Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Little Changes That Make a Difference

by Hunter Allen, PCG Founder/CEO and Master Coach
originally published in Road Magazine

Peaks Coaching Group Little Changes That Make a Difference

It’s always incredible to me how it’s possible to tweak just the smallest things in training or racing that have a profound impact on our results. A change in position on the bike, more protein in your diet, getting an extra hour of sleep, employing a new tactic in racing, or changing our training plan can be the trigger that gets you the next win. These little changes can have profound effects, even if you make only one change. Combine a couple of changes, and now you could have an even bigger impact.

As you go into the off-season and think about ways to improve for next season, you have to consider some of the smaller things you could do to tease out that next 1-2%. I have all my athletes make a list at the end of each year of ten “little” things they can do to improve. It’s hard for most of us to make a “big” change, especially if we’ve already made those big changes, but making ten “little” changes will have as much impact as one big change, or even more. Let’s take a look at two small changes you can make this fall in order to make your next season even stronger.

The first thing to consider changing is how you employ your racing tactics. Initiating them just by chance or whenever you think might be right or based on what others have done might work some of the time, but if you employ your tactics based on how your own strengths and weaknesses match up with the course and riders, you’ll have a much better chance at succeeding.

The first step is to create your fatigue profile. This tells you even more about your strengths and weaknesses than if you are climber or a sprinter or good in stage races or one-day criteriums. It can help tell you what kind of a climber you are and what type of sprinter you are. Are you a sprinter with such a blisteringly fast snap that no one can beat you in the final 100-meter dash to the finish line? Or are you a sprinter who can go from 350 meters out and then go so fast that no one can even come close to catching you? What if your strength is VO2Max and your five-minute power is good, but your three-minute power is way above and beyond your category? Or maybe your power at five minutes is okay but your power doesn’t really drop off much when you get all the way out to eight minutes? Figuring out your strengths at this level might have a profound impact on your training plan and could also affect your racing strategy and tactics. In an effort to further drill down into the data, Dr. Coggan and I developed the fatigue profile, which will help you pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses with greater precision and make the most of them in your racing season.

To start with, we defined each physiological training area in a broader way so that at Level 7 (Neuromuscular Power) we mean not just the best five seconds, but the best ten seconds and twenty seconds, as well. For Level 6 (Anaerobic Capacity), it made sense to look at power at thirty seconds, one minute, and two minutes so we could more fully understand whether a rider has above-average fatigue resistance or below-average resistance. For Level 5 (VO2Max) we expanded the range, as well, incorporating efforts from three minutes in duration up to eight minutes. At three minutes your VO2Max is certainly being taxed, but even at eight minutes the majority of your energy is being produced via the VO2Max system. Finally, at Level 4 (Lactate Threshold) we took the twenty-minute FTP test and expanded it to include tests for sixty and ninety minutes of Normalized Power so we could learn about the point at which a rider’s muscles fatigue and the role that plays in overall fitness and training.

What do all these revelations mean to you? That you have collect even more data and that the knowledge you gain from it will likely prove to be well worth the effort. Of course it’s possible, if you’ve been training with a power meter for a while, that you already have the necessary data and just need to mine it. Let’s start off first, however, with the testing.

We recommend that you test two specific systems on one day and then, depending on your fitness, either rest for at least two days before testing the next two systems or do the next test the very next day. Start out with Levels 6 and 7 first so you can get in the harder, shorter, more intense efforts when you are freshest. The testing protocols are too extensive to put in this article, but they’re in the second edition of the book I wrote with Dr. Coggan, Training and Racing with a Power Meter. We also have an automatic fatigue profiler on our website at

Let’s look at one athlete who significantly changed his tactics by just a little bit and made a profound impact on his ability to win events. Scott Demel, a Category 4 racer in Pennsylvania, used his fatigue profile from Level 7 (Neuromuscular Power, sprinting) to change his tactics at a recent race at the Trexlertown Velodrome, which allowed him to win the omnium that day. His Level 7 fatigue profile below.

With a high fatigue resistance in his sprint, Scott can maintain a higher wattage for a longer period of time and therefore should excel in sprints that start from farther out than 250 meters. He doesn’t fatigue much from five seconds to twenty seconds, which would be near the end of a longer 300+m sprint.

Scott commented, “I started winding up my sprint way earlier than I had before. I used to wait until somewhere in or after turn two to start up (maybe 200-225m to go) but now started as we entered turn one, or maybe even coming out of turn four as we were getting the bell if the situation looked good. Starting earlier gave me more time to get up to speed and put me in an offensive position rather than a defensive reaction to other riders' moves. I had a suspicion that I was becoming a better long-haul sprinter than the quick jumper I was five years ago or more. The power numbers backed it up, so I could execute with more confidence.”

