Saturday, December 8, 2012

Winter Bike Training - Getting Through the Workout

One of the biggest hurdles to Winter bike training, I've found, is getting on the trainer in the first place. As high as my level of motivation to train is, there is just something repugnant about doing 20 minute plus intervals on the trainer that results eventually in an aversion to climbing on the bike indoors. This article, the second in a series of Winter bike training articles I intend to write about, discusses how I get through my power training interval workouts.

Getting on the Trainer

As discussed above, the first hurdle to overcome is getting on the bike trainer in the first place. There are a number of things I do to help in this regard:
  • have a clearly defined goal
  • develop a regular routine
  • train with others
  • avoid the trainer (pace yourself)
  • mix it up
  • you can only do what you can do

Have a clearly defined goal

A clearly defined goal, such as completing an Ironman event, getting that first bike race podium, getting ready for a season of Centurion races can instill a desire strong enough to overcome any aversion to the trainer. When training for my first and only Ironman, I had a picture of Bill Vieira pasted on the wall in front of my trainer. Of course, I'm not serious but Bill did have a strong work ethic, was constantly pushing us, and was a powerful motivator which is the point I'm getting at: you need a powerful motivator and a strong work ethic to get through these workouts. Which brings me to the second part of this tip: make your goal a shared goal. For the above Ironman, there were four of us training in parallel and feeding off each other and this helped raise certainly my motivation level if not that of the others. Without such a goal, you might find yourself questioning your need to do those interval workouts.

Develop a regular routine

A solid routine can be a powerful tool. Habits become automatic. You don't think about why you're doing these behaviours, you just do them. In fact, sometimes the problem to STOP doing them. Generally, this happens with bad habits but good habits can also start to take on a life of their own. All you have to do is get them started. Develop a weekly routine and 'just do it!'

Train with others

"Misery loves company." This is one of those things my mother used to say that I never quite got... until I started doing trainer workouts. Sign up for a spin class. Or more than one. Get together with a buddy to train. When you've paid the money, have a set time, and friends who will mock you when you skip a session, you're more likely to do the workout. I've also found that having people around me helps me get through the workout somehow even when my workout may be different than theirs. Having people around me while I train seems to give me a lift.

Avoid the trainer

This might sound counter intuitive; how can avoiding the trainer help when it comes to getting ON the trainer? But starting your Winter training season too early can make for a very long season. It may be the case that you DO have a clearly defined goal. In fact, you may be highly motivated even excited about getting on the trainer to start training towards your new goal. Three or four months in and "not so much". That aversion to the trainer grows as your enthusiasm diminishes. So pace yourself! Do some maintenance training up until you're truly ready to get serious about power training. If you time it right, you'll have to endure only 2-3 months of trainer time as opposed to the 4-5 months that starting too early would require.

Mix it up

Last year, I started riding with my new cycling team doing Winter trail rides. Thursday was a mountain bike ride around one of the industrial developments in Etobicoke. Saturday and Sunday were trail rides. We rode through snow and cold and it was fun. This served as a good counter balance to the more boring trainer workouts. This year, I'll be doing Winter trail rides again but I'm also bringing running back into the mix. Though running lacks the specificity of bike training, it can help build up that aerobic base. And it gets me outside which I love (see 'avoid the trainer' above).

You can only do what you can do

Power intervals are hard! Sometimes I find myself just "not ready" to do that scheduled threshold workout. This seems to be a common misgiving amongst contributors to the Wattage group. The frequently quoted answer to this "not readiness" is "you can only do what you can do". If you have the legs then go for it. If you don't have the legs, don't sweat it. You're still going to get in a decent workout. Save that quality workout for another day. It will come. The important thing is to get on the trainer anyway. Rome wasn't built in a day and raising your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is a cumulative endeavor and not realized in a single workout.

Getting Through the Workout

Ok, so you've gotten on the trainer and you're in your warm up routine but you've still got two 20 minute threshold intervals to get through. Twenty minutes is a long time. How do you stay focused for such a long period of time? Here are some of the techniques I use.

  • watch the clock
  • pace yourself
  • find a rhythm
  • divide and conquer
  • shut up legs
  • keep your cool
  • audio/visual

Watch the clock

Some kind of time keeping device is essential for doing trainer intervals. There are a number of devices that are useful to have for doing intervals which I'll discuss in a future blog but a clock is one of the most important. Most readers of this blog will have some sort of heart rate monitor that comes with a timer. The one I use, a Garmin, has the advantage of being able to pre-program your interval workout. But any clock will do the trick. A clock helps with pacing as well as dividing up that long interval into segments. But mostly it just helps to know how far you are into the interval and how long you have to go.

