#40 – Power Meter? Find your Superpower with Hunter Allen

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Power meters are everywhere, but few people really know how to use one to get higher performance

Using a Power Meter to find your super power on a bike…. with Coach Hunter Allen

Hello, and welcome back to the Wise Athletes podcast with Joe Lavelle and Dr. Glen Winkel.  On today’s episode, number 40, we are joined by the one and only, the legendary cycling coach  Hunter Allen.

Hunter was co-author of the book  “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” (with Dr. Andy Coggan) which has been translated into 8 languages and sold over 120,000 copies.  He also co-wrote “Cutting-Edge Cycling” with Dr. Stephen Cheung, was the co-developer of TrainingPeaks WKO software, and was the founder of Peaks Coaching Group.

Widely known as one of the top experts in the world in coaching endurance athletes using power meters, Hunter Allen has been instrumental in developing and spreading the power training principles. Hunter is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach, was the 2008 BMX technical coach for the Beijing Olympics and has taught the USA Cycling Power Certification Course since 2005. A former professional cyclist for 17 years on the Navigators Team with over 40 road victories to his credit, Hunter has been coaching endurance athletes since 1995, and his athletes have achieved more than 2000 victories and numerous national, world championship titles and Olympic Medals.

If there is one person on the planet who can help us get more from our power meters, it is Hunter.  Listen in as Hunter walks us through the basics of what to track and how to use the information to get faster on your bike. 

Outline of Discussion

To get benefit from owning and using a power meter, you need to collect data.  Just ride it in various ways;  go up hill, do some sprints, what does 300 watts mean, that is the first step.

You have to test.  Testing is training; training is testing.  

Test a few different areas of philology:

  1. Neuromuscular power:  ability to contract a muscle as hard as you can for a very short amount of time.  Do a 15 second sprint.  Use the best 5 second portion of that 15 second effort.
  2. Anaerobic ability.  Test for about 1 minutes for as hard as you can do for 1 minute.  Average power for 1 minutes.  A 6-8% hill or ride into the wind.  The last 30 seconds will be hell, but push through.
  3. VO2Max:  the volume of oxygen you can bring into the lungs and deliver to the muscles.  3-8 minutes.  Use 5 minutes.  Go hard but pace yourself.  Remain at your VT2 threshold at the end.
  4. Functional threshold power.  FTP.  The hour of power.  The original thinking was that the gold standard for endurance efforts was the 40k time trial, which takes about 1 hour.  Less if you are really strong (25 mph with no draft).  Hard.  That’s the baseline.  This also correlates will with a threshold and seemed to be a good metric for ability to be successful as a cyclist.  One of the key mistakes people make relates to the short cuts used to estimate FTP in less than an hour.  They came up with a 20 minute test and subtract 5% off the result to estimate FTP.  The problem comes in where people forget to the the 5 minute test before doing the 20 minute test.  Cannot do the 20 minute test fresh…will result in too high FTP as a result of too much anaerobic power available to artificially boost the hour of power metric.

Power curve is the plotting of your best power levels over every timeframe.  Mean maximal power.  Then the software fits a curve…a power duration curve, that is able to be used to derive other metrics for targeting and assessment performance improvement over time.  Each person has his/her own curve, although the curves look very similar in shape, but a shifted up or down based on ability and fitness.  FTP is often used as short hand to compare different riders but power duration curves also can vary by how high the short time power is compared to the FTP.  Sprinters have a wider range of neuromuscular and anaerobic power to FTP than does a Time Trialist or steady state climber.

The power duration curve is then turned into a power profile.  There are 4 power profile archetypes; nearly all riders fall into one of them.  The original idea was to let individual riders compare their own curves to the curves of world champions in each respective area.  Track sprinter, Track pursuiter,  chris Boardman’s 1 hour record, plus other “best in the world”.  Let people compare to the best to see what they are good at.

  1. Sprinter 30 seconds of massive power
  2. Pursuiter:  < 5 minutes of very high power
  3. Time Trialist/climber / steady state :  go for a long time at a high steady power
  4. All Arounder:  pretty good at everything.  

Then nexts step is to identify the demands of the events to make sure it matches our ability.

Can people train /change their power curve shape or is the shape based on genes and is shifted up by training (or down by a lack of training)?

A little bit of each.  Sprinters are born not made.  A lot of fast twitch muscle fibers, which is largely genetic.

Told story of rider who kept losing in the sprint.  He wanted to improve his sprint to stop getting 2nd place and start getting 1st place.  But working on his sprint could not make enough difference to allow him to beat his competitor who was a natural sprinter.  The key was to drop the sprinter before the sprint.  To do that he had to improve his FTP so he could up the pace far enough out from the finish that the sprinter could not hang with him to the end.  He started winning by avoiding a sprint at the finish.

The old adage is train your weakness, race your strengths.  But that doesn’t work for people who cannot get enough benefit in their area of weakness.  Those people need to train their strength and race their strength.

If you are an All-Rounder, then you can train to become other specialties.  But generally people have to pick because there are tradeoffs.

Glen says he’s an all-rounder.  Good at a lot of things but not the best.  High VO2Max and good Pursuiter type power.

