Use a Wattbike to get faster at long distance cycling events

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Many of the endurance cyclists I work with have found that incorporating one or two Wattbike sessions into their weekly training has paid dividends and added interest to their training. I thought it would be useful to write an article on the subject and explain how this works.

So, how do you use a Wattbike to get faster at long distance cycling events? The most effective way to use a Wattbike is to work on the higher intensity fitness using interval sessions and build endurance during longer rides outdoors. For a normal working week, doing one or two power based sessions during weekdays to supplement your longer weekend rides is a great approach. Use your first sessions on the Wattbike to get a baseline to work from, so that you can plan target powers for your subsequent sessions according to your goals. Great sessions are 3 or 4 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes recoveries, 6 x 3 minutes with 3 minutes recoveries and longer tempo efforts that improve your power on long climbs.

Training with power can be very effective because it is a great way of measuring how hard you are working in an objective way. In many cases it is better than heart rate because it isn’t as susceptible to physiological variations and can show progression. For example, as you get fitter, you will be doing higher powers in your sessions but your heart rate won’t be significantly different. Rather than just jump on a bike and work as hard as you can, or randomly pick sessions off the internet, it is worth spending some time to make sure that you are using your time as effectively as possible by doing training that moves you towards your goals.

The principles described here are also applicable to smart trainers that measure power or calibrated trainers that can estimate power from speed.

Steps to training with power

  1. Establish your goals

  2. Get used to the equipment

  3. Establish a baseline to work from that is relevant to your goals

  4. Set some interim goals/stepping stones

  5. Develop some sessions that will develop your fitness towards your goals

  6. Do the training

  7. Check to see if you have improved in the way you need to, test against your interim goals

  8. Revise sessions if necessary

  9. Do more training

  10. Reach your goals

Establish your goals

Before starting any structured training it is important to establish your goals, both in terms of what you would like to achieve as an overall event goal as well as breaking your event up into components so that you have specific goals to work towards. You can learn about how to create your own training plan by looking at our e-book ‘How do I become a fitter, faster, better cyclist or runner?’.

Spend some time to think about the details of your chosen event. If it has lots of short hills, you will need to be able to ride hills and recover on downhills, if it has long flat sections you will need to be able to ride in your most aerodynamic position for long periods of time. This gives you an idea of where to lay the emphasis of your training.

The further from your event you are, the less specific you want your training to be, so if you are going into the winter, which is a great time to start and avoid dark nights and poor weather, it is best to focus on a standard build up of training, from lower to higher intensity. Bearing in mind that you are using the Wattbike for the higher intensity components of your training, we are still talking about harder sessions and not just pedalling.

Break the time between now and your event into blocks of around 8 weeks and aim to work on specific types of training during each block. If your event is in July and you start in November, you have 4 blocks of 2 months to develop your fitness. I will talk about some specific sessions that you can use later on.

Get used to the equipment

Before you start trying to get meaningful data or do any structured training, you need to get used to the equipment. Make sure you have the bike setup properly, that you have downloaded the appropriate app and connected your phone or cycle computer and do some riding to make sure everything works.

You are likely to find the riding feels different to other riding you have done so have a play around and get used to it. You may want to do a few sessions to try everything out and get a feel for things before you do anything structured or planned.

Don’t worry, these sessions are valuable. Play around with resistance and power, do some harder and some easier efforts and vary your cadence. After you are warmed up, try a few sprints and shorter efforts as well as doing 10 or 15 minutes a bit faster than your usual riding speed to see how that feels.

Record the data and upload it to an online diary such as TrainingPeaks, Garmin, Suunto, Polar or something else suitable so that you can look at the data and start to learn from it.

Baseline power duration curve and FTP

You can start your training by feel and gradually start introducing power targets into your sessions. However, it can be better to get some baseline values to work with. These values will give you a baseline of your current fitness as well as providing some idea of guideline powers for you to work with during your training sessions.

