originally published in Road Magazine
For all of those crazy cyclocrossers out there, it’s that time of the year again: time to race your ‘cross bike in the cold weather, rain, and mud with all your heart and guts for little glory and glamour at the finish line. But it sure is a whole lot of fun!
For some, CX is something fun to do when the bike racing season is over, while for others, it’s the season they’ve been planning for all year. What’s the difference? One type of rider has intention, and the other doesn’t. What does intention bring to the game? Intention is something often talked about in the martial arts world, though not so much in the endurance sports world. It is A: a course of action that one intends to follow, B: the state of one’s mind at the time one carries out an action, and C: a determination to act in a certain way. Your intention about your CX race has a lot to do with the outcome of the race, how you determine your happiness with that outcome, and the experience of the race itself.
So what the heck does intention have to do with training or racing with a power meter? Well, training and racing with a power meter by definition implies intention. You made a conscious decision to improve, and investing in a power meter became the outward expression of that intention. This is not to say that folks without a power meter don’t want to improve, but maybe their intention isn’t as strong as yours. Without a strong intention, the intensity of riding is very different.
How do intention and intensity relate, exactly? We know that the intensity of your workout or the intensity at which you do your intervals determines the specific type of training response your body gives you (the “dose and response” effect). If you do intervals at 120% of your FTP, at that level of intensity you are training your power at VO2Max. Do enough of those intervals, and your power at VO2Max will increase. There is a metric inside the TrainingPeaks WKO+ software called Intensity Factor, created by Dr. Andrew Coggan to define the relative intensity of a ride or a specific time period within a ride as it relates to your FTP. Intensity is an essential part of training and adapting to becoming a stronger rider; without intensity in your workout, you won’t continue to improve.
When we think about intention in relationship with intensity, it is the intentionality that we bring to a workout that imparts the necessary intensity to each interval, workout, ride, or race. When we intend to win a race, we race with a much higher intensity than if we only intend to ride a race for training and sit in the field. When we intend to go out for a cyclocross workout in order to improve so that we can have a chance at winning the next race, that workout will be a very intense workout with lots of hard threshold intervals, anaerobic capacity efforts, and maybe even a few hard sprints. The intention that we bring to a workout defines the needed intensity. The important thing we need to know is at what intensity to ride in order to create the training response we want.
Let’s examine some workouts done with intention and some done without so that you can better understand the difference between the two. One day one of my athletes went out just to ride. She didn’t ride very hard or super easy, but rode at whatever pace she felt like at the moment. When she returned, she commented in her notes that she didn’t feel much like riding and that her legs were just spinning around. Take a look at her power file from this ride:
On another day not long after, she had a workout goal of 2 x 20 minutes at FTP in an hour’s ride (power file below). This time she was focused and she even got on the indoor trainer to do the workout so she could focus completely on it. In her workout notes she wrote that she felt clearly better when she was focused on the workout and working on engaging her core. Bringing intention to the workout brings about body awareness, which will make a difference to your cycling, just like it did for this athlete.
What about bringing intention to a race? How do intention and intensity interrelate in racing situations? The very act of participating in a race means you are bringing intention into your reality. Because you chose to join the race, you made a conscious decision to become part of the race, and this will impart your intensity. The difference between intentions for racing and intentions for training have more to do with the strength and desire of your intention, which govern your intensity. If your desire to win the race is very strong, it’s more likely you will stay more focused than the riders around you and will continually watch the terrain, the tactics that other teams employ, and your own race strategy.
Sometimes your desire is too strong and you want to win so badly that you chase down every attack until you finally get worn out, which is of course when the winning attack goes away. Sometimes balancing your desire to win with the natural rhythm of the race becomes more important than the actual intensity you bring to the race. At other times your race desire isn’t very high and you find yourself going through the motions, which means that your intensity will most likely be low. Another case might be that your intention in the race is dictated to you by your teammates or team director. In this case, your intensity is governed by an external intention upon your own free will and choice (you are, of course, a willing partner to this, or you wouldn’t be on the team).
A race done with a focused intention appears very different in a power file analysis. The chart below is from an athlete who went into his race with a highly specific game plan and intention: he wanted to get in a breakaway and, once in the breakaway, grind people’s legs down so that all he had to do was put in a little attack to drop them, then solo to the finish line. This is wishful thinking for some of us, but this athlete knew the course, knew he had the legs to back up his plan, and needed only to execute it. One thing you should note about the chart below is how the much smoother the power becomes when he’s in the breakaway versus in the pack and then how it becomes even smoother still when he’s solo off the front and doing his best to get to the line first. Clearly intention in a race is an ever-changing thing; the best racers use their intention before the race to set their game plan and tactics in the race, but when the race is unfolding a careful response and appropriate reaction to the dynamics of the race is also required.
A power meter can tell us many things about our training and racing. Post analysis is a useful tool to help teach yourself the importance of training and racing with a goal or purpose in mind. Goals and purposes are typically very concrete and defined, such as, “I am going to win the race in a field sprint,” or “I will attack on the climb at the finish and solo to the line for the win.” Intention, on the other hand, isn’t always a concrete goal. Intention is more of a determination of how you will approach a race or how you will act in a certain race; with highly dynamic bicycle races, it is often the better way to think about a race or training ride. Intend to do your best and play out your strategy, all the while being willing to change on the fly to adapt to the ever-changing tactics employed by your competitors.
When you train with your power meter, intend to train in specific training zones and to work on specific weaknesses, then use that intention to improve; this will help you better regulate your training intensity. On the flip side, I am also a big believer in going out and just riding your bike (which is an intention of its own). Not having a strong intention on some days does not mean you aren’t competitive or don’t want to win, nor does it mean you will not have fun. In fact, quite the opposite; some of those days of weak intention can end up being your best days on the bike.
One last piece of advice: remind yourself occasionally that this is bike racing; not every day is going to be perfect, and you won’t be on form for every race. As USA Cycling’s coaching coordinator Sam Callan once said to me, “Sometimes my level of intensity did not meet my level of intention.” No matter how hard you want to do something, your body doesn’t always respond the way you want it to. Intention and intensity are entangled concepts that, when consciously put to proper use, can enhance your fitness and your success in races and rides. Start with the right intention, and the success will follow.