by Hunter Allen
I’ve written a lot about the balancing act required to create that magical “form” that everyone wants. Form is the proper balance of fitness and freshness; when you have that elusive balance, you have form. In addition to form, there is another balance you have to find throughout the season—doing enough training during the week that your FTP doesn’t drop (hopefully it goes up!) and making sure you’re rested enough for a strong performance on the weekend. This balance is critical to your success; if you don’t get it right, you end up either too tired on race day or not fit enough to accomplish your goal.
Form is the proper balance of fitness and freshness; when you have that elusive balance, you have form.
During the week you have three tasks to accomplish before your next weekend of racing. The first is to recover from the previous weekend’s racing, the second is to train hard enough to continue your fitness improvement, and the third is to make sure you’re rested just enough for the upcoming weekend. These three tasks all require one thing: time. You need time to recover from the previous weekend, enough time training in the correct training zones to improve and then time to recover from that weekday training and be rested up for the weekend.
Hence the conundrum: how much time is enough? When will I know when I’m rested enough to train? How much time should I train in order to gain the adaptations needed for improvement? Will I recover fast enough from the weekday training to be strong on the weekend? These are all questions we’ve all asked; sometimes we’re able to answer them, sometimes we’re not, and sometimes we answer them incorrectly. Let’s look at each of them to see if we can answer it with the use of your power meter and some smart thinking.
The First Task: Recovery
How much rest do you need after a weekend of racing? The first way you should answer this question is the old-fashioned way: listening to your body. If your body feels sore, tired, beat up, and fatigued overall, you aren’t recovered. That much should be obvious. Take a rest day, ride easy for an hour to spin out the legs, go to a yoga class. When you do ride on an easy day, be sure it’s really easy. I’m talking about 14mph easy, embarrassingly slow and less than 55% of your FTP wattage easy.
Too many riders ride too fast and hard on their rest days. It’s easy to do because you know you aren’t riding that hard, but without some objective measurement it’s not easy to know how slow is “slow.” Using a power meter as your governor on a recovery day is a perfect way to help you recover and just spin the legs so you can better facilitate recovery.
The second way to tell if you’re recovered enough is to go out and attempt a few intervals to test your legs and heart for a quick assessment of whether all systems are go. This is where you can use your power meter to help you determine if you’re cracking out the requisite number of watts to achieve the day’s training goal and if you can do enough efforts to elicit the correct amount of fatigue needed for adaptation.
Here’s the workout protocol I use with my athletes to determine whether or not they’re ready for a full-blown workout: The first step is to have some wattage numbers that you’ve done in the past for a given time period. I like to choose three minutes, which is a VO2Max interval and just long enough to see if you’re still feeling sore from the weekend but not so long that it digs a deeper hole for you to recover from if you are indeed still tired. Most likely you have done close to 115-118% of your FTP for a three-minute effort.
For our purposes here we’ll use Joe Athlete as our cyclist and say that his FTP is 300 watts. Since Joe can crack out 300 watts for an hour, it’s likely he can do 345-355 watts (115-118%) for three minutes as repeats (meaning he can do it more than just one time). Based on the interval repeat guidelines on pages 76-77 of our book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, an 8-9% reduction in power from the third interval to the last interval would indicate sufficient fatigue to stop an interval session. As a matter of fact, I have power files for Joe proving that he can do (when rested) 345 watts for at least seven repeats without dropping more than 5%, so that gives us a starting point to assess whether or not he’s rested.
Now that we have a starting point, we can decide on some guidelines for recovery. Joe goes out after a hard weekend of racing, and on Tuesday he feels recovered and ready to train, but he isn’t fully certain. So he warms up for 20 minutes and then does 3 x 1-minute fast pedaling intervals with 1 minute of easy riding between each to get his legs really warm. He starts off with his first three-minute interval and cracks out a solid one at 360 watts. His legs are a bit sore, but it’s not that “deep-down” soreness he’s felt before. The numbers are good and the feelings are okay, so that means it’s time to do another interval. In this one (the second) Joe cracks out a 325-watt effort. His legs feel the same, just a little more “full.”
If we know Joe should be able to do 345 and in the second interval he’s already down 10%, I would suspect he’s not as recovered as he thinks he is. The only way to know for sure is to do one more interval. In this third interval, Joe does 315 watts for three minutes.
Now it’s confirmed; he’s not ready to do a good training session. His numbers are down by over 9% on what he should be able to do and over 12% on what he’s done today in just his third interval. Based on Joe’s previous workouts when he was fresh and recovered, I would expect to see this kind of a drop-off only after his eight or ninth interval, not in the third interval.
