Setting Goals Using a Power Meter

Setting Goals Using a Power Meter

By Coach Hunter Allen, founder of Peaks Coaching Group

Riding on bike with power meter

There are many ways to use your power meter to set goals.

These can range from wattage goals within a single interval, to creating a certain amount of training stress in a workout, to raising your FTP (functional threshold power) to a new level and even to help you set a goal of peaking for a particular race.

A power meter can be used at all levels of training in order to help you set goals and this is one of the most important reasons to use a power meter.

Wattage Goals for Each Session

This chapter will help you get started in using your new tool to set goals for each interval session and then to set goals for your overall training load.

In order to do this we need to understand the relationship between intensity, time and the energy system we are trying to improve.

Riding on a road bike

For our first example, let’s say that Joe Athlete wants to work on his Vo2 max power. From Dr. Coggan’s power training zones; we know that Vo2 Max is stressed when you are between 106 and 120% of your functional threshold power or FTP. So, the intensity must be in the correct training range in order to cause enough stress on that energy system, in this case the Vo2 Max, for it to stimulate improvement.

At the same time, the duration of that effort must be long enough to stress that energy system. If you rode at 120% of FTP for only thirty seconds, then that would not be long enough to actually cause it to adapt. For the Vo2 Max system to adapt to training stimulus, a minimal effort for 3 minutes is necessary with a max time length of about 8 minutes.

After 8 minutes, it’s very hard to maintain if not impossible for most people at 106-120% of FTP. So, once you understand the relationship between time and intensity, it allows you to set some guidelines about how many intervals are optimal to do on a workout basis.

Pedaling fast on bike trainer

For instance, since you are trying to improve your Vo2 Max system and you want to prepare for an upcoming race that has (8) five minute climbs in it, then you are going to do (8) x 5 minute intervals between 106-120% of FTP (let’s use 300watts in this example).

The first interval you do, you crack out 360 watts, the second is 350, and the third is 340. This third interval is what I call the ‘repeatable’ interval. The watts that you do in that interval are the watts that you can ‘repeat’ over and over for multiple repeats.

"For the Vo2 Max system to adapt to training stimulus, a minimal effort for 3 minutes is necessary with a max time length of about 8 minutes."

The first two efforts are always the ‘fresh’ efforts in which you have plenty of glycogen in your muscles and you also have a lot of anaerobic work capacity available to crack out the big watts. However, once that anaerobic work capacity is used up, then you are left with just the right amount of energy to repeat more efforts.

The reason this is so important is that we are going to take the watts in the third effort and subtract 5% from it (in this case 340 x .05=17 and 340-17= 323 watts), and when you can’t average at least this many watts (323) for your interval, you are going to stop as now you are not training intensely enough in order to elicit a great enough stress to cause a training improvement or adaptation.

Maybe the sixth interval is 320 watts and because you are an ‘overachiever’ (aren’t we all!?) and you want to make absolutely certain that you are cooked, you do one more interval but by minute two, you see that you can’t even maintain 310 watts much less over 320. This immediately lets you know that you are now below the intensity needed to stimulate the Vo2 max system and you can’t maintain the time needed to create enough stimulus for improvement.

Cycling on indoor trainer

Optimizing the Number of Training Intervals

In the example below of an athlete’s Vo2 Max workout, we see the other side of the coin and in this case, the athlete could have done more intervals to gain even more training adaptation. This is a perfect example of using these interval guidelines to ensure optimal training. This athlete’s watts didn’t drop at all from third interval to the fi rst one, they actually went up! Unfortunately, he stopped after the fi fth interval, when he could have easily done another, if not two or more.

Graph from TrainingPeaks software

In reviewing Hunter’s interval guidelines below, they can help you to understand exactly when to stop doing interval repeats based on that ‘ever telling’ third effort.

Of course, this requires a bit of mental math out on the training ride, but as long as you know the percentage drop-off to look for in each time period, then you should be able to quickly and easily figure out how many intervals are optimal for each workout.

