Training with power meters for triathletes with Hunter Allen | EP#103
Hunter Allen, coach and widely recognised as the co-author of "Training and Racing with a Power Meter" sheds light on how to get started with power meters, how to become an advanced user of them, and shares general bike training tips for triathletes.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How to get started training with a bike power meter.
- How to become a "power user" of power meters, by using things like Performance Management Chart and quadrant analysis.
- The best ways to raise your Functional Threshold Power.
- Example bike training schedule for triathletes.
- Motion analysis with the Leomo Type-R device, and how it can be beneficial.
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About Hunter Allen
Why training with power gives an advantage
- It's easily quantifiable - we're measuring the amount of work you can do on a bicycle which is a critical piece of information.
- Previously we had rate of perceived exertion (RPE) so we knew if it felt hard.
- We then moved to heart rate monitors, which started to quantify the intensity of exercise.
- I like to call it the intention of your intensity - how hard you are trying to go.
- Power meters assess your work rate.
- They are a tool that you can measure improvements by.
- Power meters can also be used as a measuring tool to ensure that you're riding in the correct training zone.
- We do a test to get the athletes FTP (functional threshold power) and then we figure out individual training zones based on that.
- E.g. when you're riding between 91-105% of your FTP you're training your lactate threshold. You're training the system you want to train so you should get some benefit from that.
- Once we can understand that we're training that system, we can track how much time we train that system and then see how the person improves.
- Heart rate monitoring is very individual, so it's hard to say how accurate it is in general.
- There are a lot of compounding factors to add to the inaccuracy of heart rate monitoring: sleep, caffeine, environment, temperature etc.
- There is also fatigue. I had an athlete that was training for the national championships, he was really focused and in the last 2 weeks before the race he was really tired but he wanted to push himself so I gave him a bunch of intervals to do.
He started out with his normal threshold heart rate (175 bpm), his FTP for that same heart rate was around 350 watts - so a very good athlete. By the end of the week he was tired and he couldn't get his heart rate above 170, but he was still doing the workouts and hitting the numbers.
He had a rest day at the weekend and the next week he worked with a moto-pacer in the final week. The first day, the highest his heart rate got was 165 bpm, but he's now hitting 360-370 watts all the time, no problem.
He called me up, worried that his heart rate was 10 beats lower than normal, I told him to keep doing them and if he can still make the numbers don't worry about the heart rate.
He goes again tomorrow, heart rate hits 163 max but now he's doing 370-390 watts, so I tell him to keep doing them because he's still getting improvements.
I finally rested him, at the end of the rest week and his cardiovascular system has had time to recover, his heart rate was back up to even higher than it was before - his threshold heart rate is now 178-180 but he's almost hitting 400 watts on all his intervals.
- Had we decided to stop the training based on his heart rate, he'd have lost 4-5 really critical days in the final build up to the national championships.
He ended up winning the national championships and he maintained 178-180 heart rate in his Olympic distance triathlon.
Getting started with a power meter
- You've got to capture data. For the first couple of weeks you just want to capture data and learn about the power data itself.
- E.g. how hard can you go up a steep hill for a minute? What's your normalised power on a long ride?
- In that first two weeks, it's good to do some tests.
- FTP test: this is the best power you can maintain in a quasi-steady state until you start to fatigue, which is generally around an hour.
- If you don’t have an hour, or you don't have a location to do an hour steady, you can do a 20 minute test. From there you can reduce the average power from that test by 3-7% and that'll be close to what your hour power is.
- Don't always expect the (adjusted) 20-minute power to be exactly the same as the hour, but it's a good starting point.
- Power profile test, introduced in 2003, gives a clear picture of strengths and weaknesses. Start with a 1-minute effort all out, which represents your anaerobic capacity. Then a 5-minute test which represents your VO2max - this is more aerobic than the 1 minute test.
- For a draft legal triathlete/cyclist, you want to also test sprint power. You do a few 10-15 second sprints and you take the best 5 seconds of that sprint and use that to find your neuromuscular power (your ability to generate a high amount of force and how quickly you can do it)
- Once you've got your FTP you can set your training zones, and then you use your power profile to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.
- From Dan on Facebook - What do you think about The Sufferfest 4DP (four dimensional power) test?
- It's basically the power profile test - it's nothing new really! If you want to understand your strengths and weaknesses, that's the way to do it.
What they do that's new is they use the information to help prescribe workouts for you, which is a great way to do it because you want workouts based on your physiology.
For me, that's part of what a coach does - identify strengths and weaknesses. They've done a great job at pulling that together and putting it in an online training solution in indoors.
Do you need a training plan?
If you want to improve your race performance and triathlon abilities in general, you have to have a good training plan.
Making the most out of your power meter
- The next step is to define the demands of the event.
- We always have big picture demands e.g. I'm going to do a half Ironman.
