Structured, power-based cycling training with Chad Timmerman | EP#38
Chad Timmerman is head coach at TrainerRoad where he creates cycling training plans athletes use every day to become stronger and faster.
His approach to training is based on science, and he believes training without structure is not training at all, it's riding a bike.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Why training with power is the best way to improve your cycling
- Why high quality trumps high quantity
- How to make your cycling training structured
- The different phases of your cycling training: base, build, and specialty
- What TrainerRoad is and how it helps triathletes train more effectively
Short update on my experience with Stryd running power meter
- I absolutely love the Stryd running power meter so far!
- In my latest race, which was the NatWest Island Games on Gotland, Sweden, we had a very tough running course, with a 1.5 kilometer climb twice (two laps).
I made it a really great run, my best triathlon run ever I would say. The Stryd running power meter was fantastic to keep me in check on that climb. Holding back on that climb helped me blast past people on those flats and the downhill sections of the course just by preserving my energy a bit and distributing my power more evenly than most other competitors did. I think I advanced from at least 12 positions and was one of the fastest running times in a race which was pretty competitive.
- A bigger update on Stryd will follow at a later stage.
- Chad is the head coach and one of two co-founders of TrainerRoad
- He's in charge of everything that has to do with workout programming, creating training plans and anything along those lines.
- He has been coaching athletes for over 11 years.
- He has been an endurance athlete since 1995.
- Watch Chad's Training Principles video below:
- Sign up for Chad's free Train Smart, Get Fast email series here
- It's a software that you can use for cycling training indoors with a trainer in order to train with power effectively.
- You get different workouts that you can choose from an entire training plans that they have put together.
Do you need a power meter for TrainerRoad?
- No, it's not necessary because we have something called Virtual Power which is our proprietary method of calculating your power based on the trainer that you're using - the speed to power curve for each individual trainer.
- So essentially the investment that you're looking at if you want to get started training with power is the cost of a speed sensor and a cadence sensor (around €60) and TrainerRoad itself which is $12 per month or $99 annually.
Note: In Mikael's humble opinion, Starting to train with power will be one of the best investments that you can make, because you will get high quality and precision in your training to develop your fitness more effectively and faster. It will be a massive difference. TrainerRoad is a great and very affordable way to do that.
Why training with power is effective and preferable compared to others?
- Basically our metrics are: RPE - rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and then power.
- RPE is super useful but you need to have a lot of experience with training to use it effectively. So RPE comes along with time but it's a hard thing to establish.
- Heart rate is subjective. It just changes based on far too many variables for the training load to be consistent for us to prescribe workouts based on heart rate. We run into a lot of issues; day-to-day fluctuations, athlete-athlete fluctuations, all the things that can affect heart rate.
- Power however is very objective. It is what it is. You can either do it or you cannot. Regardless of what your heart rate or your rate of perceived exertion is, power is basically constant. So when we assess fitness and we get an idea of what you can do, we then base everything on what's called functional threshold power (FTP) or basically hour-power or your max lactate steady-state.
- Once we get a feel for that, we can scale all the workouts accordingly and then reassess and rescale. So you get the prescription of workouts based on a percentage of FTP.
- For example, if you have an FTP of 200 watts, your workout could consist of a warm-up of 50% of your FTP, and intervals of 90% of FTP or 180 watts. Whatever your FTP, the percentages stay the same for that workout.
How many workouts do you have in TrainerRoad?
- The workout catalogue is somewhere over 1300 - 1400 workouts.
What are the training plans that you have for triathletes?
- We break it down in in a number of ways. First off we periodize based on a traditional periodization model.
- So we'll start with base, then we move to build, and then we move to specialty training.
- And then within that I have broken these down into disciplines: sprint distance, Olympic distance, then half distance and full distance.
- And then even within that we break it down even further based on the amount of training time you have to dedicate each week. So there's a low-volume, a mid-volume, and a high-volume version of all of those plans.
What distinguishes the periodization in the base, build and specialty phases?
- Basically we're first building more general fitness and then working towards very specific fitness.
