Knowledge (of your weakness) is power

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Four-Dimensional Power™ gives you unprecedented insight into who you are as a cyclist. Instead of just a single number, you see exactly what you’re capable of across a range of efforts. Not only does it reveal your hidden power, but it also identifies the area where you might not be as strong...yet. Knowing where you need to focus your attention is the first step in addressing it. There are four primary weaknesses: Sprinting, Repeated Efforts, VO2 Efforts, and Sustained Efforts. We’re going to look at each of these so you have a better understanding of what they mean and, more, importantly, how to improve them.

Weakness: Sprinting

Signifies: Your Neuromuscular (NM) ability needs improvement.

What that means: You need to improve your ability to achieve peak power quickly. Hitting peak power requires you to do two things: maximise your muscle recruitment and ensure that the firing sequence of those muscles is coordinated.

Why that’s important: In training, if you don’t recruit certain muscles, then they don’t get trained. If they don’t get trained, they get weak. If they’re weak, they’re not going to help you when you need them in a ride or race. Further, if your neuromuscular coordination is poor, then your muscles end up working against each other as intensity and/or cadence increases. To make a full pedal rotation, different muscle groups have to contract at the right time, and then quickly relax.  If you’re unable to switch these muscles on and off quickly, they will continue to contract at the wrong phase of the pedal stroke. Not only does this use more energy, but it means your body is actively working against putting power into the pedals. It’s a bit like being in a rowboat where one person is pushing while the other is pulling.

Best way to improve: Neuromuscular work, such as Cadence Builds and Standing Starts.

Weakness: Repeated Efforts

Signifies: You need to improve your ability to quickly recover from hard efforts and/or handle surges.

What that means: Everyone has a limited ability to do work above FTP.  You can think of this as a fixed “fuel tank” that you drain as you go above your FTP. Not only do people have different sized fuel tanks, some people can refill their tanks faster than others. That means you can have the same (or higher) FTP as someone else but still get dropped if they make big surges or repeated attacks.

Why is it Important: At some point in nearly every cycling event, you will be riding above FTP and start draining that fuel tank. While the size of your tank is important for a single big effort, the key to making repeated, hard efforts is how quickly you can refill it. If you refill slowly, you won’t be ready if you have to make another big effort anytime soon, especially if you are trying to “recover” while still riding near your threshold. This puts you at a much higher risk of blowing up dramatically when you’re near your max, or when being forced to surge during an effort that you could otherwise hold for thirty minutes or more.

Best way to improve: You can train yourself to fill your tank faster by doing micro-Intervals such as those in Half is Easy, or surging intervals such as those in Who Dares or Fight Club.

Weakness: VO2

Signifies: You need to raise your aerobic ceiling

What that means: Steady State riding—meaning any effort from 20 minutes to 24 hours—is largely dependent on your FTP, and FTP is largely dependent on your power at VO2max.  In fact, your power at VO2Max is like a ceiling that holds your FTP down. Lift the ceiling and you create room to improve your FTP and the ability to put down steady power.

Why is it Important: Cycling is an endurance sport, and the driver of all endurance sports is oxygen.  Training increases both the amount of oxygen your body can use and the amount of power you can produce with that oxygen.  Putting those two factors together gives you your Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP), and underneath that value is your ability to produce sustainable power (your FTP).  There are limits to how close your FTP can get to your MAP. Once your FTP starts to bump up against that ceiling, the only way to increase FTP is to first raise your MAP. While you can increase MAP by doing FTP efforts, it’s a bit like using a plastic hammer on a metal nail. You can get the job done, but it certainly won’t be the fastest way to do it. Rather, it’s better to ‘lift from the top’ by working on your MAP and creating ‘room’ for your FTP to grow.

Best way to improve: VO2 Max efforts such as Revolver and Nine Hammers

Weakness: Sustained

Signifies: You need to get more efficient at using oxygen for long, steady efforts.

What that means: How efficiently you use oxygen to drive a sustained effort at or near your FTP is known as your “Steady State Economy.”  Two people might have the same FTP but vary dramatically in how efficiently they use oxygen to produce power. As a result, the rider with a higher Steady State Economy will be able to manage a sustained effort far better, experience less fatigue, and ride longer without reducing effort.

Why is it Important: As we mentioned in the VO2 weakness section, cycling performance is very much a function of how efficiently you use oxygen. Unfortunately, the human body has a limit to how much oxygen it can take in. It also has another limit that dictates how close you can get to that maximal intake and how long you can stay there. Even if two riders have the same maximal ability to take in oxygen, the rider who can sit closer to that max for longer will have the higher FTP. But focused training can help you increase that percentage. That means not only can you improve your FTP, but also the amount of time you can spend at that limit. Combine that with the fact that you’ll be able to recover faster at higher power outputs and you can see why there is such an obsession with FTP.

Best way to improve: Steady State efforts such as those in Thin Air and Hell Hath No Fury.

Like the cartoon in the 80s said, “knowing is half the battle.” By knowing exactly where you need to focus your efforts (and training plans tailored to that focus) you can stop training aimlessly and start truly maximizing your Return on Suffering. Whether you cross the line first or not, that in itself is a victory.

About Coach Mac Cassin

Mac Cassin has been coached by Sir Neal Henderson since 2009 and is a coach at APEX Coaching, with a focus on masters and junior racers. As an elite cyclist who also has to balance the demands of ‘life’ with his goals as an athlete, Mac has a deep understanding of how to get the most out of those who have limited time to train. Mac has raced at the World and PanAmerican championships and holds several US national and state titles. His studies were in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado and has worked as a research assistant in the CU Neurophysiology lab

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