“Grand Masters” — 60+ & 70+

Once you understand your power profile.  You can select the type of events that suit your type, if you want to do well.  If you just want to have fun, then do whatever appeal to you.

One of the keys to athletic longevity is staying with it.  A key to consistency is enjoyment.  Do things you like, and if you like things that you are born to be good at then all the better.  Plus, no one can stand to do intervals all the time.  Take some time off from hard workouts.  Just enjoy yourself when you feel sick of the hard stuff.

Runner power meters?  Stryd: A pod on your foot plus accelerometer on your HR strap.  Runscribe is another one. Running power meters work by measuring impact of foot on the ground.  Hitting the ground harder is higher power, but that is not directly related to speed due to vertical oscillation. 

Swimming.  Not really. A dry land training tool vasa swim trainer is interesting.  You lay on tummy doing the swim motion, and they measure watts.  It seem to translate well to the actual pool work.

Sprint training needs to be done in series to match the work needed in a race.  You rarely just need to do 1 sprint.  You often need to move up and then do the sprint, so you do the sprint tired or merely recovered somewhat from a recent sprint effort.

Lot’s of people have power meters, but few really know how to use them to tailor their training to get the full advantage of knowing power in watts.  What do you recommend, Hunter?

There are 3 things:  

  1. You have to track the training stress score (TSS).   It starts with FTP.  If you ride at your FTP for 1 hour, you get 100 points.  So TSS is relative to each person’s power curve, and is time based.  The more time riding, the higher the score, and the higher the average power during the ride, the higher the score.  If your FTP is set incorrectly, your TSS is wrong.  TSS is a good metric every day but it is greatly important to track over time.
  2. Performance manager chart looks at chronic training load (CTL).  It is the last 42 days of training.  Physiology changes over 6 week cycles.  Generally, the higher the CTL is, the FTP is, the higher your fitness.  ATL…acute training load is the last 7 days
  3. CTL is your fitness level, based on your average TSS ever day over the last 42 days.  You subtract your ATL (acute training load) from your CTL to find your training stress balance.  If negative, you are fatigued.  if positive, then fresh but detraining.  The key is to push the CTL higher without getting over trained, and then get fresh right before an event where you want to perform best.  This timing is hard, and is one of the key roles for a coach.  Training stress balance.

Looked at hundreds, and now thousands of athletes to figure this out.  If you track over time, you can find your own pattern of freshness to hit PRs and tiredness to push your fitness higher.  But doing both to land a higher peak on a particular day is the hardest and most important objective.

Power meters are certainly power data collection devices that are rather new to the cycling scene.  Even newer are the “life stress” trackers and recovery trackers like the Whoop Strap.  Helps to make an even more full picture of the total stress and recovery status.

Being able to find that peak performance when you want it…that is the pot of gold.

Are training zones based on power or on heart rate?  Both.

Hunter likes systems based on Threshold HR.  So if you can determine your FTP, then find your HR at that effort.  Then build the HR zones around at base.

The problem with HR is it is a response.  It is dependent on many things.  Caffeine, sleep, heat, altitude, etc. so it fluctuates so much it is hard to use as a target.

Power is more stable.  

But what do you do if power and HR are not matching up on a particular day?  Endurance power of 200 watts but it feels hard and HR is above endurance HR.  Push through?  Back off?

It a tough question.  It can depend on what you’ve done recently.  If you are fatigued according to your Training Balance, just back off. If you are just not feeling good on a day when you should be recovered, then you might just push through to get the benefit of the work out.  

So, again, the key is to have done the work to track the data so you can interpret the data and not lose a workout unnecessarily or hurt yourself by pushing a bad situation.  

Glen, what was the best zone for training to improve FTP.  Answer:  I find training too hard burns me out….my hardest training is in races where the hard efforts are not as taxing mentally.

Racing is always good training.

2 kinds of athletes:  Race Up & Race Down.  Race Up people race better than they train while Race Down people train better than they race.

The best road racers are the ones who don’t pedal at least 18% of the time…sitting in the field…saving energy.  It’s a game of conservation of energy. Racing is about tactics, while training is about improving physiology. Use both to be your best.

The last point is to listen to your body.  The data is super important but you have to listen to what your body is telling you also.  With the purely objective power meter, you can learn to read the signals from your body…the feelings in your body more clearly.

New book coming out in Fall 2021.  Triathlon training with power.  Co-authored with Chris Meyers.

Hunter Allen – Contact & bio

Legendary cycling coach, co-author of:
Training and Racing with a Power Meter
Cutting-Edge Cycling
Co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO+ software, and founder of Peaks Coaching Group.

Widely known as one of the top experts in the world in coaching endurance athletes using power meters, Hunter Allen’s goal has always been to teach athletes how to maximize their training and racing potential through professional analysis of their power data. This goes hand in hand with his philosophy that a power meter helps athletes discover their true strengths and weaknesses, quantitatively assess their training improvements, and refine and maximize the focus of their training. 

The ever curious athlete who demands answers.
About the Author
Curious athlete who demands answers. Husband to Susan ( Father of 3 daughters. Athletic pursuits over time, in reverse order: cycling, skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, triathlon, golf, tennis, football.

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