Over-Acheiving on Cycling Intervals

At this time, December 2010, nearly all of our 500 athletes are training inside the Team with our OutSeason® training plan. They have grouped themselves into October, November, December, and January OutSeason® groups, and have begun to share workout results and notes with each other. This is a great motivational and accountability tool, and is just one of the huge value-addedeseses (?) of being a member. But…

As members post their workout data, it’s clear that many are possibly riding harder than the prescribed intensity. So let’s sit around the table, have a beer or two, and I’ll give you my thoughts on how you can apply our experience with this stuff to your job as a self-coached triathlete. But first, lets step back to give you a little power primer. I’m going to speak “power-geek” in this post because it allows us to frame this discussion around objective numbers.

Typical OS forum post by our over-achieving members: “I just rode 3 x 12′ @ 1.08, 1.09, 1.05 IF. Yay me!!”

This doode is riding with power. He did some testing to determine his Functional Threshold Power (FTP), let’s say 200 watts. Intensity Factor (IF) is how hard he rode, as a fraction of this FTP. So an IF of 1.05 means he rode at 105% of his FTP of 200w, or 210w. So…what’s the problem? The problem, or issue, is that the prescribed intensity for the workout was 95-100% of FTP, not 105%. And once you get over 100%, things get real hard, real fast and too much too hard can put you into a hole and compromise your other sessions.

These are my questions and observations as a triathlon coach:

Does Timmy have an accurate FTP?
That is, did he have a good test, is he then using that FTP to calc these numbers, and is his FTP still an accurate measurement of his fitness (ie, has his fitness improved/FTP gone up since his last test)?

Riding 3 x 12′ at those IF’s is doable, given an accurate FTP. It’s a solid session, no doubt, and the drop between the 2nd and 3rd intervals tells me that what’s likely happening is a combination of an accurate FTP, the guy just crushing himself on #1 and #2, and paying for a bit on #3. But he didn’t completely implode on #3 (still above FTP). In short, it’s possible to overachieve on these relatively shorter intervals and get away with it. But if he were putting up those IF’s for intervals of 15-20′, that would be a sure sign that his FTP has likely increased since his last test and he’s ready for a bump.

Should he bump his FTP up?
Our OutSeason® plans include power testing about every 4-8wks, so you can test your fitness and move your FTP upwards accordingly. And the “rule” is if you think your fitness has improved, prove it by testing or racing faster and use that proof as permission to then train at higher wattages…but that’s the general rule. Let’s all have another beer and continue to talk to each other smart adults able to manage our own training, pay attention to our bodies, and not drive them through a brick wall…

In general, yes, it’s best to wait until a formal test before you bump your FTP up. The reason is that this workout above doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Far from it. Timmy will follow this up with a hard interval run on Wednesday, a similar bike interval session on Thursday…and more intervals on Saturday and a hard run on Sunday.

So Coach Dick’s Don’t Be Stoopid Rule, to be applied to every situation where you feel the need for speed, and the ability to over achieve a bit in a session, is:

How will what I’m doing right now affect my ability to successfully complete downstream workouts?

So when Timmy has his nose on the dial for the second interval and can feel a 1.09 IF ride in the works, he should ask himself “Self…the workout sez to ride at 95-100% but you’re tracking towards a 110% interval. Is this the smart thing to do, considering the fact that you have to back up it in 24hrs with a run interval session that kicked your ass last week. And the run is your weaker leg…and you’re going to be up late tonight busting out that project for your boss (damn job!!)”

If it were me and the answer was:

  • Yes — I would let it ride and consider that my over achievement (and sorta-comfort doing so) = my FTP has increased since my last test. I “might” do some math* to establish a new FTP, and take that for a spin on Thursday to see how it feels. Or I might wait to see if I can repeat the performance on Thursday and, if so, do the math and increase my FTP.
  • No — I’ll back off, sit down, shut up, do what I’m told and keep my eye on the bigger game — to do the best I can do with EVERY session, not just hit a homerun on Tuesday only to booger Wednesday and Thursday.

Now within this discussion I’ll say it’s more ok to overachieve on the bike than on the run. The bike is a much lower risk activity and so “can” warrant a little bit of risk-taking. However, the run, especially what we have you doing during the OS, is much different and no joke. You DEFINITELY should wait until your next run test to prove you’ve earned the right to run faster in training. You need to have a much longer term view of your get-faster run project, assigning yourself the task of getting much faster on the run between now and September vs perhaps a now through April time frame for the bike.

“Yeah, yeah, blah, blah…so I can ride harder than the prescribed intensity on my rides or not?”
I’m saying you can be smart, think things through on every ride, keeping your eye on the long term goals and bigger picture: your job is to do the workout today that creates conditions for success TOMORROW and the next day and the next. And if you need help, just ask Patrick and me in the forums, or post your questions to our Facebook page.

*The Math — or how to determine your FTP from a breakthru ride:
One FTP test is to do a 20′ time trial, subtract 5% from your average watts and call the result your FTP. Using one of my own recent rides as an example: every Tuesday since the Dawn of Time I’ve been doing hill repeats on a 5k, 5-6% hill about 2 miles from my house. This week I put up 307w and 1.10 IF on the second repeat, after about 1.05 on the first, and I then comfortably went 1.02 IF on the third repeat. So I multiply 307w x .95 = 291w FTP, call it 290w. I’ll take this FTP for a spin today (Thursday) and this weekend to see how it feels. More importantly, I know myself well enough to know that if it’s set a little too hot, I’m pretty good at managing individual sessions, and sessions across the week, so I can achieve all of my goals for every session.

Rich Strauss
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