Cycling Economy

Thanks to a few Brite Stars asking me great questions recently about improving cycling this season, I decided to share my dialogue with all of you in a succinct write up. 

Note: this can also apply to those of you doing stage races like Haute Route or multi-day mountain bike races where you need to ride efficiently for repeated days on end. Economy and fuelling is critical.

Cycling Economy - What are we looking to improve?

All of you have different modalities to train the bike. If you are lucky enough to live in a warm climate, you mainly ride outside and get your interval work done on the road. For the others, we ride indoors throughout the winter in a studio environment or on your trainer at home. Enter Zwift, Trainer Road or any of app that wants to attempt to compete with them and we have entertainment at the same time. Either way, you are getting the work done. If you have not been formally tested for your threshold/zones, now is the time of year to get that done. The benefits we reap from knowing your zones helps both you and your coach determine the exact intensity to focus on for each workout. Getting tested in a lab environment is ideal but not essential so if you are wondering how to test yourself on the bike or run, please ask.

Day in day out you are all training. Some days you feel a little less motivated than others. Usually that happens when you a) get tired or b) you are disconnected from the “why”…why is your coach having you do these crazy efforts or why am I doing all this watt stuff etc. The list can be endless if mind chatter gets the better of you and when you have temporarily exited stage left from the process and your juicy goals set months ago.

When an athlete gets test results, they are provided with “zones” or training intensities scaled based on easy to aerobic to anaerobic to max effort. For endurance athletes we are largely interested in your aerobic threshold, aka: Zone 2, as well as your lactate threshold, aka T1/VT1. We are also interested in your max aerobic power (MAP) however this effort is used sparingly for endurance athletes. All the values are extremely important to know, honor and respect. I have simplified the terms above for ease to follow. Sports scientists would cringe as each terms means something very different to them. To the athlete, some terms can almost be interchangeable. Here is a quick overview on brief definitions of each.

Where things get complicated for an athlete is understanding what the long range goal is with training, how hard to train and what values to place emphasis on. Many of you look at the numbers and think the only sign of progress is the improvement of these values: i.e. if your threshold (T1) values do not increase, my training has not improved me as an athlete. 

For most developed athletes, if improving your lactate threshold value (T1) was the only marker of improvement, they would have stopped improving years ago. Most start a season at XXX watts and progress to only 3-7% higher. But, for some ODD reason these same athletes continue to improve in endurance sport without watts increasing. For under developed athletes, the goal is likely to improve all values and thus a different approach to endurance development would be applied. 

Here’s the kicker, for endurance athletes we are not looking to get “stronger”, we are looking to get more efficient and economical. For triathletes, this becomes even more important as they are running off the bike to the best of their ability.

What does this mean? It means 4 simple things/goals/outcomes:

1) We are looking to ride the bike in a triathlon at a lower cost. The lower your lactate accumulation below threshold T1 (flatter curve), the better you can hold wattages/efforts for a longer period of time below that marker. If you ride “better” below T1, you will get to the bike/run transition feeling better, and you will have a much higher likelihood to hold your usual training pace for running vs. the slog many of you see/feel on the run. This is all about lowering the cost at T1, not pushing it up.

 2) We are looking to hold a higher wattage relative to threshold T1. For example, if your T1 is 300 watts and you rode Ironman at 255 watts last year. Your goal is to push that number to 260, 265, 270 watts in the years to come. T1 may not change one watt yet your ability to sustain power with less lactate accumulation in the blood for longer is improving. Its called cycling economy: basically watts per pedal stroke. The balance between watts per pedal stroke your muscles can handle at a cadence your cardiovascular system can sustain.

3) We are looking to improve our ability to ‘tolerate’ surges and rollers within the race better: As we get more comfortable working below T1 wattages/effort, our ability to withstand relatively longer periods at above T1 increases. Why? Because our ability to hold a higher wattage/effort relative to T1. Therefore rollers, surges or short stretches in races do not knock us out when we are above T1 HR/Watts, nor do we feel intimidated by being there for a bit – we know we can recover and return to a longer, go all day effort without blowing up. This is the basis of any workouts you have that require short surges or subtle changes in intensity. You will face these demands in races (and group rides).

4) We are looking to determine an effort/intensity at which we can still maintain our nutrition and hydration: This is a key ingredient to our racing success. If we are riding at a lower cost, if there is less of an accumulation of lactate, if we are in optimal balance of muscular power producing pedaling force and the cardiovascular system delivering oxygen, fueling the muscles and removing waste products such as lactic acid, THEN our stomachs’ ability to process food, calories, electrolytes etc. is greatly improved. Think of that pace where all this remains in balance…wattage, HR, nutrition & hydration….THEN think of gradually increasing that pace…..through training. You have all been there: going a bit too hard to properly process the food. Then get to the run….and oops: bloated, sick or empty with no energy.

In sum, the training does NOT revolve around improving T1, it revolves around getting more efficient and economical at it. Each and EVERY one of you will have a GREAT season if you were to ride efficiently and effectively just below T1. It means a solid bike split (faster than you think!) and a solid run (one that you’ve always felt you are capable of but have not yet had)…

If T1 increases: Sure, this is an added benefit, but it does NOT mean you will be racing at a higher wattage/effort. Because we will still want to be in that efficient and economical ‘zone’ where all the above takes place. An increased T1 means we have plenty more work to do in the months and years to come.

As always, let your Brite Coach know of any questions.