- In the earlier phases, in the base phases you'll see things that are more about building work capacity.
- The build phase basically grows that work capacity.
- When we get to the specialty phase, we start to hone the fitness to make it really specific to the target event.
- So if you're doing a sprint you're going to see very different training in that specialty phase than you would during a half Ironman or an Ironman specialty phase.
- But when you're back in the base phase you'll see a lot of overlap between the four different events.
What would the base phase look like?
- The big concern here is fostering aerobic capacity, and in most of the training plans it's assumed that you don't have a ton of time to play with.
- So you can go about building that aerobic capacity with short hard efforts that really tax the aerobic system.
- Or you can do the whole long slow approach. But the long slow approach assumes you have a lot of time that most of our athletes don't.
- And even if they do there's still a lot of benefit to be garnered from using those shorter, harder efforts.
- Within the sprint versus the half or full distance plans there might be small discrepancies, but we're still mostly concerned with fostering those basics with that aerobic base, some muscular strength, and a pretty heavy emphasis on form work.
What example workouts would you do in this period?
- There's typically some VO2max work.
- So some short two and three-minute efforts anywhere from 110%, 115%, even 120% of that functional threshold power.
- And then there'll be something that's a little more dedicated toward muscular endurance. So sweet spot work right around 90% of threshold, and those will be longer efforts, ranging from about six minutes up, and in the base phase that could grow as high as maybe 15 minutes.
- Then you also have the long rides which are generally quite long in duration at a fairly challenging intensity. Those longer rides we might cut it down a little below sweet spot and put it more in the endurance range which is anywhere from about 60-80% threshold typically.
What about the build phase?
- This is where it starts to diverge a bit more between the different goal race distances.
- Again, we're still assuming there's a bit of a restriction on training time so there still would be some focus on high-intensity work and I think high-intensity work has a place year round.
- You can always sprinkle some in a little more heavily depending on the discipline.
- But this is where if say you're doing sprint versus full Ironman, you might see short VO2max efforts in the sprint plan, longer VO2max efforts and maybe fewer of them at that in the full distance plan.
- The big emphasis here is on increasing the overall training load.
- So we try to raise muscular endurance and aerobic capacity. That's the two fundamentals of triathlon racing; to have a big aerobic engine and be able to push that aerobic engine's capacity at a high percentage.
What are the volumes in your training plans?
- The low-volume plans are three days a week.
- It's a Tuesday, Thursday, and then Saturday workout. And they're all interval workouts.
- So again, we're trying to maximize training time.
- And once you move up to the mid-volume plans those will grow to four, sometimes five days a week.
- And then the high-volume plan adds that sixth day giving you at least one day for rest every week.
- And then the triathlon plans actually do incorporate swim and run workouts.
- They are structured but they're not as measurable as training with power on the bike. So we have to base the run workouts on RPE and pace, swim workouts entirely based on time.
Note: When you sign up for TrainerRoad, you don't get just the cycling workouts and plans, you get the entire training plan libraries that are really great places to start for general triathlon plans.
How long are the base, build, and specialty phases?
- The base phase is typically twelve weeks.
- The build is typically eight weeks.
- And then the specialty is typically eight weeks.
- The triathlon plans differ a bit because we have the four disciplines.
- So I made the assumption that people training for a sprint triathlon often enough are new athletes.
- They either don't need a full 12 weeks of base training, or they could use a full 12 weeks, but they maybe don't have that sort of time to dedicate.
- So the sprint plan is a little more accelerated than typical.
- The Olympic plan is not quite as accelerated but a little truncated.
- And then we fall back into that whole twenty-eight week span for both the half and the full distance plans.
What goes into the specialty phase?
- So these plans are where it gets very specific, and this is where you'll see the biggest differences between the different disciplines.
- So again I use sprint and full distance because they're both the opposite ends of the spectrum.
- The workouts are still very much aerobic work. You’re going to be out there for an hour for a sprint and then half a day for a full distance race.
- But even though both are very much aerobic, the demands placed on the body are quite a bit different when you're competing for an hour versus ten hours and the workouts reflect that.
