This article was originally published in February 2022.
Train, rest, improve, repeat. This is every cyclist’s dream. But in the empirical world of cycling, we are missing something. It should be “Train, Rest, Measure, Improve, Repeat”. As the saying goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. This is why we should all be benchmarking.
And we’re not talking about long, cumbersome Review protocols that leave you tired for the next few sessions. We’re also not talking about getting to the labs, where precision comes at a tax and time cost. Instead, do as Tadej Pogačar’s team, UAE Team Emirates, do and run a simple three-minute Review that provides invaluable data on fatigue and freshness, and simply requires a turbo trainer. It’s the fast way to reach your goals in 2023.
External and internal output
Tracking your cycling performance is just as important as the training itself. That’s the opinion of Jeroen Swart, UAE Team Emirates Performance Coordinator and a professional with years of cycling science experience behind him. “Certainly, when it comes to professionals, they know how to train,” he says. “They all try, but sometimes too much.”
Read more: How professionals train in winter
The same goes for many recreational riders who have the added stress of work. They know how to train but often struggle to strike the delicate balance between stress and adaptation. And that’s a problem because if you take too much stress and you don’t recover, you’re going to break. Conversely, if you don’t put in enough effort, you won’t enjoy positive results. You can only achieve this balance by managing stress and recovery.
This is where the SFT (Submaximal Fatigue Review) comes into play. This, for those of you already attuned to testing methods, is a shorter, simplified version of the LSCT (lambert submaximal cycling Review), created by Swart’s fellow South African, Robert. Lambert.
Here’s what you need to do:
The SFT Review
The Review is simple. After a 10-minute warm-up, spend three minutes at your current FTP (functional power threshold). This is if you have a power meter or use a smart trainer that has power capabilities. You can also ride for three minutes with your critical power. Those training solely on heart rate should drive for three minutes at their lactate inflection point. Broadly speaking, this is the intensity that causes a rapid rise in blood lactate and is also known as the anaerobic threshold.
Jeroen Swart supervising the warm-up of his riders before a time trial. (Image from United Arab Emirates)
Those three minutes should feel like a 17 out of 20 with a rate of perceived exertion of 6-20 (RPE, 6 being very easy and 20 being absolute maximum). If you feel your RPE for those three minutes is lower, ride at 110% of your FTP or heart rate equivalent.
Read more: How to increase your cycling endurance
If you don’t know your FTP or threshold, you can always start with a power output that you think you can sustain for up to an hour at that RPE and then adapt as described. The most important thing is to be consistent with the way you perform the Review and always use the same values, and ideally the same time of day and day of the week.
Finally, at the end of the Review, evaluate the three minutes on an RPE scale and answer the question: How long could you have continued pedaling at this power output if you had continued?
This is a short Review that you can perform weekly to monitor your fitness and fatigue consistently (the UAE also uses it weekly). That said, what exactly are you looking for in the data?
Simple. If an athlete has adapted to the training load, you would expect their RPE to be lower and their average heart rate to be the same or, if well rested, higher for the same output (even from one week to the next). .
A good performance coordinator also helps their rider pull on their socks. (Image from United Arab Emirates)
“High heart rate response to power with low RPE is a sign of good adaptation and also good recovery,” explains Swart. “Over a period of two or three months, there is a slow reduction in heart rate for this power. This is an improvement in the physiological state; that is, cardiovascular adaptation. Just keep in mind that from a week to week and day to day, heart rate fluctuation is not a result of any improvement in training status. It is a result of changes in the autonomic nervous system.”
In other words, in the short term, if you are tired, your heart rate is likely to be low and your RPE high for the same power output. Conversely, when you are cool, your heart rate responds and rises with the same power output and low RPE. But in the long run, what you’re looking for is a lower heart rate for the same power output.
Naturally, as your fitness improves, so does your expected time to exhaustion.
Other important things you should not forget
In addition to the SFT, UAE coaches use other simple ways to Review the fatigue and fitness of their riders. Some of these you can implement into your routine as well.
“We take self-reported measurements every week,” explains Swart. “So general well-being, fatigue, sleep, stress, and mood are self-reported. Mood is an important predictor of fatigue. In fatigued athletes, the state of ‘mood decreases’.
(Image by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
The UAE team also records daily heart rate variability (HRV) scores to monitor stress and fatigue. Arguably, this could be a step too far for the recreational rider who does not have a support team to analyze the results. That said, it’s something to discuss with your coach if you have one.
Bottom line, focus on your plan, train, rest, Review and repeat. Keep it simple and progress will come naturally.