Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Flying Scotsman vs. The Grounded American

I'm reading two books about cycling at the moment--Graeme Obree's The Obree Way and Andrew Coggan and Hunter Allen's Racing and Training with a Power Meter.  The two books couldn't be more different in their methods, althought their purpose is the same--to provide advice to you and me on how to become as fast as possible on two wheels.

Obree famously broke the world hour record twice as a self-coached bike shop owner and failed professional bike racer.  Obree so little trusted the insights of others into how to go fast--including the entire cycling industry--that he built his own machines.  This rogue approach, of disregarding common wisdom and of rethinking even the most basic elements of riding a bike, is the essence of his book.

If Obree represents the rogue, then Allen and Coggen, with their first edition of Racing and Training in 2006, and their long history in the development of power data analysis, are the establishment.  Their Training Peaks software has dominant market share, and their concepts--functional threshold power (FTP), training stress score (TSS), critical power intervals (CPIs), and power profiling--are the concepts we use when we analyze our power data.  Even Joel Friel, who wrote the title that asserted ultimate establishment cred, The Cyclist's Training Bible, defers to Allen and Coggan on the intricacies of Wattage and analyzing the data, stating"Training and Racing with a Power Meter is the ultimate guide to training with power. Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan are, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to power meters."

Obree's chapters are titled thusly:  Stretching, Breathing, Pedalling, and, if his publisher had allowed, I imagine he'd have added one others on Digestion, Heart-beating, and seemingly and stunningly involuntary actions.  His most strident recommendations concern evacuating the bladder and the bowels before training and racing.  Here is a man, clearly, who understands the very carnal nature of pushing one's body to the point where the energy expended to not lose one's shit is a marginal loss.

He can come off as a luddite, and would, if not for the fact that his training and ingenuity made him the fastest man in the world.  He spurns carbon frames and expensive equipment, including, amazingly, the power meter.  Obree won his records before the power meter entered mainstream, but even now he feels power meters lack the precision necessary for proper analysis of achievement.  This is incredible, since the claim of power meter manufacturers (and analysts such as Allen and Coggan) is that power meters provide precisely what had previously been unattainable--a true, objective measure of effort regardless of terrain, weather, speed, cadence, and so forth. For Obree, for whom the world record required infintesimally small degrees of improvement, power meters, with their +-2% error rate, lacked the precision he needed to measure fractions of percentages in improvement.

Obree's solution, as almost all of his are, after the fact, was to train almost exclusively on a trainer.  He spends an entire chapter explaining how to set up a trainer--only magnetic will do, and without a fan--and bike to attain a constant resistence and to measure improvement through gearing, cadence, and speed, against this constant.  It may seem simple, but for Obree it involves barometric pressure, air temperature, and other extraordinary variables.

Generally, Obree is of the specificity tribe.  That is, to become faster at time trials, practice time trials.  One gets the impression that his plan simply involved, every third day, a time trial in which he attempted to match his previous best, then improved his speed in the last 5 minutes of the effort by .5%.

Where did Wiggins' "marginal gains" concept first appear in cycling?  Well, Graeme Obree is about an extreme a practioner of that approach as anyone.  His appears to have been quite simple in terms of training plan, but amazingly complex in terms of attention to preparation, equipment and technique--try reading his chapters on Pedalling and Breathing.

In contrast, Allen and Coggan weave a baroque web of training cycles, with relatively little attention to technique.  Theirs is a statistical approach, and it has the tone of the coach rather than the practitioner.  If Obree understands the pain and insides of the sport--that is, he is our subjective guide--Allen and Coggan understand the numbers of the sport--their book is our objective guide.

They argue--persuasively, in my opinion--for the measurement of every aspect of cycling performance.  Not only do they recommend measuring power output at different durations (what they call critical power intervals), they also recommend coming up with a fatigue profile; that is, measuring how power output drops over time.  They describe different energy systems, they prescribe workouts to improve these systems, they describe load and how to manage stress and rest, and they waste no ink on the optimal crank size or handlebar width, or the vital necessity of taking "the last pee" before events, as Obree does.

The specifics of Allen and Coggan's book make it more helpful, especially for those of us who love going out on our bikes rather than subjecting ourselves to the most tortuous efforts we can stand every third day in a Platonically uniform coal shed, as Obree did.  Perhaps we cannot set such quantifiably precise increments of improvement as Obree did, and perhaps we lose something from it.  But at least Allen and Coggan allow us some way to plan around our wanderings through the world.

Still, my heart is with Obree's approach.  Obree understands the tragic nature of training--that going fast is mostly a challenge for the brain, acknowledging the immense and somewhat existentially purposeless suffering it requires.  If I had the strenth, I would lock myself in a coal bin and struggle for that .5% increase every third day.  That is surely as Sisyphusean as image as Sarthe every conceived.  It is encouraging to read in his words that even a man capable of sustaining 400 Watts for an hour struggled to sleep before races, and how even he, after a life of battling depression, continues to have passion for simply going fast on a bike.


Rollin' Polish said...

