One of the greatest joys – aside from freedom, exploration, and the wonders fresh air can do for the spirit – that we get from cycling is seeing improvement.
Hitting pre-set targets can work wonders for your confidence – not just on the bike, but elsewhere in life as you see quite how much you're capable of.
Every rider will have different goals – these could be distance, performance or health and fitness related. You may want to ride your first 100km, whilst your best mate wants a new 10 mile personal best and her friend could be trying to drop a dress size. All of those goals are positive (provided the weight loss seeking rider will be healthier one dress size smaller) and no goal is greater than another in our eyes.
Initially – getting closer to your goal might seem simple – ride a little bit further, a little bit faster, drop an extra pound here and there. However, if you’re bringing in more structured training to get you closer to your prize the journey can become harder to track. Thankfully, there are a few methods of doing this – each with their pros and cons.
Firstly – how you use your tracking tool will vary depending upon your goal – here are the three main groups we’ve looked at:
Reaching a set distance – In your case, you’ll be working on gradually increasing your mileage. It’s important to you that on rides that are pushing your boundaries in terms of length don’t push additional boundaries in terms of speed. Therefore, on those long rides you’ll want something to help you keep the intensity fairly low, pacing the effort evenly so you know you can get to the end. You might also want to complete some higher intensity rides mid-week to help you increase the power in your legs, therefore making each long distance pedal stroke feel easier.
Achieving a speed orientated goal – If you want to get faster over a set distance, you need to break that distance down and practice going even faster over small chunks – gradually working towards making those durations longer. In this pursuit, training tools will help you to know when you’re riding hard enough to produce the desired effect. Between your hard sessions you’ll also want to do some low intensity rides to help you build up a base of fitness, and a training tool will help you make sure these are controlled.
Lose weight – Your body reacts differently to varying levels of intensity. When keeping effort fairly low, you’re most likely to burn through fat, whilst high intensity rides burn up more carbohydrates – so many weight loss seekers will stick to predominantly the ‘fat burning zone’. This said, constantly riding at that intensity has a tendency to get a little bit boring and high intensity training is believed to promote calorie burning for longer after the workout. A training tool will help you to mix it up more, giving you goals to chase in each session and keeping it interesting.
In all three cases, training tools can be used to ensure that your workouts are carried out at the right intensity for your goal. So, how do you monitor that intensity without relying on speed - something that changes with the wind direction and can't be tracked indoors?
Rate of Perceived Exertion
What is it?
The theory is pretty simple. Exertion is scaled from 1-10. One is resting, five is gentle ambling down a country lane, 7-8 and you're chewing the handlebars a bit whilst 10 is so mind explodingly hard that you can't even think about what it means to chew the handlebars.
Generally, you'd ride intervals of 10-20 minutes around 7/10, 3-5 minute intervals about 8/10, minute intervals 9/10 and anything measured in seconds at 10/10.
- It's pretty cost effective! This method is free.
- Takes very little research, thought or technological know-how
- Un-limiting. Methods that are more scientific can become limiting in that you might find yourself aiming for a certain heart rate or power, and not exceeding it when perhaps you could
- Subjective. You have good days, and bad days. Sometimes when work has been hard or you've had no sleep you might not be able to hit a data point, but you can hit your 10/10 that day - and some training is (usually) better than none
- Subjective - will be influenced by your mood. That's fine on some occassions (eg above) but you can't slip into a habit of letting your 10/10 drift to a 6/10 too regularly
- This method tracks and informs training - but not improvement. You'll need to measure yourself over a set course or distance to see if you're improving
The alternative to RPE is the 'talk test' - but it's similar. At 10/10 or 9/10 you won't be able to talk, 8/10 you can perhaps say the odd word, 7/10 you can talk in broken sentences. This is a tiny bit less subjective than RPE but similar in every other way.
Heart Rate Monitor
What is it?