- The distance itself doesn't change but the demand of the event does - maybe it has a 30 minute climb, or lots of short sharp hills.
- Once you've defined the demands, you start training to them.
- E.g. If you're doing a very hilly half Ironman, there are 15 small hills that are all at least 2 minutes long in the first half, and in the second half there's another 15 hills but these are longer, 3 minute hills.
- We know you're basically going to do 30 hill repeats that will be around your FTP during the bike ride.
- If you're not doing 30 hill repeats in your training, you're not training specifically.
- You can use your power meter in training to do these reps and ensure you're at your FTP
- As a more advanced user I recommend learning about the quadrant analysis tool, which tells you how you create the power.
- 300 watts is 300 watts is 300 watts but you can create it differently.
- E.g. you could put your bike in the biggest chain ring at the front, say 52 tooth, 14 in the back, and you could create 300 watts by pedalling slowly at 60rpm but with a lot of force.
- Or you could create 300 watts by putting it in the small chain ring, say 39 tooth, pedalling in the 17 at the back spinning at a high cadence, 120rpm with low force on the pedals. That's a different way to create those watts.
- Quadrant analysis: If you imagine an X/Y plot, on the X axis you have cadence, Y axis is force.
- The cross hairs of the graph dictate the four quadrants.
- Quadrant 1: high force, high cadence = sprinting.
- Quadrant 2: high force, low cadence. This is typically mountain biking, but many triathletes mistakenly work in this quadrant.
- Quadrant 3: low force, low cadence. This is endurance riding.
- Quadrant 4: high cadence, low force. This is either a group ride, or a race such as a criterium.
- The biggest mistake I see most triathletes make is pedalling too slowly. They're in quadrant 2 or 3, pedalling too slow with too much force.
- That uses the muscle glycogen which hurts you on the run.
- The best triathletes pedal with a little less force and a higher cadence - 90-95rpm. It saves the legs and the muscle glycogen.
- Quadrant analysis is critical to understand for the triathlon world because if you're creating watts in the wrong quadrant you can change this in training.
- When discussing cadence, efficiency can become a 'catchphrase' - it's more about economy.
- Saving energy or producing more power with less energy.
- Pedal at a high cadence, lower force which is less energy than pedalling at 70-80 rpm with a higher force.
- That translates as well into the metabolic side of economy - I'm saving energy because my body doesn't have to use as much glycogen, my body doesn't have to pump as much blood etc.
- Another thing that's really critical is the performance management chart, which we created in Training Peaks' WKO software.
- It's an outstanding way to quantify and understand when you're too fatigued, when you're fresh, when you can peak and how your freshness relates to peaking.
- One of the things it comes up with is a score called 'training stress score' (TSS) which gives a score for every ride.
- It's based on how much time you spent riding close to your FTP, and what was the intensity.
- You get TSS for each of your minutes training, whether that's below FTP, at FTP or above it.
- Gold standard is back to 1 hour, an hour at FTP would give you a TSS of 100.
- One of the goals as an Ironman triathlete is to do your Ironman bike at less than 300 TSS points to give you the best chance of a good run.
- That TSS goes in to your performance management chart to see how fatigued you are, how fresh you are etc.
- Related listening: Level up your triathlon using Training Peaks | EP#39
- What are the best ways to raise FTP and VO2 max the fastest while training for 70.3?
- If you think of FTP as the top of a table. The top of the table is close to the floor when you start out training, it's low at around 150-180 watts. As you get better, your table gets a little bit taller, but the length of the table is still the same - it's still an hour, the difference is the height. Eventually you can become the best in the world and the top of your table is the ceiling of your room.
- But how do you pick a table up? You don't just put your hands on the top and lift it up. Instead you come just underneath it and push it up. So what do we do to lift FTP? You ride just underneath it.
- We call that the sweet spot and it's usually 88-93% of your FTP.
- You can spend a lot of time there, do multiple intervals there (3x20, 3x40), and you get a lot of training bang for your buck.
- You've got to do the 100-105% of your FTP too, but those are going to be 4x10 minutes, 3x15 minutes, 2x20 minutes - building it up so that you can really be intense and you can deal with that for a short period of time.
- Work on your sweet spot first, then work right on you FTP next.
- To do VO2 max there's no magic bullet, it's 3-8 minute intervals between 106-120% of your FTP.
- E.g. 7x3 minutes on/3 minutes off at 120% of FTP.
- E.g. 5x5 minutes on/5 minutes off at 115% of FTP.
- E.g. 4x8 minutes on/8 minutes off at 106% of FTP.
- 2 minute intervals aren't really enough for VO2 max work - your anaerobic capacity is still being addressed, it needs to be longer to work aerobically. You get into a rhythm with the longer intervals, and create enough time there to get an adaptation.
