One of the best things about cycling is that you can almost always improve yourself, even up to a really old age. In a lot of other sports, which involve more strength and explosive movements, this isn’t the case. And you can improve on more aspects than only the physical part of cycling. You can also improve your sleep, nutrition, recovery, material, tactics or the mental side of cycling. Some of these things are easily measurable, for instance using an application to calculate your calorie intake and comparing this to your burned calories calculated using your power meter. It’s also possible to use your smartphone or a smartwatch and track the amount of sleep you’ve had. By improving your bedtime routine and rituals you can easily add an hour of sleep, or even improve the quality of it. For tracking your progression in the physical sense it’s a bit more complicated. There are enough tools to show you the most beautiful graphs, of course, but what do you need to look for and how do you see if your progressing in the way you want?
So, the first step we take when measuring progress is to make progression objective. Of course, it’s also good to listen to your feeling that tells you if you are on the right track. This is especially the case when you have been ill or you’re feeling worn out and tired. But, for now, we want to look solely at the objective measurements to see if you are making progress. This can be done using a standardized protocol to track your improvements. To really compare your fitness level and see if it is increasing you want to make it measurable, objective and reproducible so you can do the same test and measurement after a period of training. It’s therefore important to standardize it so you measure the same thing before and after the training period.
You can do this by using your speed sensor and riding the same route/circuit and see if your average speed has improved. But of course weather circumstances play a big role in this. The wind and the air density especially have a major factor in the outcome of speed. We see a lot of recreational cyclists saying they are in shape during the summer, because they now average 30km/h on their fixed training route while during the winter this often is 28 km/h. So, if speed isn’t the best way to track your progression, what is it then? Well there is just one obvious answer and that is power.
To really track progress in your stamina and fitness level you need to look at how much power you can sustain for a certain period of time. One often used key performance indicator is the maximum power you can give for 20 minutes. Also, in testing this you need to make sure that the test is standardized. Therefore, use the same power meter, circumstances, warm-up protocol and make sure you had the same amount of rest before your test. Taking this into account, it makes sense to do it on an indoor trainer instead of outside where the environment is less controllable.
But is looking only at your 20-minute power value the best way to see if you are progressing? That actually depends on the goal you have. If you want to ride as fast as possible up a hill for about 15–40 minutes, this value is quite interesting. But if you want to do a 200-kilometre ride with short hills this isn’t exactly the case. That’s why it makes sense to also do 1 and 5 minutes standardized tests so you can make what we call a power profile.
A power profile is basically a graph or a table that shows your best power numbers for every time interval, often between 10 seconds and 3 hours, over the last month, 3 months or best ever. Improving on a certain time interval(s) shows you quite easily that you are progressing.
This power profiling is actually the most commonly used performance indicator in cycling at the moment. But there is something wrong with it. It’s often not about how fast you ride up one hill, but how fast do you go the fifth time or even the twentieth time. It’s in the deep final of a race like the Tour of Flanders where the boys will be separated from the men. After more than 200km and numerous climbs it’s not about someone’s power profile anymore, but who has the least decline in performance.
So, to sum it all up: first make sure you know what your goal is and based on that what criteria you will select to improve upon. Secondly, make sure you test yourself on a regular basis. Please be aware that not every workout can be a test. Testing yourself in a standardized manner every 4 to 6 weeks is probably more than enough to see if you’re heading in the right direction. And last but not least, don’t only look at the maximum power output, but also if you’re able to deliver in the last hour of a hard training or race.