Scott Mercier: Training tips that can add power to your cycling
Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.
I know we need the water, but good grief, some bluebird days would be nice. I feel like we haven’t seen the sun since October.
Regardless of the weather, it’s time to think about your training. I’ve written about how weight, and specifically your power-to-weight ratio, can make you better on the climbs. So, let’s address the first part of that equation: power.
To get some ideas on how to increase power, I spoke to my old coach, Chris Carmichael. Chris has been coaching athletes of all levels for several decades and helped me become an Olympian 15 months after I picked up the sport.
Chris said the first thing is to do a field test to get a baseline. The field test consists of two intervals of eight minutes each with a recovery of 10 minutes between efforts. The information you’ll need from these efforts include average power and heart rate, cadence, max heart rate and your rate of perceived effort, or RPE. He suggests finding a hill with a consistent climb of around 6% and starting your effort from a stop or near stop.
The effort should be max; in other words, flat out as hard as you can go. It’s important not to start too hard, however, because eight minutes at a max effort is going to seem like a really long time. Start smoothly and consistently and you should get to the max effort within the first 45 to 60 seconds. You also want to keep your cadence above 85.
I did these efforts up West Sopris Creek Road. Paying attention is not really my strong point, and I went flat out from the gun. By the second minute, I was wondering what in the world I was doing, and by the eighth minute I could barely turn the pedals. For my RPE, I felt like Nigel in “Spinal Tap” — this one went to 11! If you’re doing them right, it will feel like someone is twisting the muscles in your legs into tight knots and you’ll be coughing like you have emphysema.
I thought he’d said a five-minute recovery rather than 10, and the five minutes went by really quickly. The recovery was not enough, and as a result, my second effort was significantly slower and with less power than the first one. My power on the first effort averaged 378 watts, but it dropped to 344 on the second effort. For your base wattage and heart rate, you want to take the higher wattage and heart rate of the two efforts. This will be your base number for your intervals.
Chris has identified five different training intensities for cycling: endurance, tempo, steady state, climbing repeat, and power interval. Each of these five zones works a different area, and they’re all important for your cycling performance. We’re going to focus on climbing repeats to improve your power and speed while going uphill.
The performance goal with the climbing repeat is to build sustainable power at lactate threshold. This is best done with repeated efforts just below lactate threshold, or around 92 to 95 percent of the power from your field test. To get this number, you’ll take your base effort wattage and time it by 95 percent.
You’ll want to find a road with a long, steady climb. Fortunately, there are no shortages of climbs in the valley, but two that come to mind are Cattle Creek or Maroon Creek. You’re going to want to get a good warm up of at least 30 minutes. The warm up should include some moderately high cadence work, at least 105, with minimal load on your legs.
The efforts will be 12 minutes each, with just five minutes of recovery between efforts. You’re trying to build power, so you want to keep a relatively low cadence on these efforts; a cadence between 75 and 90 is perfect. The primary focus, however, is on your intensity. Your legs will be tired after these intervals, but if you’re consistent and do them at least once a week, you should see meaningful gains in your overall fitness, and especially in your climbing.
When I did these efforts, I found that I could not maintain the wattage at the lower cadence, and I kept spinning faster and faster. This was not ideal, and I had to force myself to keep shifting into a bigger gear. The problem with the bigger gear, however, was that I just wasn’t strong enough to stay in the training zone and I was about 30 watts below where I needed to be for each effort. Hopefully, as I do more efforts, I’ll see an improvement.
If you combine losing a few pounds with increasing power, you should see a summer of many personal records. A big thanks to Chris for helping me with this and you can find more detailed information on his website https://trainright.com.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a senior financial adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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