- How much super-threshold work do you tend to have overall in a training plan for a long-distance age-group triathlete?
- I like VO2max workouts because they do increase your FTP.
- Going back to the table analogy, another way to lift it is to screw a hook down into the top and pull it up. This is what a VO2max workout does to your FTP - you're pulling it up from the top.
- The problem is, if you put too many hooks into the table, you'll weaken the table itself and it'll collapse.
- You can't overdo these sessions.
- Leading up to the season or a key event, I like to prescribe a VO2 max session at least once a week.
- You want to improve your VO2 for the same reason you'd want to improve your average speed - you're going to finish in a shorter time, it's going to be faster and you're going to do better.
Getting the best 'bang for your buck' in bike training as an age-grouper
- From 2 months out, you'll be doing sweet spot work, and transitioning into lots of FTP work.
- 10-15 minute intervals at 105% of FTP work well at this point, and offer big improvements.
- FTP work will be done twice a week, VO2 max once a week.
- E.g. FTP workout on Tuesday, VO2 max on Thursday, Saturday combine them to do a 'kitchen sink workout'.
- Kitchen sink workout: a little bit of everything! 3-4 hour long ride including endurance, VO2max, FTP, sweet spot.
- A company in Japan has created a device that has 5 motion sensors: 2 go on the top of your leg just under your shorts, 2 go on the top of your shoes, 1 goes on your lower back.
- Each measures different movements. E.g. the sensor on your foot measures how your foot moves around the pedal for each rpm. Are you pedalling toe down, heal down, where do you transition, are there any dead spots?
- You can then start to change the way people pedal to reduce the wasted energy output and become more economical.
- The thigh sensor helps understand how much movement the thighs are making up and down - known as the leg angular range.
- E.g. the sensors see one leg moves at 45 degrees of movement and the other moves at 50 degrees of movement. That can help with bike fits.
- The sensor on the lower back helps with understanding what's the angle of your pelvis - known as the pelvic tilt.
- This can be a great way to improve your aerodynamics, and know that e.g. if I'm riding at 48 degrees I'm as aero as I can be.
- It also helps identify if your hips are rocking up and down, or moving forwards and backwards.
- These can be a good way of identifying if you're positioned in the most suitable place to produce the best power.
- It's an incredible tool especially being able to see what the dead spot is for each person and how to change those things.
- There's a great blog post by Hunter that shows how useful a tool this is.
- I had a triathlete and we looked at his foot sensors and found a huge dead spot on his left leg when he came over the top of his pedal stroke, which is bad because you should start to be producing power at this point.
So I asked him some questions about why it might be just on the left, and he said "well I think my seat height is a little too low".
We raised his seat by 5mm and immediately his dead spot on his left leg went away.
It opened up his hip angle and he was able to lengthen out a bit more, and his leg was able to go over the top of the pedal stroke even better. We made a small change to raise his handle bars by 3mm which opened his chest and also helped, so overall it was really quick changes that made a big difference for him.
Dual-sided or single-sided power meters
- I really like the dual-sided power meters because I want to know what's happening between both sides.
- I really want to know, is the left leg stronger or weaker? Is it releasing more power than the other side or is it absorbing more power?
- One thing that we often forget about is that when you press down on the left leg, it's the right leg going up on the other side that is resisting (=absorbing), and vice versa.
- Left leg forward, right left back = left phase.
- We need to find out what your dominant phase is, and can we reduce the absorption?
- A lot of times the absorption is a problem - people are uneconomical with their pedal stoke and absorb too much power so it needs to be addressed.
- This can only be done with a left/right power meter.
- Find the one that fits for you as there are lots of great power meters out there!
- It depends on where you want to measure power, and it also depends on what kind of bike you have.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
- What do you wish you had known or done differently in your career?
- I wish I had had a coach. I really feel like that was one of the reasons that I did a become a coach was because it allowed me to take people under my wing and shortcut their two years of hit and miss training, trial and error that I made.
- Who is somebody in endurance sports that you look up to?
- I look up to a lot of guys! Andy Coggan has been an incredible mentor. Same with Steven Cheung. Joe Friel has done some incredible things with all of his books and his teachings over the years. Those guys have been outstanding. Of course Dr. Tudor Bompa who wrote about periodisation back in 1968.
- Table analogy of how to raise your FTP - you can raise the table by pushing from just below, but to some extent you can also drill holes and attach hooks to lift it up, however do this too much and you weaken the structure.
- The weekly structure example of triathletes cycling training. 3-4 rides per week and quality throughout was key.
- Quadrant analysis and the high cadence argument that Hunter provided.
- There are arguments for both sides e.g. Brett Sutton is a famous proponent of the low cadence, but it's great to hear different perspectives.
- Some recent research has shown that metabolically you're more efficient using a high cadence as your save glycogen stores.
Links, resources & contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Hunter Allen
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
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