Hunter's Interval Guidelines
When to stop interval repeats based on watts achieved in 3rd effort.
Average Drop in Power
20 minute 3–5%
10 minute 4–6%
5 minute 5–7%
3 minute 8–9%
2 minute 10–12%
1 minute 10–12%
30 seconds 12–15%
15 seconds When peak power drops by 15-20%, or when avg. power for the interval drops by 10-15%

Since we are all limited by the time we have to train and we want train most efficiently, it makes sense to use your power meter to fi gure out your optimal number of training intervals for each workout. Not only does it make sense, but it now allows you to take advantage of using Joe Friel’s Maxim, “Train just enough for success.”

With a power meter, we have now been able to quantify the optimal training load in the grand scheme, and also using some simple guidelines, you can truly optimize your training each day. We are all limited by our ability to recover and our abilities to adapt to training stress, so that will always be a limiter in our fitness improvement.

However, wouldn’t it be nice to improve at the highest rate that you can? Of course it would and now using my interval guidelines to help you, you can be assured that you are training optimally. As a coach of all kinds of cyclists, from Pro Tour riders to recreational, I use the power meter to its fullest to make sure my athletes train optimally. This is the key for each and every athlete, train to your optimal level and you’ll be assured of success.

" now allows you to take advantage of using Joe Friel’s Maxim, 'Train just enough for success.'"

How Much Training Can You Handle Over Time?

Certain questions are at the heart of every ambitious cyclist and their spring training regime.

  • How much and how hard can you train?
  • How much should I ride?
  • How hard should I ride?
  • Do I ride when I am tired?
  • How tired IS too tired to train?
  • When will I be recovered enough to train hard again?

These are not always easy questions to answer and many of the answers only come from years of trial and error while learning and listening to your body. This trial and error process, while usually returning good results, can be slow and when the ‘error’ side of things pops up, it can be painful and even more time consuming to get back to previous form. For most of us, the biggest issue with the old ‘trial and error’ method is that we don’t have time to for it! Who wants to take three years of their life to try to figure out how much and how hard to train?

" ...the biggest issue with the old ‘trial and error’ method is that we don’t have time to for it!"

Cyclist on a bike

As we consider training load, we need to consider the two components of training load. We call these two components: Chronic and Acute Training Load.

  • Chronic Training Load (CTL) is made up of all your training in as little as the last 21 days and as long as the last 42 days. Your current fitness depends on what training load you did in the past and those training rides you were doing six weeks ago are definitely playing a role in your current fitness.

  • Acute Training Load (ATL) is your most recent training efforts, and comprises the training you have done as long as 14 days ago, all the way up to what you did yesterday on the bike.

While CTL is more analogous to ‘fitness,’ ATL is more analogous to your ‘fatigue.’ If you had two hard training rides this past weekend, then they are very much going to impact your ability to do some hard work during the week.

Therein lies another challenge: If you rest too much, then you will start to lose fitness, but if you train before you are properly rested, then you won’t get the greatest bang for your training buck. Since your ATL (typically last seven days of training) ‘drives’ your CTL (last 42 days), if you stop training in the short term, then this will impact your long term fitness for the next six week cycle...

It’s very similar to managing your own budget at home. You have a certain amount of income coming in each month and you have fixed expenses that must be paid each month and then there are some variable expenses that occur each month as well, which include that stellar deal the bike shop just offered you on a sweet new set of PowerTap carbon wheels!

Now, if you haven’t budgeted correctly and you buy those wheels, in the short term you are faster, happier (whomever said money can’t buy happiness, hasn’t bought a set of really fast wheels yet!), and winning more races, but since you won’t be able to pay some of those fixed expenses, you are going to have to forego that race coming up and spend some extra hours at the office to compensate for your lack of long term budgeting.

Bike wheels on road

Similarly, if you train too hard in block of training, you’ll overtrain (over spend!) and then it could take you months to recover from that training block. The opposite scenario applies as well with too much rest, and while resting after a huge block of training can really improve your form in the short term, if you rest too much, then your long term fitness will deteriorate and/or you might come onto form too soon or just flat out lose watts at your functional threshold.

The Impact of Too Much Training

Since managing your chronic and acute training load is key to your success, both in the short term and in the long term, let’s look at a couple of case studies so that you can understand a little more clearly the impact of too much training has on a season, and how proper rest between training blocks is so important to the next block.

In this first example of training too much too fast, one of the key components that you have to keep in mind is that everyone’s level of training load is different. A famous pro cyclist once said, “There is no such thing as overtraining. It’s just that you weren’t ready for that high of a training load.” This is very true and applies to all of us, no matter our age or experience.