This small change in tactics based on new knowledge from his power meter made an instant difference in Scott’s results from one race to the next. He didn’t have to do harder intervals or train for eight weeks to see the change; all it took to execute a race-winning tactic was a clearer understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.

The second small change that will make a profound difference for next season will take some hard work. I’ve written about this before, but I feel it’s important enough to review again. There are many myths in cycling, and one of those myths is that your functional threshold power (FTP) will continue to improve even though you have only a limited amount of time to train. If you only have six to ten hours a week to train, your FTP will only get to a certain number. Your threshold is also dependent on your VO2Max and a couple other genetic factors, but eventually you reach a limit in your FTP based on limited training volume. The riders in the Tour de France didn’t reach 440 watts at FTP because they rode only ten hours a week. It’s just not possible. Fabian Cancellara probably would never have become a pro cyclist, much less crack out 440 watts for an hour, if he’d only been able to train ten hours a week.

It takes time, training stress, and lots of miles to create big gains in your FTP. If you’ve been stuck at a certain FTP for a while now, you’re in what we call “training stagnation.” You’ve completely adapted to your current training stress, and it’s no longer a big deal for you to go out and do the Tuesday/Thursday world championships and race on the weekend. In order to get rid of training stagnation, you have to introduce a new training stimulus. This comes in three forms: frequency of training (more of it!), intensity of training (more of it!), and volume of training (more of it!). I suggest the first thing to do is increase your overall volume and add a touch of intensity. The best way to do this is to combine both volume and intensity into one big “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” type workout on the weekends you aren’t racing. Go out and get in a solid five-hour ride every couple of weeks, or every week if you want to make the quantum leap to the next level.

This is absolutely critical and cannot be overlooked. I’m sure you’ve heard from other coaches (maybe even your own coach) and read in articles and books that you don’t need to ride longer than your longest race or harder than your hardest race. I’d love for you to keep thinking that, because it will let the athletes I coach win every race. If you want a higher FTP, you need to get in those longer rides. You should come home with tired, tired legs. The perfect training ride is one in which your leg muscles start to get small twitches in them in the last couple of miles before home. This means that you’ve pushed your muscles almost to the limit of cramping, but not so much that you will really hurt yourself (that cramping causes irreparable muscle damage). Push yourself in the last hour of that five-hour ride; don’t just ride it in (unless that’s all you can do, of course). Ride at tempo pace or better in that last hour. Make it count. It’s always the last interval, the last sprint, the last hour of every ride that makes the difference.

Here’s an example of a “kitchen sink” workout you can use for those types of weekends.

Hunter’s Kitchen Sink Workout No. 1

Warm-up: 15 minutes

Main Set: Ride at your endurance and tempo pace (70-85% of your FTP) for the first two hours. If you get a chance to do a climb or ride into a headwind for 20-30 minutes, ride that at your sweetspot pace (88-93% of FTP). At the end of two hours, start with some fast pedaling drills to get the muscles working. Do 10 x 1-minute fast pedaling, with a minute’s rest between each. Focus on cadence over 120rpm and don’t worry about the wattage. Ride easy for 20 minutes at endurance pace and then do four sprints in big ring (53:15) from 22mph, with only two gear shifts, first to 14 and then to 13, resting for 3-4 minutes between each.

Recover well with 10-15 minutes of endurance-paced riding and then do 4 x 12 minutes just above threshold, so about 101-105% of your FTP. Do your best to hold it there and really push the limit on these. Rest for 5-10 minutes between each at endurance pace. Now ride at endurance pace for 45 minutes, but slow down every 5 minutes and do a big gear burst from a near standstill. Stay seated and push that gear over until you reach 80rpm; then you’re done and back to endurance pace.

Ready for the finale? Stop at a store and grab your favorite caffeinated sugar drink and drink most of it down, then ride easy for 10 minutes and finish strong with 45 minutes at sweet spot (about 88-93% of your FTP). If you can, do a burst every 3 minutes to 150% of your FTP, hold it for 10 seconds, and return to sweet-spot.

Cool-down: 5-10 minutes. Make sure to get in a recovery shake.

This workout might be more than you’ve ever done in a long ride, but that’s the goal. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be challenging. If you can’t even muster tempo in the last 45 minutes, you’ll know what you’ll be able to do in eight to twelve weeks of attempting this workout every weekend.

Stretch your thinking and yourself and make sure you continue to make changes to your training to avoid training stagnation. It’s these little things that make a difference. If you sit down now and write out the ten “little” things that you’re going to do differently from now on (and then do them), you’ll improve, I promise!

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Hunter can be contacted directly through