Fatigue profiles are just another red herring for 98% of amateurs to get caught up in IMO. Coggan fails to mention that anaerobic work capacity, anaerobic capacity, and neuromuscular capacity are entirely genetic and have a very small room for training. I don't think that this method of analysis is necessarily any more beneficial to the average cyclist than Obree's other than create an endless barrage of tests and analysis paralysis. Its kind of funny though, because in developing a lot of what we know about training with power Andy Coggan spent years on an ergometer in a closet- kinda like his own version of Obree's shed.

Kevin Cross said...

That's a good point about Coggan developings his ideas on the erg. To be honest, I don't see Coggan/Hunter differing a whole lot from Obree. The both preach the necessity of measuring output. For this reason I think Coggan is on to something with his critical power profile. Obree was a TT guy, which allowed him to target and develop a relatively narrow physiological ability--going fast for 60 minutes. Most of us have a much broader focus--crits, road races, and TTs. I've known many cyclists who don't measure create a full profile, and this may lead to gaps in their ability. Fatigue profiling seems to me just to provide more data for the CPI. While it's probably not going to matter if I measure and focus on 5-min vs. 8-min power, my inner geak believes in the almighty data!

Rollin' Polish said...

I used to agree with you about fatigue profile, but now I'm somewhat against the idea. First anaerobic work capacity is predominantly genetically determined and highly contingent on things such as base fitness and fueling. Most amateurs don't get those right for starters, but secondly the training is extremely hard to recover from and, for many amateurs, if it takes a full 1-3 days to truly recover from a decent AWC session they're missing out on skills that might matter more for their races. How many riders do you know who aren't limited by their 5m, 20m, or 60m power? That they're so strong in those regards as is their competition that what is hold them back is 1 w/kg in their 2m power? Its likely to be 0.

I'm not saying one shouldn't work those power zones, but it put things too much in terms of numbers and creates paralysis and fixation on smaller picture matters. Most people simply can't ride enough to really maximize their aerobic system and as soon as they start reading these texts they get bogged down in all the tests, what their weaknesses are, and, in turn, trying to work on 6 different things at once.

I was one of those people for a long time, but in the end most people at the amateur level can benefit from creating better all around aerobic fitness. 100w in a sprint isn't likely to be a limiter, but being able to ride at 85% of FTP for 2 hours, then survive a surge for 2 minutes and belt out that sprint is. Its simple to breakdown what influences this- FTP, and having some basic anaerobic training/racing in your legs. Conserving energy in the break, smart cornering, getting to the line first, following the right wheel in the final km, and eating during racing/training all matter much more than a few extra w here or there. Even if someone has all of those down, which few do, you won't find anyone finishing in the top 20 of a big 1/2/3 race that doesn't already have the requisite high gross or relative FTP, some good circa vo2 max power, and some punch. I guess in the end I see it as maximizing the basics for the most gains in a limited time period and just having a simple arsenal and build success around the most very basic, but very hard to master aspects of racing.

Think of MABRA and regional races and what do you need:
TT: High FTP, practice on TT bike, good bike fit.

Crit: Good FTP, good neuromuscular endurance, good handling skills, positioning, course knowledge, and positioning again.

RR: Most MABRA RRs are like longer crits with rolling hills. Lots of the same skills, but perhaps an ability to surge for 1-3min at a time and get over the climbs that are only in a few races.

So to me sure its diverse, but trying to break down every single quality by weakness, event demands, etc really bogs down people into seeing that in the bigger picture some very basically tactical prowess will matter more than fretting over where their fatigue curve is weak and trying to fix something that is largely genetic. I'm not saying don't ever do microbursts if you lack snap or never train 1m power if you lack it, but its easy to figure that out and still can fit the basic block periodization role. Coggan et al try to make linear periodization so much harder than it has to be, especially when most amateurs can't properly test on a consistent basis. I think most could benefit from doing consistent FTP and 5m tests 1/month, following a basic block model, and using some high race outputs to fill the MONOD spreadsheet to establish training zones.

Kevin Cross said...

I appreciate your coments, Rollin.

When you say "anaerobic," do you simply mean "every CPI shorter than, say, 5 minutes"? Or do you just thinking of 1 minute-type intervals?

I bring this up because I've seen my 1-minute power improve over 200 watts in four years, while my FTP has improved maybe 50 watts. To me, the most highly responsive and highly trainable interval is anaerobic. I think exercise physiologists will back me up on this.

I've won a couple races (in fact, the only races I've won!) on this 1-minute power, and I've lost a lot of TTs because my FTP stinks. More importantly, I've thrown away a lot of chances at races because I didn't race in a way that was informed by an understanding of my power profile--my strengths and weaknesses.

So I disagree somewhat with your comment "you won't find anyone finishing in the top 20 of a big 1/2/3 race that doesn't already have the requisite high gross or relative FTP, some good circa vo2 max power, and some punch." Yes, there is a floor for FTP, below which you probably won't make it to the finish line, but the usual reason guys get dropped is because they have weak 1-5 minute power and they don't have repeatability of 1-5 minute power. And they don't train the whole spectrum of power. As Obree says, specificity, specificity, specificity!

The reason for periodization is so you can work on "6 different things," but just not all of them at once.

Having said that, I think you only need pay attention to 20-minute, 5-min, 1-min, and 5 sec intervals. You should be doing enough intervals of these lengths in your training to provide plenty of data--no need to set aside training time to test anything other than 20-min.

Kevin Cross said...
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