How to measure improvement on the bike
From power tests to tracking CTL to monitoring perceived exertion, there are a variety of ways to see if you're improving.
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Whenever I ask an athlete what they want to get most out of a training plan they almost always respond with, “improvement.”
I find that most athletes are highly motivated by the idea that with hard work they will yield gains. After putting in several weeks of work, people usually want some sort of metric to look at to prove to themselves that they have improved.
Here are some ways to measure improvements on the bike.
The most common way to measure progress over time on the bike is via a power test. This test is usually a maximum exertion test and can be done in a variety of ways.
An athlete can complete a set-time duration to measure power and see if they can improve the power for that time duration. An athlete can also complete a ramp test and see if they can get further along in the test the next time they attempt it. As long as the protocol stays the same from one test to the next, this can work to measure improvements.
These tests can be difficult on some people because some athletes struggle to find exactly what their ‘best effort’ can be. Others athletes complain that it’s difficult to pace the effort and that can skew data. Still others become so nervous for the test that they fall short of what they know they are capable of.
Another way that we can measure our progress as athletes is to track our fitness over time.
In comparison to other more exact measurements of ability fitness can be somewhat abstract. In relation to cycling we can define fitness as our ability to stand up to a given physical task or our durability to sustain an effort over time. In order to put more concrete numbers to abstract principles athletes will track their fitness via chronic training load.
Chronic Training Load (CTL) is measured over a 42-day period and calculated using a weighted average in which recent workouts are more heavily weighted. That means that Chronic Training Load is updated daily as the 42 days being measured moves over one day. That said, there often aren’t too large of shifts as only one day is being added and subtracted from the average number on any given day.
Training Stress Score is the numeric that is used in the averaging of the 42 days to create your chronic training load.
Training Stress Score is calculated based on the time and intensity of any given workout relative to your own abilities. The means that generally speaking, the higher the TSS the harder the workout and over time, the higher CTL. Since these metrics can be very complex or difficult to calculate most people rely on a training software to complete the calculations for them.
That means that any individual can track their own CTL, and as CTL increases, they can know that they are theoretically training harder than they have before and therefore theoretically are fitter than they have been before.
Being fitter means that you can likely take on harder training or bigger volumes of training. This concept is a great general guideline, but it does fall short on a couple of accounts that don’t necessarily discredit the metric, but should be taken into account so that athletes don’t live or die by the metric.
One of the ways that CTL can come up short is based on the fact that not all TSS is created equal. For example, the TSS yielded for a workout that is very, very hard, but only one hour long may be the same as a workout that is moderate in intensity but two or more hours in duration. Both of these workouts would build fitness and could potentially increase your CTL, but the workouts are targeting different energy systems and therefore would train an athlete to be successful in different types of scenarios.
The other way that CTL can fall short in predicting an athlete’s ability is that a very high CTL can also come with very high levels of fatigued. If an athlete is so focused on attaining their highest CTL number possible, they may become so fatigued that they can no longer perform at their highest level. That is why for the best performances it’s important to balance CTL with rest and recovery to ultimately gain the best form possible.
Comparing heart rate to power
Another great way to measure improvement without maximal testing is to compare your power and heart data. Heart rate data doesn’t change much over time. Your maximal heart is fairly stagnant and will actually decrease with age. That’s one reason why heart can be a very difficult metric to measure progress with.
Power, on the other hand, is a great tool to measure progress with, but it can be overwhelming for some to complete all-out tests or perform their best on a given day due to performance anxiety.
A great way to track fitness over time is to measure your heart rate relative to your power data. For example, if you typically see a heart rate of 150 bpm while completing an endurance ride at 200 watts and now doing the same power your heart rate is 145 bpm, it’s safe to say that you are pushing the same amount of watts with less energy which equals improvement!
When using this method to measure progress it’s important to have a decently sized data pool to look at. In other words, since so many things impact heart rate (such as hydration status, caffeine intake, sleep, anxiety levels, heat, etc) you wouldn’t want to label yourself as improved or regressed based on one workout, but rather similar data over a period of time.
Many athletes don’t have access to power meters or smart trainers that can give them wattages to measure improvements over time. These are often the athletes that struggle to quantify their improvements.
It can be very difficult to measure improvements without objective numbers, but necessary all the same. One way an athlete can attempt to measure progress over time is by picking a segment of road or trail and completing a best effort attempt on that segment and getting their time. Beating the time at a later date would indicate an improvement.
The important thing to note with this type of testing is that there must be a big effort to create similar circumstances. Weather, wind, road or trail conditions, tire pressures, must all be taken into consideration. Even with every detail accounted for you still might not know if a couple of seconds improvement is based off of aerodynamic improvement or fitness gain, but at the end of the day a race is won based on time aways.
Monitoring rate of perceived exertion
Finally, the last and most basic way to measure your improvement is simply rate of perceived exertion. This is by far the least accurate way to measure improvement, but it shouldn’t be ignored entirely.
If it was previously exhausting to summit a hill, but now you’re doing it with ease, do not take that for granted. If it used to be challenging to stay in the group ride, but now you’re taking the longest pulls at the front, that probably indicates improvement.
Even though rate of perceived exertion isn’t an objective measurement, there is still a place for subjectivity in measuring progress.
Remember that seeking and tracking improvement is a means of motivation. Don’t let it overwhelm you or over-shadow your love for riding your bike. Consistent and dedicated training will pay off over time whether you track it or not.