When riding becomes training

Last year I spent hours on my bike and turbo trainer training for L’Etape Du Tour, this week I’ve learnt I wasn’t really training, I was just riding, I was possibly making myself more tired with ‘junk miles’. I never warm up and I never cool down, I just go out, ride and put the miles in.

This year I’ve signed up to Ride Across Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats (Lejog) in September, it’s an epic journey of 969 miles going from the southern tip of England in Cornwall to the furthest tip of Scotland in the North. It’s one of those bucket list rides that a lot of cyclists aim to tick off.

I’ve been out clocking up the miles over the winter, I’ve ridden 3500 miles this year but with no fixed plan. With my busy life that includes a lot of travelling and commuting to London I thought a training plan wouldn’t suit me so I just ride, eat well and maintain my fitness to the best level I can. I enjoy riding, I love the freedom cycling provides, it’s in those quiet moments that I piece together what’s happening in my life or I’m just free to escape from it. I find those moments of solitude so cleansing, it’s like a form of meditation especially when it’s raining. I don’t want to think about what interval is coming next, what zone I should be riding in, I just spin with good cadence but this week I’ve discovered some extra equipment and a bit of education can make a big difference.

When Verve Cycling invited me to join their #mypower team to Ride Across Britain I was excited about the opportunity but I had no idea where to start and how to train with power. I didn’t know what zones were, I’d never done an FTP test, I didn’t know how to do an FTP test and I didn’t know what to do with the results. Functional Threshold Power (FTP) represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 45 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you’re a trained athlete or not. As a result 95% of the 20 minute average power is used to determine FTP. None of this interested me before, I was just riding my bike and enjoying the adventure and doing OK with all of the challenges I entered.

On Thursday morning I completed my first FTP test and I think I was feeling quite nervous about it because I had a bad nights sleep. I woke at 3am and I never really got back in to a deep sleep again. When my alarm went off I wanted to reset the timer and stay in bed but knowing I had a coach waiting to see my results upload was incredibly motivating so I got myself up and ready. The FTP test was a sequence of intervals to warm up, an all out 20 minute section where I had to give it everything and a cool down at the end. I wrote the sequence of intervals on to a piece of paper and stuck it to my bike. I found following the short intervals quite difficult, I’d never done anything like this before and I’m certain my cadence wasn’t accurate for almost all of the reps. I missed a set of reps, going straight in to the next one so I had to go back, it was chaos. I found it hard to concentrate, turn the pedals at the right RPM, hit the power and switch between the intervals. An FTP test at 06:00am was starting to feel a bit ambitious but in the morning, before work is my only time to train during the week.

When the 20 minutes started for the proper test my cadence was all over the place, I was spinning way too high, over 110RPM, I couldn’t get in to a nice rhythm. I eventually settled in to a hard pace at 100RPM and the power was hovering around 180-200W. After 7 minutes I really felt the pain, I was plugged in to Zwift and my rider was climbing the mountain, even though I had no resistance on my trainer it felt like I was going up that mountain too. The patio doors were completely steamed up by now and I’d drank a full bidon of water. I was listening to music on headphones, this definitely kept me going. When I reached 15 minutes I knew I would make it through the test but at 17 minutes the pain became so intense that it felt like the clock was stuck and the minutes didn’t seem to change. Eventually the time rolled over to 20:00 and I was able to slow down in to the cool down phase but when this finished I kept spinning, it was like my body was in shock, I was physically shaking and turning the pedals felt quite comforting.

To the other extreme of this FTP test I went out on my bike today and completed a 30 mile ride, my goal was to maintain zone 2 (I know what this is now) for the full distance. My riding style is not steady when I’m riding solo, I go out and hit the ride as hard as I can, I love powering up hills so it felt very abnormal to hold myself back like this. There’s a section on the ride after 8 miles, it’s lumpy, and it always challenges me because I’m never warmed up. I always get better when a ride develops, after 50 miles is when I’m stronger than ever. Today riding along this stretch I felt good because I’d ridden in zone 2 all the way to this point and surprisingly my average speed was 16.5mph. When I entered Lejog I set myself a goal of riding each day at 15mph or less, I thought this target would give me a solid pace to get through each day, without destroying myself. Today I learnt riding to power zones is the most effective way to control effort, I know the numbers I can ride at for a set distance and stick to them. This is without doubt the most efficient way to tackle long distances.

It’s 12 weeks until Lejog, over the coming weeks I will be sharing my experiences of learning to train with power.

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