As mentioned above, my Garmin has the capability of pre-programming a workout. I use this functionality to program my interval workouts.

20' x 2 interval workout programmed on Garmin
At the end of each step in the program above, my Garmin gives a series of beeps, starting 5 seconds before the end of each step. This lets me know when my 10 minute warmup is done, when each minute of my main set is done, and when my 5 minute rest interval is done without me having to actually watch the clock. A word of caution: you might not want to have your device beep every minute while doing your trainer workout in a room full of friends and peers. They will get annoyed.

Pace yourself

As important as pacing is in your macro cycle, it's equally important while doing your intervals. It does take some practice to get it right. Initially, the tendency is to start out too hard. The interval feels easy at the start but by about halfway through the interval it no longer feels easy. In fact, usually well before that, things start to get tough.

Heart rate profile from first 20' x 2 workout of the season.

The chart above shows my heart rate (HR) for my first 20' x 2 interval workout of this season. There are a few things to note from this chart. First, notice at the start of each interval (at 10 minutes and 35 minutes), it takes awhile for my HR to plateau. The interval feels comparatively easy during this early part of the interval. So, for the first couple of minutes or so, I start out too hard, making the rest of the workout a lot harder. By the time I'm into the second half of the first interval, I'm no longer able to sustain that initial effort. This is reflected with a decreasing HR. My performance seems better for the second interval in that I do a better job at pacing myself and thus am able to keep my HR up but in actual fact my performance, as measured by my power meter, was significantly poorer for the second interval again reflecting less than optimal pacing. Ideally, you should pace well enough that your effort gets stronger towards the end of each interval. Further, you should pace so that the effort for the second interval is stronger than the first.

The chart below graphs my HR for my most recent interval workout of the season: a 20' plus 25' effort.
Heart rate profile from most recent interval workout of the season.
What the above HR profile shows is that my effort (as reflected by HR), increased steadily throughout the first interval. The same pattern held for the second interval but was even stronger. My power meter wattage profile confirmed a slightly stronger effort for the second interval than the first. My pacing was good for this workout.

Find a rhythm

Another technique I find useful for doing a successful interval set is to find a rhythm and try and hold it. There are a number of ways of doing this. In running, it might be incorporated as part of your arm swing. In cycling, I make it part of my pedal stroke. I also use 'counting' to help. Most of you will be familiar with Count Von Count of Muppets fame who was obsessed with counting. Well, I'm the Count Von Count of cycling. It might not be as crazy as it seems. As a musician, I'm familiar with counting. Musicians count bars throughout a song. We generally count in groups of 4 beats to a bar. A phrase is typically 16 or 24 bars long so we also learn to group bars. Transferring this skill to cycling (and running), I've learned to group pedal strokes in groups of 4, 16, and 32. I pretty much know when I've done a group of 32 pedal strokes without consciously thinking about it. Knowing my cadence (for both cycling and running) typically falls between 86-90, I've learned to count off a sequence of 88 "beats" (roughly one minute) without thinking about it. Thus, I can get through each minute of a trainer interval without looking at the clock. Counting helps me to know where I am within each minute. It also helps me to establish my rhythm. If I start to slow down (or lose power), I know it right away. (As an aside, I also count strides while running. I use this in races to help me get through the race without having to look at my watch. Typically, by the time I've counted 4 minutes, I can see the next km marker). A computer that gives cadence can provide similar feedback but I've found that nothing beats finding that rhythm and holding it.

Divide and conquer

This refers to breaking that long 20 minute (or more) interval into smaller segments. I like to break down my main intervals into segments of 3-5 minutes. For example, I will group a 20 minute interval into segments of 3 minutes. This gives me 6 segments of 3 minutes plus a final 2 minute segment. During each 3 minute segment, I change position on the bike. For example, for the first 3 minutes, I'll ride on the hoods, the next 3 minutes in the drops, and the 3rd three minutes riding upright. Now I'm halfway through the main interval and I repeat the cycle: 3 minutes on the hoods, 3 minutes in the drops, 3 minutes upright. By the end of 2 cycles, I have 2 minutes left and that's a cakewalk. Breaking the main interval up like this helps me get through it easier.