If you find your maximum power for 10 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes you will have a good baseline profile to work with. It is best to split these tests into 2 sessions.

Session 1 - 20 minute test

This is a test to give an estimate of your functional threshold power. Make sure to pace yourself, it is better to ease into the effort than go out too hard and blow up. If you have a heart rate monitor, make sure to use it and record your weight the morning of the test.

Warm up: 20 minutes riding at an endurance pace, then 5 minutes hard but not flat out. Recover for 10 minutes easy.
Main Set: At a suitable resistance, make a 20 minute all out effort to be the best 20 minute power you can achieve. The effort should be well paced, so be smart and don't go out too hard!
Cool Down: 15 minutes steady riding at a comfortable pace.

Only test if you feel pretty good and every time you test try to do the same things beforehand, eat the same, same time of day, etc.

Session 2 - short tests

The purpose of this test is to determine your peak power output at 10 seconds, 1 minute, and 5 minutes. As usual with testing, weigh yourself on the morning of the test.

Warm up: 30 minute, which should include a 3-5 minute effort at tempo pace to open the legs. There is no reason to follow this workout to the letter- rest between efforts as long as needed.
Main Set: First, perform a 5 minute max effort. This will test your aerobic (VO2) fitness. Recover for 10 minutes very easy. Next perform a 1 minute max effort. This will test your Anaerobic Capacity. Give it everything right up to the end! Recover for 5 to 10 minutes very easy. Last, perform 2x10 second max sprints with a full recovery (~3 minutes) between.
Cool Down: 15 minutes low zone 2 pedaling.

Training Zones

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To calculate your training zones you can use 95% of your 20 minute power as an estimate of your FTP. You can use the charts in this section to calculate training zones or use a TrainingPeaks account to calculate zones based on your FTP.

Remember to calculate your own values using the percentages in the tables and not to use the heart rate and power values that are in there, which are based on a FTP of 250 Watts and a heart rate threshold of 159 bpm.

Set some interim goals/stepping stones

Your ultimate aim will be to ride faster over the course of your chosen event, so you need to set some goals that are relevant to that. The most important values for your performance will be the 5 minutes and 20 minutes maximum powers and the other tests are there to provide additional data that you can use if you want to do more sophisticated analyses or planning.

It is probably enough to say that you want to see improvements in your 5 minutes and 20 minutes powers in 8 weeks because it will be difficult to have a more meaningful value unless you have some historical data that relates to your event performance to compare it to.

Once you have done one or two your 8 week blocks and seen some improvement it is a good idea to add something that is more specific to your event, so you might devise a 60 minute maximum power test or a 90 minute test where you incorporate 3 x 20 minute hard efforts with 10 minutes at your endurance pace between them, or ride for 60 minutes at tempo and then do a 15, 20 or 30 minutes maximum effort to test your fatigue resistance.

Develop some sessions that will develop your fitness towards your goals

If you can only manage one Wattbike session each week, it is best to concentrate on VO2max and Threshold type sessions. Whereas if you can do two sessions each week, you can add some Tempo work into the training. As a compromise, you could aim for 3 sessions every 2 weeks, so one each of VO2max, Threshold and Tempo.

It may seem like doing Tempo would be easier and just as effective outside, but the need to keep pedalling for a sustained period on indoor trainers results in quite surprisingly large improvements in both pedalling and average power. In fact a really good indoor session is just to sit for an hour or so at your Endurance pace, which is surprisingly tiring but very effective.

Good sessions include:

Warm up (for all sessions): 15 minutes building power gradually to zone 2 (Endurance) then 2 x 1 minutes quite hard with 2 minutes easy after each

Threshold: the idea with these sessions is to increase the amount of time you spend in the threshold zone and it doesn’t matte too much how you do it, so you can use your imagination. Start with 2 x 15 minutes with 5 minutes recovery and build up until you can do around 90 minutes or whatever you have time for. It is generally harder to do longer efforts so build along the lines of 2 x 15 mins, 2 x 20, 30 mins + 15 mins, 1 x 45 minutes, etc. Typically, just stick with 5 minutes recoveries since the recovery time isn’t critical.

