The data game: the key numbers which make you a faster cyclist
Road cyclists can get swamped by training data but these carefully selected metrics will deliver guaranteed results.
From power to heart rate and recovery scores, there is now more training data available to cyclists than ever before – and it can be wildly confusing. If you don’t know what it all means, the numbers aren’t very much use at all. The secret, therefore, is to focus on a handful of key pieces of data that actually mean something. So we asked experienced cycling coach Richard Rollinson of CPT Cycling (cptcycling.co.uk) to pick out some of the most useful and instructive bits of data to focus on. “There are many ways to track your data,” he admits. “But these data tips will help you to stay on track with your goals.”
This is the big one. Cycling is, after all, a pretty fair sport: the more you ride, the fitter you will become. So if you don’t know how much riding you’re doing each week, you’ll always be in the dark, and you’ll never make regular progress.
“Planning and tracking your overall weekly training volume is one of the biggest keys to achieving significant long-term progress in your form,” insists Rollinson. “There are many ways to do this, including overall training duration or a combined training load stress score, such as used in TrainingPeaks’ Training Stress Score (TSS), which fuses intensity with duration. Either method can be useful, but the latter is more of a powerful tool as it contains that additional relevance of intensity.”
Whether you use sophisticated training software, or just scribble down your daily, weekly and monthly mileage in a diary, the key is to monitor this data and progress it over time. “Look to increase your daily and weekly volume, but also pay attention to how much volume you are completing on successive days,” says Rollinson.
“This will help you to maintain your performance levels and avoid any short-term fatigue that is not beneficial. This can especially be the case around longer weekend rides, which is where TrainingPeaks’ Training Stress Balance (TSB) – or ‘Form’ – can be very useful. More than two consecutive days below -50 can be hard to recover from, and there will be less training benefit if adequate recovery is not taken. This is especially something to bear in mind on a training camp or cycling holiday when your volume is higher than normal.”
Watch that volume nudge up over the weeks and months ahead and you are sure to get fitter and stronger over time.
Tracking your training volume will ensure you keep nudging up your fitness, durability and stamina over time, but it is also just as important to monitor your training data within each individual training session. This may involve a power meter or simply tracking your speeds with a watch. But the secret is to check your progress over time.
“A power meter can be an extremely useful tool in tracking the progress of your efforts,” advises Rollinson. “For example, you can see if you improved your 5-min power effort on your last workout.”
Tracking your performance in individual sessions enables you to gauge your progress, which gives you a clear blueprint of progress to follow – and added motivation. “It establishes your rate of progress, and it identifies the amount of power you have improved on, and over what sort of timescale,” says Rollinson. “This will guide you towards aiming for around the same level of progress in your upcoming rides.”
Your speed of progress is, of course, something you can tweak, according to your training volume, fitness and energy levels. “If you have been building more training volume recently, and you have also had sufficient short-term recovery, you might aim for a slightly higher level of power progress,” says Rollinson. “But this way of analysing your own power progress gives you the knowledge of how much progress is effective for you, which cannot be seen by comparing yourself to other riders or general norms.”
Training is not just about how much volume you accumulate, and how much power progress you can make; it’s also about how much effort and intensity you channel into each individual workout. The more intense the effort, the greater the gains. And that is why finding ways to track your daily training intensity is a really valuable tool.
“You may already track metrics that measure your fitness, such as Training Stress Score (TSS) and Chronic Training Load (CTL), and these are great tools to measure general progress,” explains Rollinson. “But if you only track this, and maybe your FTP, you will be missing many other key areas of your performance, which can often lead to some confusion as to why your fitness and FTP are not improving.”
One of the best ways to make gains is therefore to track the intensity of each workout. A simple way to do this is by using heart rate zones. “If you do not have access to power, increasing the amount of time you spend within a certain heart rate range can help to increase your performance,” explains Rollinson. “It will also help you to track your average heart rate on each ride. You can then look at those relative to the entire length of each ride, which can give you some idea of intensity progression.”
Of course, if you have a power meter, you have even more options for tracking your training intensity. “Tracking different power durations over time – such as peak 5 secs, or peak 1-, 5-, 20- and 60-min power efforts – can give you further insight as to how you are progressing in different fitness areas over time,” says Rollinson.
This is going to really help you to zero in on where you are improving – and where there are still gains to be made. “Tracking the intensity of each of your rides allows you to see if you are hitting your targets and getting closer towards your goals,” says Rollinson. “Using such metrics as ‘intensity factor’ can help, where you measure the percentage of your threshold that you reached on average for each ride. But seeing how much time you spent in each power zone can also help you to see how sustainable your training is, and if you might need to increase your intensity to get closer to your goals.”
So you are now tracking your volume, your progress and your training intensity, but there is one final piece of the data matrix which you should not ignore: your recovery levels. This can involve checking your recovery score on your chosen training software, monitoring your resting heart rate, or just writing down numbers, from 1-10, which describe your mood and energy levels.
“This is often underestimated,” says Rollinson. “But if you improve this aspect of your training, it will lead to big performance gains.” That is because you will make sure you are in better condition for each of your workouts, helping to maximise your results.
It also ensures a more bespoke approach to your training. “Monitoring your recovery will not work for you if you just try to copy the way someone else does it, as it all depends not only the volume of training you personally do, but also on what recovery is involved for you specifically, compared to one of your mates, or a pro rider.”
Tracking your recovery data is therefore the best way to ensure you are well-rested and recovered when you need to be, so you can hit it hard for your next session. “Rest days, easier days or cross-training days should all be proportional to your regular training volume,” says Rollinson. “As a general guide, if you average around 10 hours training per week, you should aim for 10-20% rest days over 1 month.
But when these rest days are taken is as important as the amount taken. Within each month, most recovery should be taken after a week spent doing more training than usual, or after particularly long rides. This will allow you to adapt from the training you have done and prevent overtraining or a training plateau.”
Text: Mark Bailey