The Second Task: Train Hard Enough
What does Joe do now? He turns around and heads home. There’s no sense in trying to do anything more than he can, and if he continues riding, it will only prevent him from doing a high quality workout tomorrow.
For our next task, let’s assume that Joe has finally recovered and is ready to train again. We have to intelligently decide how much work is enough in order to gain adaptation from training. This is a bit tougher to define and determine. One thing we have going for us is that we can determine whether or not we’re training in the correct training level.
If you know you have to improve your anaerobic capacity for that upcoming hilly road race and that your FTP will be key to breaking away and staying away, that determines what areas/levels you need to train. Since you know your FTP, you train in Coggan’s power level 4 (91-105% of FTP) and level 6 (121-150% of FTP) in order to elicit the correct stress on those respective energy systems. (Refer to Training and Racing with a Power Meter for the full training levels diagram.) Intervals in this area are critical to your success, and that means that riding in these levels for the most part and doing efforts in these intensity ranges will help you improve those systems. Training in the proper level is a key to improving your specific fitness.
If you need to improve the ability to go hard for 1 minute and recover quickly, then training your anaerobic capacity (Level 6) is what will improve this ability. An example of this kind of workout would be 20 minutes warm-up, 3 x 1-minute fast pedaling intervals with 1 minute rest between each, followed by 10 x 1-minute all-out efforts with a goal of reaching 130% of threshold in each effort, finishing with 45 minutes at sweet spot (88-93%) and a nice little 15-minute cool-down.
The trick is really in knowing when enough is enough for that workout. In this case, enough is enough when your watts decrease by 10% or more from the watts in the third interval of ten. We look at the watts in that third interval because the first two are done when you are relatively fresh and therefore aren’t what I call “repeatable” efforts. The watts you average in your third interval are the repeatable watts. These are the ones you can repeat over and over for many intervals.
Let’s say Joe Athlete averages 380 watts in his third interval, and as he does more intervals he watches his average watts at the end of the interval. When his watts drop by 10% (380 x .90), or to 340 watts, he’s no longer able to produce enough work in each interval in order to continue stressing the anaerobic system. So for the example above, when Joe is doing 10 x 1-minute intervals, in actuality it might be twenty intervals. As long as he’s able to continue the workload, he should continue to do more intervals. Maximizing your interval repeats is key to maximizing your training on that day.
The Final Task: Rest
The final task in balancing your weekly training load is to make sure you are rested, recovered, and tuned up for the upcoming weekend races. In order to do this, recovery from the weekday training is critical; after that, make sure to get in a small tune-up workout the day before the race. I typically always rest my athletes two days before an event, which allows them to focus on sleeping well, eating good foods high in complex carbs, and not stressing about travel too much. Two days out from the race allows you to focus completely on recovery, and that process continues over into a good night’s sleep. I highly recommend that you take a nap, eat very good quality and easily digestible foods, and get in some good stretching and self-massage.
The day before your event, it’s important in most cases to give yourself a short, hard effort to prepare the muscles for the upcoming larger effort. Many times you’ll feel “blocked” on race day if you don’t give it a little effort the day before. I recommend this workout the day before your race: 1.5 hours with 3 x 1 minutes hard (at least 150% of FTP), with 5 minutes of easy riding between each. Ride for 20 minutes at endurance pace and then do 3 x 30-second sprints (out of the saddle for 15 seconds and then spinning in the last 15 seconds at maximum effort) with 5 minutes between. The rest of the ride is at level 2 (endurance pace), riding comfortably.
These short efforts help to open up the legs while at the same time keeping the overall workload small so that you aren’t fatigued on race day. This is critical to a good race tune-up workout: just enough, but not too much. One caveat to this tune-up workout is that if you’re still feeling tired, sore, and sluggish after your rest day and after you do the first hard one-minute effort in your tune-up workout, you should shut it down and ride home easy. This means that you just need to rest more. You can get in a high-quality warm-up before the race in order to reopen the legs.
These three tasks are things that each of us needs to accomplish every week during the racing season. Balancing that training load is not easy. If you tackle each of these tasks separately, listen to your body, and watch your power meter numbers, you can finely hone your optimal week of training and racing. It’s certainly a balance, and some weeks will be easier than others to predict, but if you keep good notes, use your power meter, and analyze your files, you’ll be able to put together the trend that will help you to your next race success.
Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of 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. Hunter can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com.