Training using heart rate (much more detail here) is probably the most common method, though training with power is starting to overtake in the cycling world. You need a heart rate monitor and a compatible computer that shows the data. Prices vary massively - on the lower end you can get set up for around £25 (see Decathlon..).
The heart rate monitor measures your beats per minute - BPM. This shows you the effort your body is outputting. You then ride intervals based on this.
Heart rates vary - some people's are higher than others at the same output (speed/power) so you first need to complete a test. Effectively, ride at the highest effort you can, for 20 minutes. Record your average heart rate, then multiply it by 0.95 to get your 'Threshold Heart Rate'. Then you'll ride intervals in 'heart rate zones' based on that.
Active recovery is less than 70 per cent of threshold, endurance 70 to 80 pre cent, tempo 80 to 95 per cent, threshold 95 to 105, vo2 max (3-5min intervals) 105 to 120 per cent. Anything over 120 per cent is a very deep effort for a short duration. There's more info on these percentages and the test here.
- In the grand scheme of things, heart rate monitors are pretty cheap
- Worn on the person, no need to make any changes to your bike
- Effective in helping you to push through intervals when you have a target
- Pretty accurate for efforts 2mins+
- Can be used as an indication of oncoming illness or fatigue - if heart rate won't go up but you feel like you're working really hard this can be an early warning signal
- Heart rate can be affected by many variables. In the heat, it'll be much higher than in cold conditions and no one wants to ride intervals in the winter and be told they're not trying by a computer. Fatigue or illness can also stop your heart rate reacting so quickly.
- Heart rate takes time to increase. So over a one minute interval, it'll still be rising by the time you finish and therefore doesn't give an indication of effort put in. Over longer intervals it'll usually settle so you can stick to a 'zone'
- Again, shows you what you're outputting. If you can ride a set distance at a given speed a a lower heart rate this could show improved fitness but then it could also be a less windy day
The power meter (more info here) is the big gun in tracking cycling efforts. Unlike all the other methods, which assess the effort your body is putting out to achieve a given speed, a power meter tells you how much force you're actually generating for that effort.
Power meters come in various forms. They all give readings in 'watts' but those watts can be measured from the pedal, crank or rear wheel hub. Prices start at around £500 for a crank arm that will measure power on one leg and use an algorithm (double it) to get overall power.
Zones are established in the same way as described when training with heart rate - but the names are slightly different as your 'threshold' becomes 'functional threshold power' - there's more info here.
- Measures training effort - accurately and immediately. As soon as you increase effort on the pedals, power will go up (and vice versa)
- Your body might struggle as weather conditions change or you fatigue, but power is not influenced by that. The number just tells you what you're achieving regardless if your heart rate is through the roof and you feel like you're dying
- Used in conjunction with heart rate you can learn more about your body - when you're fatigued, on great form, or getting ill
- Power meters in both pedals or both cranks show your left/right balance at various intensities so you can work on your weaker side
- You can see how environmental factors - eg wind - affect speed. A tool that shows your effort just tells you you're going slower when you seem to be working harder, a power meter confirms you that you're producing more power even though you're going slower - handy in a time trial where you might otherwise 'give up' only to find out later everyone else also went slower
- You get lots of other metrics - like TSS (training stress score) to show you how much you've stressed your body after a session and therefore determine length of recovery required
- Prices go over £1k, though cheaper alternatives are always coming onto the scene
- Most require a change to your bike. Pedals are quite transferable, but cranks can't be easily swapped between bikes and you might want racing and training wheels - it's a shame to train with data and not have it when racing and vice versa
- There's A LOT to learn. It's not rocket science, but there's no point having a power meter if you aren't going to take some time to read up to understand how it works
Any of the methods above can help you reach your goals when used correctly. There's a tendency in the modern world to proclaim 'power is the only way!' but those making such statements forget that our heroes of the past got on better than most of us using RPE and determination.
Whatever you opt to use, remember that your training is only as good as your plan. Check out this guide on how to draw up your own schedule for some useful advice from a qualified cycling coach.
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