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How I became lost in cycling metrics and what I did about it

Navigating my way through conflicting training regimes

Photo by: Tom Perlmutter

I’m a week away from the start of my big ride. One of the most interesting and complicated things about getting ready was how to train and how to think about training.

In January 2020, I had signed up to ride South America from top to bottom. I decided I’d better get in some serious training. Since it was winter, I bit the bullet and upgraded to a smart trainer, the Elite Suito. I  tested out a number of training apps and settled on TrainerRoad. I liked its laser focus on the training and, for a novice like me, I appreciated the coaching notes. Then COVID hit and my South America plans were upended. But getting on that trainer had become a habit. During the dark days of COVID isolation training became an anchor to days that blended together in a monotonous grey punctuated only by the terrible news of mounting infections and deaths.

I also started a deep dive into the research about training because I knew that sooner or later I’d be out there on that epic ride. I wanted to be ready to roll. I read books and articles, scoured forums and blog posts, watched videos and listened to podcasts. All of which was very helpful in confusing me greatly. As did the results of a lab test I took in Montreal.

I became buried in a sea of bewildering acronyms and a jargon that I never really mastered: functional threshold power (FTP), rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate variability (HRV), lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), maximum rate of oxygen consumption (VO2 max), training stress score (TSS), normalized power (NP), and so on.   To make matters worse, everyone was quoting “the science” referring to studies in peer-reviewed journals. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence about any one particular training practice seemed inconclusive or contradictory.

Cycling lab results

The one constant that everyone agreed on was that it was all about the numbers. (What those numbers mean is a whole other story.) I’d gone from a vague sense of how I felt while riding  to measuring the effort: heart rate, power output, cadence, etc. The key metric I was using on TrainerRoad was FTP, which meant my focus was pushing on intensity. Given that I was starting at a low FTP, I was pretty much guaranteed to make rapid gains. But after a year of this training, I was becoming stale. I felt as if my training was stalling.

One of the big debates I’d been following had been around polarized versus high-intensity interval training.  The former preached a mix of 80 per cent low intensity with 20 per cent high intensity. The latter was all about short, sharp hard efforts. I got swept up in the idea that I’d been too focussed on high intensity. At the same time, even though COVID was still raging, I was setting my sights on my next major trip. I figured I needed to try something different.

Training Peaks numbers

There was another factor in all this. We train for a goal, a race, an event, a particular ride. In a way, my goal, a major ride, was a way of justifying or explaining the training if anyone asked why I was doing it. The reality is training, indoors and outdoors, had become a spiritual practice, a mode of transcendence to connect to those selves we have that exist in other, parallel universes. As with other such practices, such as yoga, and as a novice cyclist, I needed more than just the right numbers. I needed help with technique: body stance, breathing, mental focus. I needed a guide. I began to poke around for a coach.

Reach for the sky

I checked in with some well-regarded coaching services each with a roster of impressive coaches on their books. (Of course, with everything being done online, location didn’t matter.) I spoke to a couple of them, but the focus was so exclusively on athletic achievement. Right for some, not for me. One of the sites I was checking regularly was Fast Talk Laboratories. I got in touch with their CEO, Trevor Connor, who was incredibly generous with his time. We spoke for over a half hour about training, coaching and what I was looking for. He recommended someone in Toronto where I live. I went on a Zoom session with Andrew Randell and I immediately felt a spark of connection. Here, I thought, was someone I could work with.

In the next post I’ll report back on my conversation with Andrew about training and how I’ve been getting ready for this upcoming epic trek. Only days away. Yikes!