Measuring Improvement

As cyclists, we all have the ability to measure whether we are improving our personal performance on the bike. From heart rate, power and RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort) we can see if we are becoming faster and stronger and so hep us on our journey to the start line.

If you are following a structured training plan you should periodically note these improvements.

Let’s start with RPE… This one is for sure, the cheapest means to measure fitness/strength improvements. In its simplest form, you go and ride and ask yourself if you felt faster and stronger? If you answer ‘yes’ then there you go... You have improved! Not overly scientific? We can then give a scale to how we feel during exercise; in Sport Science the ‘Borg’ scale is used from 6-20 but we look to simplify this by using 1-10: 1 being super easy and 10 being maximal effort.

Now, you can rate a complete ride using this scale or you can choose a section or hill and make comparisons to previous efforts on the same sections. I would the recommend you look at the actual time that it took you to cover this section and if you have previously recorded an effort, see if it is an actual improvement or not.

We can also use Garmin Connect, Polar, Strava or other online software to see if we are moving faster over a ride, so even if you do not have a heart rate monitor or power you can use a GPS device to measure distance against your RPE. Strava and other online software programmes also show you when you get personal bests on particular segments so you can measure your improvements there,

We have covered the simplest now, we can progress to how we can use heart rate as a measure of improvement. This is not complicated and is, in many ways, the same process of the above.

The goal of heart rate is to be able to build endurance that allows us to work at a good speed for lower effort (lower hear rate.) We also want to build the high end tolerance of our heart if we are having to put hard efforts in… Let me explain.

In the base phase of training, we work on our base heart rate which is approximtely 40-50 beats below our maximum heart rate. On each ride we make sure we do not go over this figure, for the sake of this article we will use my data: maximum heart rate = 198 beats per minute (bpm) Base = approximately 150bpm. On longer rides I will make sure I do not go over 150 bpm and on some shorter sessions I will work on holding 150bpm for the entire ride. Now to measure fitness gains, let’s pick a 20mile loop at the start of base training, ride it and log the time taken and heart rate. We will follow the structured training now and re visit this loop after 4 weeks. What you will see, given environmental conditions and your health are similar to before, is the loop will have been ridden quicker at the same heart rate, so for the same effort you have got faster! Result.

Once we are through the base phase, we apply this technique using intervals for higher intensity. We can say our ‘tempo’ is 30 beats below max heart rate and if we are doing 1 minute intervals at this intensity, we will teach our body and heart to cope with, and improve, speed at this effort.

If we now go the next step to using power, we can start to remove variables that can occur with heart rate like sleep, caffeine, stress and many more. Power is a true constant. The tricky part is making sure we are using the power meter to help us and not just looking at the pretty numbers.

From professionals to amateur, power is used more as a control to make sure we do not work too hard and to this end they are a great means to pace our rides.

Similar to getting a maximum heart rate, we need to find the golden numbers for our power and this comes in the form of an FTP test (Functional Threshold Power) which is the maximum amount of power you can sustain for one hour. You can use some formulas to work out FTP from a 20 minute or 30 minute effort but the best way to learn is to go and ride a time trail effort for an hour. Using Garmin, Strava or Training Peaks you will get an average power for this hour and you will also see if you started too hard and faded or if you started easy and finished strong. It is worth doing these three times through the year to look for improvement.

If you are wanting to do a shorter FTP you can follow the one below:

Warm up for 20 minutes starting with easy gears and progressively building to more ‘zone 2’ endurance effort on the pedals. Then, on a stretch of road with no interruptions, (most often this is a sustained climb) go for 20 minutes at your maximum pace. From this 20 minute test take 7.5 percent off of the average power and use that as your FTP.

Once you have your FTP what do you do?

  • Sweet Spot - To help our basic endurance we can work on what is known as ‘the sweet spot’ this is approximately 85% of our FTP and will help you improve your aerobic steady state.
  • Climbing work with FTP - this work needs to be done on a long climb and effort will be at 100-110% of FTP. Done in intervals, this will increase your power and ability to climb well. You may try 5 mins at 100%, then 2.5 mins recovery and repeat this 4 times.
  • Flat Road work with FTP - we can get drawn into focusing everything on climbing and then become a little slow on the flats… Therefore we work on the same principal above but we are on a flat road and working on a cadence of 95-100rpm. This will help maintain flat speed and power.

When working on FTP sessions you must make sure you are getting enough recovery between intervals and sessions on the road.