Another technique I further use is to change cadence for each 3 minute segment. For example, I may start the first 3 minutes at around 94 rpm. After 3 minutes, I'll add a gear and pedal at, say, 86 rpm. This necessitates a re-calibrating of my rhythm but I've become accustomed to this. This technique helps to break up the longer interval into segments. An added bonus is that it trains me to ride with power at different cadences. Riding outside, one is never able to ride at a constant cadence; even the smallest of rises will induce either a change in cadence or a significant change in power output. So I find it useful to learn to ride at the same power output over different cadences.

Switching cadences also emphasizes a slightly different metabolic area from one cadence to another. Riding at  a lower cadence will stress the legs more while riding at a higher cadences stresses the cardio-vascular system more.

The formula below shows the relationship between power, force, distance and time.

P = F x D / T

Another way to write the above formula is

P = F x C

or Power = Force x Cadence. In other words, to keep the same power at a lower cadence, more force is required. By pedaling at a higher cadence, you can produce the same power with less force. One might think that we should always be riding with a higher cadence because less force is required but keep in mind the cost of pedaling at a higher cadence is a higher oxygen consumption and a decrease in efficiency (efficiency tends to be higher with a lower cadence).

Some people use the above technique to advantage in a time trial by alternating between a lower and higher cadence. While emphasizing one side of the metabolic coin, you're effectively giving the other side a rest. By the end of 3 minutes at a lower cadence, my legs are ready for a bit of a break. By the end of 3 minutes at a higher interval, my VO2 system is ready for a bit of a break.

Another technique I use to help break up the monotony of the long interval sets is to throw in something different periodically. For example, I'll stand for ~20 seconds (32 pedal strokes) in the middle of my low cadence segment. This works out to once every 6 minutes which, in addition to helping break up the monotony, helps me stretch my legs and ease my lower back a bit. Another thing I might do is throw in a ~20 second sprint periodically, usually during a higher cadence segment. This has the added benefit of being sport specific to cycle racing as it simulates matching the frequent attacks and surges that occur throughout the course of a bike race.

All the above techniques effectively break up one long interval into segments making it easier to get through the interval.

Shut up legs

As "techniques" go, this one is fairly crude. But I find that it works. Inevitably, there will come a point within an interval where my legs start to complain. Usually this occurs about halfway through the interval. When this happens, I tell my legs to shut up. Jens Voigt is the author of the "shut up legs" phrase and there is probably no more respected rider in the peleton than Voigt. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. But there's a little more to this technique than just telling your legs to shut up. It involves using that discomfort, embracing it, and learning to pedal "in the moment" or, as Coach Rob used to say: "get comfortable with being uncomfortable".

Keep your cool

There is no greater saboteur of an interval workout than over heating. When you over heat, your heart rate goes up and your power goes down. The photo below shows how seriously I take adequate cooling. What the photo doesn't show is that I also have the 2 side windows open as well as 2 small fans on the piano behind me. I can't stress enough how important it is to keep from over heating.


Audio and visual aids can help get you through your workout. The music should be upbeat and not sleepy. A good source of upbeat music put together specifically for trainer workouts is VeloBeats. Here you can download podcasts of workout "sound tracks". These are also available for free on iTunes which makes it convenient for loading onto an iPod. Just do a search on velobeats.

DVDs can be a good way to get through a trainer workout. The prescribed workouts themselves on these DVDs are not so useful IMHO but the workouts are usually broken down into segments and the segments themselves can be used during your own workout to help divide up the workout with the video portion of the DVD helping you to get through your own workout. Spinerval and Sufferfest are two makers of DVDs for trainer workouts with Sufferfest being the better of the two, in my experience.

An online tool that I've heard good things about is TrainerRoad. It's a visual aid in that it gives you live feedback of your power output. Your power output is measure either using an ANT-compatible power meter that feeds data into your computer or, if you don't have a power meter, there is a "virtual power" option that uses the power curve of known trainers to compute your power output. I haven't tried it myself but know a couple of people who have with good feedback from both.


This concludes my discussion of tips and tricks I use to get through my power interval workouts. My next blog will discuss how to schedule a Winter season.


Luke Ehgoetz said...

Great summary here Richard! I think you really hit the nail on the head on all topics. I've just got back into indoor training again and so far so good. Short and sweet is my moto for the winter since I have a late season Ironman next year. Also, not sure if I was one of the people you refer to using TrainerRoad, but yah, I use it and love it.....Velobeats too!! Keep on riding!


Very good posting Mr Westwood! i hope it motivates me to get back on that darn thing. I have it set up in the basement but have yet to get the wheels rolling. Hope to talk soon,

Pete M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete M said...

Meant to say....good tips. Keep em coming. Auto correct made a meal of it.