Two methods of gauging how much stronger you’ve become
Am I getting better on the bike?
“You can imagine how this leg-burning workout is a ‘favourite.’”
If you are putting in six to 12 hours a week on the bike, a significant commitment away from family and friends, you want to see improvements and know that your time has been well spent. So, how do you know that you are getting better?
The MAP test
Most of the time, when riders talk about getting better on the bike, they refer to a better VO2 max, your body’s ability to use as much oxygen as it can, or a higher peak power. These are ways of looking at the changes that come with training. At our gym, we regularly use a step test throughout the year to see how people are doing and if they are improving. With the test’s focus on measuring maximal aerobic power output, you can imagine how this leg-burning workout is a “favourite." It starts at an easy wattage and increases 20 or 25 watts every three minutes until the rider reaches failure. We measure maximal aerobic power (map), the one-minute max power a rider sustain in the test. We want to see if the rider is able to go a step further or push more watts at the top of the test compared with the previous test. But what does a better map test mean? More high-end power? Well, not necessarily. An improved map can sometimes be an indication that your aerobic system – the oxygen-and-fatburning processes that your body uses at easier efforts – is actually better. With the better aerobic system, working your way up the ramp of the map test becomes been less taxing. It also saves your legs more so that you can do better at the top of the test. We often see riders improve their map without ever training there their top-end power.
Power and heart rate
Looking at your aerobic system is where things can really get interesting when searching for improvement. To analyze this system, we use both power and heart-rate metrics. (If you don’t have a power meter, see ‘No Power, No Problem.’) When using both power and heart-rate training zones, many riders will find that their zones don’t match up. For instance, when a rider is pushing tempo wattage (an effort that is a little too hard for carrying on a conversation) for a longer effort, often heart rate increases. It can climb to threshold levels and even as high as the VO2 heart-rate zone. Ideally, you want to be able to ride in a set power zone, such as tempo, and have the heart rate stay in the same, associated zone.
This correlation between power and heart rate is a very good way of gauging improvement. We often have riders come to the gym and try a tempo workout. They quickly find that they can’t push their tempo wattage without their heart rate spiking into higher training zones. We advocate training by heart rate, so they back off the power and ride in the tempo heartrate zone. Over time though, they get better and are then able to hold their tempo power longer before the heart rate starts to rise. Being able to hold your power steady for an extended period of time and have your heart rate remain stable indicates a big improvement in your fitness. Think of this situation applied to climbing. You can keep your pace steady without having to back off. When you are fit, your heart rate won’t climb as you go up, allowing you to put in a better effort along the incline.
When searching for improvements in your fitness, you can look at both your top-end ability revealed by the map test and aerobic fitness. In fact, you want to keep an eye on both elements. You’ve attained real fitness when map and aerobic fitness are in balance.