My original idea for this article was to write a review on the recent arrival of the stages power meter. However a quick internet search has proven that people much with much bigger reviewing reputations have already done so, see the MTBR review here and DC rainmakers review here. However what these guys fail to do is to go into any sort of details about how to properly make use of it, as such the goal of this article is to present a range of ideas for the proper integration of a power meter into a mountain biking training program.
Here is my 5 step plan for integrating a power meter into your training program a follow up article will look at specific race and training analysis.
Choice is limited when it comes to power meters for a mountain bike and in my opinion you are hard pressed to go past the new stages set up. Compact, lightweight and out of the way this left crank arm only power meter is as unobtrusive as they come. Allowing you to focus on your riding without worrying about your investment.
Stages is also easy to install and connects via both Ant + and Bluetooth 4.0.
Step 2: Testing
The testing side of power meters has been explored by quite a few people but the two biggest names of note are Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan. These two have really pioneered the area and worked extensively with cyclists the world over. When talking about testing I am really talking about the techniques and tests that they have developed of the last 20 years. The testing process for cross country racing is inherently similar to Road cycling testing.
Initial testing is where you should start to get an idea of yourself and your physiological characteristics. You may think you know what you are good at sprinting, long climbs, fire trail pinches but here is where we find the numbers and numbers don’t lie.
Our basic testing involves 3 stages.
Power Profiling: The power profile is the basic test for determining your physiological characteristics. It involves completing a number of max efforts of differing time lengths. The power output of each of these efforts is recorded and used to develop your “Power Profile” ie: a sprinter may have a really good (> 1500 watts) 15 second power but lack the aerobic power to have a good 3 minute effort. The power profile provides information about an athlete’s neuromuscular, ATP-PC, anaerobic and short range aerobic fitness.
The design of the Power profile test is out lined below
FTP Testing: FTP, lactate threshold anaerobic threshold etc etc etc. The list goes on but essentially these are just different terms for the same point. Having a power meter on your bike allows you to complete a field test which whilst not directly measuring your blood lactate or gas exchange provides an accurate determination of this threshold. This threshold has been proven to be an excellent indicator of endurance performance with some research finding it more indicative of performance than VO2 Max. This test also provides a value for maximum 20 minute power output.
The most common test for determining FTP is outlined below
Race Practice: Find your nearest race loop or downhill run. Smash round it, down it or through it as fast as you can. This will provide you some data that is specific to your racing needs. Including your repeat sprint ability and peak power outputs. More details to come in the data analysis section.
Step 3: Rider Profiling and Zone Setup
Testing is complete your legs are sore and you have a whole bunch of numbers, What does it mean?
Firstly the FTP test allows you to establish training zones based on your actual power numbers there are many people who have done this previously and zone systems usually range from 3-7 zones. Below I have outlined my preferred 6 zone system which is a nice balance between accuracy and simplicity. Setting up your zones correctly allows for accurate determination of training intensity as well as directing session to target the physiological system that you want to improve. Without training zones gauging the intensity of a ride is hit and miss.
A riders power profile allows for determination of strengths and weaknesses and will vary depending on an athlete’s physiological characteristics, training history and time of year. A power profile with high 5 -30 second power indicates a good anaerobic capacity and is the domain of sprinters and in the off road world BMX and Downhill racers, A high 5 minute power indicates a good aerobic capacity and potentially a high VO2 max this is important for short course cross country, cyclocross and hill climbing. Whilst a high 20 minute power or FTP is a good indicator of endurance capabilities and lends itself to 100 km racers, 8-24 hr endurance events.
Step 4: Developing a training plan
Now that you know where you sit as a rider and how you compare, It is time to decide on what you need to improve and why. For this you really need to have some goal races, events or even just some local trails that you would like to improve on. Have a look at the goal, does it have a tendency towards endurance or speed? How does this compare with the power profile you have constructed of yourself? This is the basics of conducting an event analysis. Below I have gone through an event analysis for a local MTB marathon the Highland Fling.
What this event analysis shows is that the event in question is endurance based, > than 5 hrs, mainly off road with a large amount of climbing in potentially very warm weather. The largest climb is also less than 10% of the total altitude gain meaning that repetitive short climbs are going to play a significant role in the overall race. The Start and finish is in the same location so we also have 2350 m of descending throughout the race.
When setting up a program we now know the areas that we specifically want to target ie: Endurance and Tempo zones with the ability to push up into Threshold and aerobic zones for short periods of time. The significant amount of descending means that there will be some recovery periods throughout the race.
Anaerobic efforts during the race will be mostly confined to very short bursts on sections of single track.
I will not delve specifically into the ways of periodising a training program as this is well beyond the space available in this blog post however below I will talk through how to set up a training session based on power and the basic steps involved in a session analysis.
Step 5: Session Programming
I think the easiest way to convey basic session programming is to give an example. This Table shows training zones based on an FTP of 270 Watts. I will use this to prescribe a basic training session that I think would be useful for Highland fling training. The session is a race imitation session and would be best completed on a combination of single track and fire trails.
Session goal: A race prep session based in the Endurance zone whilst on single track with forays up into Threshold whilst completing prescribed fire trail sections.
Session time: 3 hrs
- 15 minute warm up riding to the trails starting in Zone 1 and progressing towards the upper limit of Zone 2 by the time you start on the single track.
- Complete approx. a 30 minute single track loop (depending on viability of local trails) in Zone 2. You aim should be to finish the single track section with a normalised power (hyperlink) middle of Zone 2. Whilst riding single track you will notice that your power surges and drops much more dramatically than it does on fire trail or road. This makes it hard to maintain an even power output and normalized power is the easiest and most accurate way to take into account these surges.
- Transition off the single track onto fire trail/road we are looking for a section that we can ride for 10-15 minute block. This bloc will be completed at threshold (for our rider this is 270 watts) this section should be much easier than the single track to keep your power output stable. You should notice that your HR should also jump up at the start of this section but than it should level off and remain steady throughout.
- Repeat steps two and three twice more for a total of 3 of each.
- Cool down zone 1 for 10 15 minutes
The goal of the single track should be to conserve energy, limit braking but also limit unneeded exertion. Basically the single track should be a smooth recovery between fire trail efforts. When on the fire trail however you need to limit the time you spend at power outputs above threshold because during a race like the highland fling you will be best off following this pattern of effort recovery however the power out puts will need to be shift to a lower intensity as the total time is significantly longer than this session. During this session you will also accumulate sometime in the aerobic and anaerobic training zones however this should all be at times where it cannot be avoided ie: single track pinch climb.
Hopefully this article has provided a background on where to start when using a power meter for the first time. It takes time and interest to really start to get the most out of your investment and the benefits will become more and more obvious as you continue to make use of it.
The second part of this article will delve into post session and race analysis as well as how to use your power meter to monitor your intensity during an MTB marathon style event.