- For the sprint, the implied intensity for the bike is going to hover around your your functional threshold power or maybe even a little bit above it. So you'll see intervals where you'll work at 98-105% percent of FTP for a few minutes at a time. The rest becomes minimal because we're trying to grow your capability to maintain that intensity for what's going to amount to the entire bike leg.
- Whereas when you look at the full distance triathlons you know that's a much different intensity level. You’re going to be out on the bike from anywhere to 4.5 - 8 hours in some cases. In which case you're going to be working at a much lower percentage of threshold. You'll see longer intervals but the intensity will tone down to 75-85% of FTP.
What about the total volume in the specialty phase?
- This is where volume comes down.
- The volume is relatively high and grows during the build phase.
- And then once we move forward into the specialty phase the overall volume declines a bit.
Note: This is not just some sort of formula that TrainerRoad or Chad has come up with in in their plans. But this kind of approach to training is based on exercise science and well backed by research. This gives you a good example of how the bike training specifically works within that periodization model.
What’s the biggest change that athletes see when they start training according to your training plans in TrainerRoad compared to before?
- I think there's not much of a disparity between their training intensities. I think most of them just go out and train kind of medium hard all the time.
- However, I try to push the point that it's vital that there's a big difference between your easy days and your hard days.
- So all those interval workouts basically - so you're Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday sort of structure - hurt. I mean, they're very demanding. They ask a lot of the body and therefore they require a lot of recovery. So it's important that on the other days, that workload is offset with proper recovery. So those workouts are intentionally very easy.
- These plans will teach you how to push yourself beyond what you thought possible and obviously that's how you can grow your fitness.
Additional information on TrainerRoad as a software and as a tool for triathlon?
- Right now we're working on the incorporation of outdoor rides.
- This is something that you can reasonably expect to see in the near future where you can take all your ride data from outdoor rides.
- Of course this assumes that you have a power meter. But you can actually lump that into our career page and you can track your metrics more easily whether they're indoor or outdoor.
What’s your general take on indoor versus outdoor training?
- I'm a big proponent of indoor training. I think the ability to maintain high quality is unprecedented.
- I mean you can't really match it with an outdoor ride. You can on occasion but you can't do it as consistently.
- And if you don't have a power meter, a virtual power offers you the opportunity to train more objectively.
- All the obstacles and distractions that you encounter on an outdoor ride are basically removed. So it's almost a direct focus on quality and not much else.
- I don't require people to simply train indoors. I recognize that we're doing all this so that we can compete and enjoy ourselves outdoors as well.
- So I recognize that people even if they're strictly following a training plan, still want to get outdoors and this is why we offer the option on those lower intensity rides, those less structured rides, to actually do so and get outside.
Anything that has come up recently in exercise science that you have found interesting that you want to share with the listeners?
- Right now the hot topic (pun intended) is basically the outdoor temperature.
- So we're dealing with a lot of athletes who spend a lot of time indoors in a cool environment and then they go and compete outdoors and then they're not heat acclimated. So we're really going to start pushing that science in the very next podcast.
- What's particularly interesting about heat acclimation is all the other physiological adaptations that come with it.
- So you don't just get better at dealing with heat but you actually improve fitness and improve aerobic capacity, and there's a lot of other upsides to this - what's termed hyperthermic training. So that's one thing that we’re particularly keen on right now.
- Another - and it's certainly not a new topic - is emphasis on the quality of sleep. We're trying to find ways to basically maximize our recovery during sleep.
- Check out Episode 13 - The Pillars of Performance with elite coach Matt Dixon and Episode 28 - Peak Performance - The Science of Success with Brad Stulberg for more on the importance of sleep.
- Favorite piece of gear or equipment:
- Personal habit that helped achieve success:
- Prioritizing my sleep and then coupling that with an early rise time.
Indoor training is key to effective training. Not only is it very controlled and you can be sure that you'll maintain the quality of a session, but it's also very time effective compared to outdoor training.
Power-based training is definitely the way to go (unless you are a very experienced athlete, in which case RPE may work pretty well).
