘kitchen sink’ workout is so called as it contains a bit of all the training levels, from easy endurance riding to hard threshold intervals to some short sprints and tough tempo near the end.   In Figure 4, you’ll see that James did (4) x 12 minutes at his FTP, some hard sprints afterwards, fast pedaling drills, 2 minute anaerobic capacity efforts and then finished off with 45minutes at sweet-spot(88-93% of his FTP).   This workout resulted in a Training Stress Score of 333 points, was over five hours long and had a normalized power at 274 watts, which means it was the equivalent of a solid tempo ride for over 5 hours.  Clearly, this is not an easy workout and one that you undertake without building up to it.   When executed well, you should come home pretty spent with muscles twitching from the effort and ready for a nap!   When going for maximum exhaustion in a workout such as this, it’s important that you hydrate and feed yourself correctly, otherwise you won’t have a chance in completing it properly and if you do start to get some muscle cramps near the end don’t allow them to go into full blown ‘lock-ups’ as that damages muscle tissue and takes a long time to repair.  Sure, this is way harder than anything James would do in a race and way harder than anything you might do in a race, but that is the purpose.  If you really want your FTP to improve, then you have to do some incredibly difficult five hour rides, which bring you to near exhaustion.  These kinds of efforts make you stronger, help you to improve throughout all your training levels and give you a maximum return on training investment.   They are not workouts that you should do every weekend, but doing them every couple of weeks would be great in order to continue to push up your fitness level.    

Maximize Everything

Maximizing your training really means maximizing it in every aspect that you can think of, so making sure you are doing the intervals correctly and completely, maximizing the time you have to train, maximizing your effort itself so that you are digging deep enough even though you are tired and doing your best.  The best that you give to your workouts should be your maximum.  Ask yourself after your intervals at threshold, “Did I do my best?”, “Did I push as hard as I could?” and then analyze your power files to see if those wattage goals for each sprint, each anaerobic capacity interval, each sweet-spot push were done in the correct wattages as well.   Many of your training rides won’t be like the ‘kitchen sink’ workout, but you’ll still need to crush it on those short, but intense 1-2 hour rides and push those intervals to the maximum.  In my book, “Training and Racing with a power meter”, there is a section on doing ‘intervals to exhaustion’ and that is one of the ‘maximums’ that you should strive to do at least once a week.    The contrast between your training and racing is often times completely at opposite ends of the spectrum and this is important for you to realize and understand.  When you race and finish the race can you say to yourself, “Wow, that was easier than my training”?  If so, then you know you are ready to win.  Strive to push yourself to the max in most of your workouts, strive to achieve more in your cycling and in your life, as when you maximize your training and learn to do this, you can take these same principles to your daily life.

Hunter Allen is a is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of “Triathlon Training With Power”, “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” and “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes.