Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in the March 2011 edition of VeloNews magazine.
Six watts per kilogram. That’s the key metric often thrown around as a definer for world-class ability, the power-to-weight ratio required for an impressive performance in the Tour de France. In American currency, 6w/kg is 2.7 watts per pound. If you own a power meter or just know your approximate power output, do the math … and then get back to your day job and leave the Tour to the professionals.
Joking aside, power output numbers can serve a few purposes for those of us who enjoy riding or racing recreationally. For one thing, they offer a good reference point to compare ourselves to professional riders. But beyond the gee-whiz factor, they give a great snapshot of your current strengths and weaknesses. Further, they also offer a great way to monitor improvement throughout the year.
Dr. Andy Coggan, co-author of Racing and Training with a Power Meter, created a detailed chart based on years of study that stratifies power output in four key measurements. The chart below is a simplified version converted into pounds.
HOW TO TEST YOURSELF
First, you need a power meter. If you don’t own one, borrow one from a friend, contact a coach or rent one. Then get yourself some data.
“There is no beating around the bush with testing for five seconds, one minute and five minutes,” said Dirk Friel, chief marketing officer for TrainingPeaks.com. “Just go out, get a good warm-up and hit it hard. I’d do the five-second and one-minute efforts within one workout and save the longer five-minute effort for a separate day. It may be best to do all test days after a recovery period to reduce the effects of fatigue. Competition always brings out the best in us, so group rides and training partners to compete against can help with these tests. You don’t have to push a start/stop button to conduct a test.
“Functional threshold is harder to test for as it is very hard to get the motivation to do a 60-minute time trial,” Friel said. “So, I suggest a 30-minute field test, then subtract 5 percent to estimate your functional threshold.”
Carmichael Training Systems senior coach Jim Lehman suggests following the test protocol in Coggan’s book, or, if you own a power meter, examining race files for peak numbers.
|Power levels: Watts per pound for Men|
|Power levels: Watts per pound for Women|
FasCat Coaching owner Frank Overton is a fan of using race data. “Athletes produce their best power when racing and I find that even though they may test, they’ll eclipse those power outputs when they have a number on their back — when it means something.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS MEAN
Coggan chose the four categories as representative of neuromuscular power, anaerobic capacity, VO2 max and lactate threshold. Most people have varied abilities across the four; great neuromuscular power does not mean a high lactate threshold.
“The power profile chart is intended to point out your strengths and weaknesses,” Overton said. “For example, do you have a Cat. 1 sprint but Cat. 4 20-minute power? If so, you should work on your threshold power so you can sprint at the end of a road race in a Cat. 1 event.”
Also, the power profile quantifies what type of rider you are. High neuromuscular power and low threshold? You’re a sprinter. Lousy five-second power but tremendous threshold? You can be a great racer, just don’t wait for the sprint.
Even at the top of the sport, levels vary. It’s what makes climbers climbers, and sprinters sprinters.
Coggan quotes pro racer and coach Adam Myerson for another interpretation of what the numbers mean: “Your functional threshold determines the level at which you play the game, and your sprint determines how you play the game.”
“Your threshold is your entry ticket — it basically determines what category you can race in,” Coggan said. Luckily, the threshold number is the most improvable of the four.
John Verheul, president of JBV Coaching and another colleague of Coggan’s, said the power profile chart has to be applied to your goals.
“If you want to ride centuries fast and you have low one-minute power, it just doesn’t matter,” Verheul said. “Similarly, you can be a good road racer with poor five-second power. You have to determine how well your power profile matches up with your goals and desires. Look at the disconnects, and analyze how trainable they are.”
HOW YOU CAN IMPROVE
Lehman says it’s more important to think about targeting energy systems than thinking about improving performance over a specific amount of time like those in the power profile chart.
“It is easy to get hung up on these numbers, but these numbers are just a measurement of how an athlete is progressing or developing and the power profile chart serves as a great way to quantify this,” Lehman said.
For improving short-duration power, Ainslie MacEachran, head coach and owner of Gemini Training Systems, recommends winter lifting in the gym that focuses on the musculature of the legs and stabilizers and core.
“Hill repeats, power tempo training and lactate threshold efforts in a somewhat larger gear than usual on the bike are also beneficial,” he said. “Ultimately, racing is the best training.”
Your threshold, Verheul said, “is very trainable. Of the four categories, functional threshold is what impacts most people, whether you’re a mountain biker or a time trialist, a road racer or someone who enjoys riding centuries. That is the one category that most people should and typically do spend time training.”
Lehman agrees. Instead of fixating too much on the shorter-duration numbers, he said, “training time will be better spent working on aerobic conditioning, threshold and VO2 efforts, thus improving five-minute and functional threshold power.”
At this time of year, simply getting out for regular rides is beneficial. “A lot of your gains come just from riding the bike,” said FasCat coach Jason Hilimire. “There is an overemphasis on doing threshold work. Start first with a solid aerobic foundation, doing tempo and sweet-spot work. Once you have that foundation down, then start doing threshold work — go ride longer hills. If you have a structured progression, you can expect to improve significantly.”