Threshold: You can’t go far wrong with 8 minute efforts with 2 minutes recoveries to build threshold. Start with 3 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes recoveries and build up to 8 efforts. You can also do longer efforts, such as 2 x 20 minutes at your threshold pace with maybe 10 minutes recoveries.

VO2max: A good rule of thumb for VO2max efforts is to do efforts of between 1 and 5 minutes with the same duration recovery as the efforts. Aim to build up to doing 12 to 20 minutes of hard work, so you could start with 4 x 3 minutes and build to 6 x 3 minutes or 3 x 4 minutes and build to 4 x 5 minutes.

Cool down (for all sessions): cool down afterwards with around 15 minutes of easy riding, this can be less for Tempo sessions. Have a recovery drink or carbohydrate based snack soon after you finish and make sure you rehydrate (indoor training is quite sweaty).

Remember that the Wattbike sessions are to provide intensity to your endurance programme so you need to do some endurance pace rides and if you have time you can also add rides at recovery pace. To some extent, the more low intensity riding you can do the fitter you will get but don’t do more and compromise the quality of your Wattbike sessions. You need to be well rested, particularly for Threshold and VO2max training.

You also need recovery time and rest days to let all this training take effect.

Do the training

If you don’t train you won’t get fit!! You can have the best plan in the world but it won’t work if you don’t train, so get out and do the training.

It is a good idea to have an easy week every 3 or 4 weeks. During your easy week, just ride easy - if you still go to the gym, just do a 30 minutes endurance pace ride, you can vary your cadence to keep it interesting.

Don’t over do it!

Check to see if you have improved in the way you need to, test against your interim goals

It is a good idea to have an easy week before your test week because it is important to get your maximum efforts.

Here, you just repeat the baseline test sessions 1 and 2, record the values and hopefully you will have a measurable improvement. If you haven’t improved then you need to do some thinking - get in touch if you can’t workout why and we will try to help.

Revise sessions if necessary

You will want to make the training progressive, so you for shorter efforts like VO2max and Threshold you will want to increase the powers that you do the efforts. For longer efforts it is best to increase the duration of your efforts and the time you spend at Tempo. You will need to calculate new training zones to get new target powers.

If things aren’t going to plan you may need to revise the sessions to change the emphasis. Hopefully this won’t be the case but it could be. If your powers are lower, it could be for other reasons than the training plan so think around a bit. Have you lost weight, are you excessively stressed or tired or are you ill. Subtle things can sometimes make a difference and maybe just an easy week and then a retest will show different results.

Do the next phase of training

Stick with it, you won’t get fit by just doing a few weeks and then backing off, you need to

Reach your goals - well done!

Hopefully the plan has worked and you are now a lot fitter and more resilient to harder efforts than you were before you started the plan. If you work hard and follow the ideas outlined, take enough recovery and don’t over do it, I am sure you will see improvements in your cycling performance.

Some related questions

Will gym/strength training help?

Yes, gym strength training will definitely help if you have time to do it. Even a small amount of strength work will increase your resistance to fatigue, particularly some light to medium upper body exercises because these areas are often weak in cyclists. If you want to increase your power on the bike, some heavier lifting could help but be sure to get proper advice, use the right equipment and stay safe.

What is the best way to do long endurance rides?

For your longer, endurance rides, it is best to vary the pace so that you are working a bit harder on the climbs a bit easier on the flats and use downhills for recovery. This style of riding is much more efficient than working hard all the time because you make more gains on the climbs as you go slower and air resistance is less. For shorter endurance rides, up to 2 or 3 hours, you can ride in zone 3 on climbs, zone 2 on the flat and easier on downhills for very long rides it is better to stay in the upper end of zone 2 on climbs.

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JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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