“There is no such thing as overtraining. It’s just that you weren’t ready for that high of a training load.”

Cyclists riding on the road

Since our power meters record each second of data, we have been able to quantify training stress in relationship to your functional threshold power (FTP). This is called Training Stress Score™ and each minute you spend at or above your FTP, you score more or less TSS points. The more intense the effort or the closer to your FTP your ride is, then the more points you score. The gold standard is set by riding as hard as you can (FTP) for one hour, and then you would score 100 TSS points. For more info on TSS, refer to the book that Dr. Coggan and I wrote, “Training and Racing with a Power Meter."

Sample Athlete #1

As we examine the graphic below, the Blue line represents the CTL which is expressed as a weighted 42 day average of TSS points, the pink line is the ATL which is a weighted 7 day average of TSS points and the yellow line is what we call Training Stress Balance (TSB), which represents your freshness or how fast you might recover from the combination of CTL and ATL.

At the beginning of the season, this athlete had three distinct build-ups in training, with the last one causing his CTL to rise over 100 TSS points for 11 days.This would mean that the amount of raining stress that he has endured would be the equivalent of doing little over an hour time trial every day for the past 42 days! Notice after this huge build up, the blue CTL line drops down as he is forced to rest and recover.

The CTL line plateau’s out at roughly 80-90 TSS per day a couple of weeks later, and notice how his TSB has gone very positive (positive 32 at one point), which means that in theory he should be well rested and recovered.

Graph from TrainingPeaks WKO

However, this athlete continued to tell me that he was very tired and sore and just wasn’t feeling rested. So, we continued to reduce his training load and only after nearly 45 days of a training load reduction, did he return to feeling his normal self. This was a clear case of training too hard too much and is what we call over-training.

Over-Training vs. Over-Reaching
  • Over-training is a condition in which you must drastically reduce your training load for more than a month in order to recover fully.
  • Over-reaching on the other hand is something that we all do, and it’s an essential part of training adaptation.

In this case, this athlete just was not ready for such a sharp increase in training load and then a continual increase for more than 42 days.

We have found that increasing your CTL by more than eight TSS points per week, is a definite cause for concern, so make sure you watch how quickly you ramp up your training load.

Sample Athlete #2

In the next case, this athlete has attended two of my Peaks Coaching Group week long spring training camps, one in Marin, California and one in Bedford, Virginia and there was a week of down time between the two. These camps represented a HUGE training load increase from her previous weeks of training, especially since she lives in a northern part of the US and spends much of the winter on the trainer. As we examine her weekly TSS chart, we can see exactly how much of an increase in training stress each of these camps have on her.

Graph from TrainingPeaks WKO

The dramatic increase in TSS from her normal load is definitely enough to start the alarm bell ringing, however, she was able to ride very easy for a week in between camps and that allows her to not move into an over-training situation. One thing that the Performance Manager chart has taught me as a coach is that when you need to rest and you need to really rest, then just get off the bike and allow yourself to completely recover. You can watch your Training Stress Balance(TSB) come up each day and know for certain when you will reach a ‘zero balance’ in your TSB, which means you are neither fresh(positive TSB), nor fatigued (negative TSB).

In the chart below, you can see how well this athlete recovered from the first week of training camp. She was -100TSB points at the end of the first camp, but by not riding or riding very, very easily for 30-45 minutes three times in the week between camps, she was able to come into the second camp almost completely recovered (only -2 TSB) and ready for another block of training.

Graph from TrainingPeaks WKO

The Performance Manager chart in TrainingPeaks WKO+ software and a power meter have really become an indispensable as tool for managing your training load, and helping you to know for certain how hard you can train, how much rest you need before the next training block and knowing for certain when your training load is exceeding the boundary between over-reaching and over-training!

A power meter and software analysis tools have helped coaches and athletes alike to become better at understanding the law of cause and effect and in training terms, the training dose and the response. As you work through the spring and summer training and racing season with your races, training rides, century events and big goals, make sure that you are looking at the big picture of training and understand the overall training stress.

Next: Training Beliefs

There’s no one-size-fits-all way approach to training, yet there are a few general methods that work for the vast majority of athletes - including having a focused purpose to your training

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