Heart rate, as I talked about before in Episode 29 - Training Zones part 2: Cycling, doesn't work if you're trying to do intense intervals.
If you go by power you will be able to push yourself past all limits that you never thought possible.
- From Eva Liedman, 50
- How to structure my training? I train 8-12 hours each week. But do I do the right things at the right time? My goal is to qualify for Kona. I've been in triathlon for five years and this is my third year as an Ironman competitor. Where I can improve the most is in my running, then in cycling. I swim under one hour ten minutes already in Ironman races and I hope to reach one hour five minutes this summer, so there is not much I can improve on in the swimming side.
- So what I answered to her was that this is going to be quite of a kind of generic answer because I don't have all the information. But based on what she's writing about her goals, and her athletic and demographic attributes, I would try to improve the running which is what she can improve the most, not by increasing volume because she's an older athlete and she's a female as well. Running can be taxing and risky for that kind of athlete if you do it a lot. By doing just a little but doing very high quality running, I think it you can get all those benefits.
- And also possibly if you can incorporate strength/weight training.
- Increasing volume is an unnecessary risk for not enough potential benefit on the run side of things. But where you can increase volume is on the bike to get super fit on that which will also help you run faster off the bike. And you can still do quite a bit of quality on the bike just as we talked about with Chad because you're on it 10-12 hours per week. So there is room for quality even though the volume is not going to be big enough that it is prohibitive of doing any sort of quality.
- And if you had to choose between the two for more advanced athletes like you, intensity is always going to be what wins not volume when you get to that more advanced stage.
- So, I sent Eva a framework for a week that she might be able to use:
- That is resting on Monday. I'm a big proponent of always having a rest day each week.
- Then Tuesday would be a 45 minutes quality swim. Threshold work for example, CSS work as we talked about on Episode 27 - Training Zones part 1: Swimming. And then one hour quality bike. Maybe a VO2max kind of bike.
- And Wednesday would be a 50-minute quality run. Maybe again VO2max intervals but on the run.
- Thursday would be a one hour quality swim. Maybe endurance intervals, so slightly longer intervals. And then 45-minute easy bike, just getting some volume in and some extra training stress but without taxing the body too much.
- Friday another bike, one hour 30-minute bike with endurance focus. It could alternate in some weeks, incorporating sweet spot intervals and some easy weeks just for endurance.
- And then Saturday would be 1 to 1.5 hour quality run. Maybe increase into 2 hours closer to race day. So it could include tempo work or race pace work in some weeks and then a completely easy jog in some other weeks. Or it would be something like the Squires long run that we talked about recently on Episode 34 - 9 of the best workouts you probably aren’t doing. So you can go and check this episode out as well as the Squires long run. It's one that I thought about that might be applicable for you here.
- And then Sunday would be your long ride day. If we are seeking to distend to 11 hours kind of a bit earlier in the season further out from your goal races, it would be a free hour because that's all we have with the 10-11 hour week. But then when you get closer you get up to 12-13 hours, then 14-15 hours definitely. And incorporating race intensity on some of your long rides is going to be critical as well.
- I highly recommend doing weight training weekly both for injury prevention and performance benefits on the bike and a run.
- In some weeks maybe you could even drop a swim because as you said you don't have much to gain. So just stick to that longer one-hour swim with endurance intervals and drop that other shorter quality swim.
- Another point is that you could also be doing 10 day training cycles instead of weekly cycles. This might allow you to absorb the training better and keep injuries at bay.
- But the key points are that you should do as little running as possible for maximum potential benefits. So drop volume and run. Just get those key high quality workouts in that will increase your fitness and become really bike fit so that you can run well off the bike.
Links and resources
- About Chad Timmerman
- Stryd Running Power Meter
- Virtual Power
- The Well-Built Triathlete by Matt Dixon
- Triathlon 2.0 and Triathlon Science by Jim Vance
- Andrew Coggan
- Wahoo Kickr
- Yeti Cycles - SB4.5
- Trek Domane SLR Disc
- Related episodes: