The test of time – testing and tapering for a cycling PB!
The importance of tapering as part of successful programme design
Riding against the clock is one of the very best ways to measure cycling fitness, but as Joe Beer explains, whether you are a road racer with a prologue or time trial in a multi-day race, a triathlete between swim or runs or a pure ‘tester’, programme planning and peaking correctly is the only way to get better at time trial performance
There are no absolute programmes to ensure that all athletes get success. The common consensus on the basis of training for endurance athletes is that at least 60-80% of the weekly volume should be aerobic in nature and that depending on the timing within the season, the amounts of high-intensity work should vary. Interval work can add additional power, fuel efficiency and lactate tolerance, accounting for as high as 20-30% of training volume. But before training, the rider must be assessed…
You can get tested at a university as part of a volunteered study member or pay for commercial testing. The cheap and time efficient method is home DIY testing using an indoor trainer with power measurement on the bike or on a cycle ergometer – eg Cateye CS-1000 or Tacx Flow (see data in figure 1).
However, what’s important is that you fully understand the data that is produced from any testing. Far too many times I have seen athletes with reams of data, but confused about its meaning. The most useful data for constructive training programme building are:
Maximum power – This is the highest sustained power during a progressive ‘RAMP’ test where a rider gradually increases effort in a stepwise fashion. This form of testing is a part of pro-cyclists’ monitoring to ensure correct training load, recovery and pre-race form. T-Mobile coach Lothar Heinrich has gone on record to state that his riders receive RAMP testing at regular intervals to test fitness(1). The test starts at 100 watts and increase 20 watts every 3 minutes until exhaustion. At the elite level, this means going up as high as 400-550 watts! Data have been presented on six T-Mobile riders being studied in the Regio-Tour International stage race, which show pre-event peak power to be around 390 watts(2).
The last complete workload of the test is generally taken to be maximal aerobic power (MAP). In some instances, where only part of a workload is completed before exhaustion (called PART – eg 25 seconds) the rider may add the proportion of that 20-watt level completed. So for example, a rider who completes the 380-watt stage, but only manages 25 seconds of the 400-watt stages can calculate their maximum power by the formula:
Maximum aerobic power = last complete workload + (PART seconds/180) x 20 watts
In the example above, this is 380 watts + [25/180 x 20 watts] = 380 + 2.8 watts = 382.8 watts MAP
This MAP testing requires only a method of measuring power, a stopwatch and effort. With the increasingly reasonable price of indoor trainers and on-the-bike systems (eg Polar Power Sensor, Cycleops, Ergomo etc), access to testing is not prohibitive; no lactate analysis machines, complicated graphing procedures or oxygen analysis is required.
Maximum heart rate – While not as strong a tool for measuring work output in cycling, heart rate has a universal appeal to many athletes across many sports. Obtaining maximum heart rate, and hence effort, calls for a lot of motivation, well-rested muscles and a heart rate monitor (HRM) that records the data – or someone to stand and visually monitor it.
Progressing in a similar way to a RAMP test, such as 20 watts every 3 minutes or even 15watts every 30 seconds(3), the rider aims to got to total exhaustion (see figure 2). It may be, as with maximum power, that with motivation and several tests, the rider ‘learns’ how to push slightly higher. However, one test will never provide an ultimate number; over time fitness changes and you need to repeat tests to be sure you are working off recent data, not a HRmax (or MAP) that has become ancient history!
Body mass and fat – It may be simple, requiring just a pair of scales and some calibration, but your body mass is an important factor. Even though most time trials usually have relatively small changes in incline, the greater your fat mass the more work is performed overcoming gravity and the more air you have to displace to make forwards progress (see PP 234). If you’re a road racer or a sportive rider then hills are your bread and butter, and power to weight ratio is the name of the game. Elite riders aim for over 6 watts per kilogram on sustained climbs.
Many scales available from online and high street stores measure body fat % using bioimpedance analysis. These may not be super-accurate or reliable, especially if the athlete is dehydrated. However, given some standard testing conditions, they provide an easy DIY test, measuring not tiny percentage point changes but letting you know when serious changes have taken place.
Data in figure 3 from seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong show that maturity, training and hard work can cause changes in various data that are already top class(4). Although it’s great to dream of having legs like that, the key point it makes is that you must keep accumulating data over time and then adjust your training according to what those data are telling you.
In short, the point of testing should always be:
- to tell the athlete (and/or coach) what factors are strengths;
- to reveal what the weaknesses are and where the opportunities to improve lie.
Using your test data
You can use your test data in the following ways to get some approximate training zones. Here are some examples:
If body fat levels are clearly above optimal, you need to reduce calorie intake very slightly (~200kcals/day) and increase training volume somewhat. Lance Armstrong varied in his weight; like most riders, he was heavier in the winter (to keep healthy) and only hit peak (low) race weight when it mattered. The data for amateur time triallist Gary Holmes show how reducing body fat, altered his physique and personal bests in a dramatic way (see figure 4). Not everybody stands to gain as dramatically, but for those carrying excess weight, with poor fitness or a bad aerodynamic set up (see PP 234), testing should focus you on what matters – ie what can make you faster.
As stated earlier, building endurance with a considerable portion of weekly and yearly volume put aside for endurance riding is essential. This also trains the body to use fat for riding energy. Recovery from such training is easy and it builds the necessary aerobic architecture required to withstand the rigours of high-intensity intervals and racing. You need an aerobic base and a lean body first then you can add intervals and racing.
Training using only initial test data is a bit like a nautical bearing without knowing your current location. Using a combination of non-maximal RAMP testing, weight/fat analysis and monitoring of general vigour when riding provides a much better indication of how you are responding to.
If heart rate for a given ergometer power drops, your legs are getting fitter. If weight on the scales drops and body fat % also drops, you are now leaner so there’s more power per kilogram of body mass. A ratio of 2/1 or 3/1 hard weeks/recovery weeks should enable adequate overload of the system with proper recovery. For example, weeks of 10, 12 and 14 hours training followed by a 6-hour week.
An alternative (see figure 5) is the looped test. This is an outdoor road ride that has few interruptions but which is ridden at about 75-85% HRmax or 70-75% MAP. Although, changeable winds can make the data hard to interpret, given equal conditions and timing of testing, you can see how ‘on the road speed’ is developing for the same effort and can make for a good pre-race test.
Taking time to assess which element of your performance is the weakest means you can direct training, diet or equipment changes to get the most bang for your buck. Your aerobic ability (RAMP test or looped test speed) and maximal power (MAP) need to be tested to check if you are under training or (more likely) overtraining.
Ultimately, it does not matter who trains the most but who races the fastest or improves by the biggest margin. We can’t all be winners but we can get gratification from being faster than we have ever been. You don’t need to put in 30 training hours a week and give up your social life; what you do need is to measure yourself with DIY tests and ultimately, in races. Do too few events and you’ll become both rusty and a ‘hypothetical athlete’. With no data and real racing under your belt you will never know how well you are going, or if you can push yourself hard enough to improve your own limits. If you train to race, don’t be afraid to race to see what the training has achieved.
Tapering down to peak
However well the training goes, it takes the right taper to achieve a PB. Too little tapering and you might be too tired to give your best, or get sick as the race approaches. Too much backing off and you go soft, unable to dig deep and hurt enough to break your own barriers. You must plan the last week carefully and day by day, but be flexible enough should things change and sessions have to be adapted eg due to lack of time. You need to work on power, heart rate or feel, but not ego.
Research by Neary and co-workers holds the clue to the perfect taper(5). Their study involved a 7-week intensive training programme where with one week to go, riders were split into one of three groups:
- Control group – 4d of 1h @ 85-90% HRmax, as per previous training.
- Intensity group – 4d of 85-90% HRmax for 45, 35, 25, 20 mins duration.
- Duration group – 4d of 1h @ 85, 75, 65 and 55% HRmax.
Each group performed a 40k time trial (TT) before the taper was started and at the end of the taper. After the taper the reducing-volume/maintained-intensity group (2) improved by 2 minutes 50 seconds over 40km, while groups 1 and 3 failed to get any faster in the last week. VO2max was also improved by 2.5% in the group that maintained intensity with reducing volume (group 2) and again 1 and 3 failed to significantly improve. Interestingly, both 2 and 3 groups improved power at the measured threshold level (group 2 by 12% or 28 watts and group 3 by 8% or 18 watts).
However, the authors looked more deeply at the riders’ muscle structure and enzyme activity to best explain the observations of increased power, speed and VO2max. Most significantly, the intensity group (2) was the only one to show significant increases in type-II muscle fibre area from pre- to post-taper. Data showed that the muscle fibre force, peak power and velocity of movement were improved in the IIA fibres after tapering. Also, activity levels of four enzymes involved in energy production increased significantly after the taper in the intensity group, and although the duration group also showed some changes they were less significant. The authors concluded the following about tapering: ‘It is important to consider keeping the intensity of exercise high (85-90% HRmax) while systematically reducing training volume (by at least 50%).’
Hopefully, you can see how appropriate testing can yield the information you need to get to the finish line faster then you ever have. But, don’t rush; it takes months to build the engine and refine what you do. Having said that, the tapering recommendations can be put into action for your very next TT!
Joe Beer is a coach, multisport athlete and five-time Ironman. He works closely with industry leaders
- Pro Cycling Magazine 2005; Heinrich, L
- Med Sci Sports Exerc 2006; 38(1):147-151
- Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002; 34(11): 1801-1807
- J Appl Physiol 2005; 98:2191-2196
Get on the road to gold-medal form and smash your competition.
Try Peak Performance today for just $1.97.