Saturday, October 31, 2015

SPACE Lab Update - After Week Six

I've now completed six weeks of training in the SPACE lab study. That means I have approximately twenty (!) more weeks to go. So I thought I'd make a few observations about how things are going. Overall, I am really enjoying it! I go and work out every day at Noon except Saturday, which is a rest day. It's a nice break in the middle of the day from work.

Going to SPACE
The Wrong Stuff? Ragtag asteroid miners
Each day I change into my cycling gear - most often in my office - and walk over to IM Circle on the MSU campus. This, as you can imagine, elicited some odd looks from some of my co-workers, especially the front office staff in the academic affairs wing of the Arts & Letters Dean's office in Linton Hall. They saw me go into the office in street clothes, and emerge wearing lycra. They were pretty sure I had a secret identity for the first week or two. Now, everybody's in the know, though, so it's mostly The Right Stuff and/or Armageddon jokes.

The Workouts
After the first couple of sessions which were mostly about calibrating my fitness level, the pattern of workouts is very steady. I alternate between a 30 minute sustained effort and intervals of various lengths. Every other day, then, it's a 30 minute ride for as much power as I can sustain over that period of time. It is very much like an FTP test, in other words, for those familiar with cycling or other endurance sports. A bit more on that later. The interval workouts are 4 x 4:00, 6 x 2:00, and 8 x :30 respectively. Each day also has a warmup, the length of which varies according to what the activity is for the day, and a cooldown that is determined by the time it takes for my heart rate to return to 120BPM - usually just a couple of minutes or so.

Since there are six workouts and I come in six days a week, the pattern looks like this for me:
MWF 30:00 sustained
Sunday 4 x 4:00 intervals
Tuesday 6 x 2:00 intervals
Thursday 8 x :30 intervals
Measuring Effort - All About the Watts
Monark LC-7 just like the one I ride.
One of the reasons I was so excited to participate in this study is to learn more about training with precise power measurement to calibrate effort. For cyclists on the road, this means using a power meter that is integrated into some bike component: the hub, the pedal, or the crank. For me, it means cycling on an ergometer - a kind of stationary bike that interfaces with a computer to both dynamically control the resistance and measure the watts produced by the rider.

This gives a very precise measurement of watts produced because there is no other form of resistance - hills, wind, or friction - just what is applied by brake in the ergometer. And unlike real rides out on the roads, the watts required are continuous (no coasting or downhills) over a 30 minute ride. If a traditional time trial is know as "the race of truth" because it is just one person against the clock, then this is the race of extreme truth...because there is no fooling the ergometer.

When it comes to learning about measuring cycling effort with power, I have not been disappointed. It's pretty amazing to see, especially when combined with other measures like cadence (revolutions per minute of the crank) and heart rate, just what I am capable of in general and on any given day. One thing I can say is that a few things I've come to understand about myself as a rider are supported by the evidence I see when I look at the cycling data I've generated so far.

So, What Have I Learned So Far?
Ranges for V02Max, from
I don't have a big engine, but I am efficient and I can use a lot of the power I am capable of making. My V02Max is not huge, which is what I mean when I say I don't have a big engine. By most folks' accounts, I am in the "good" and just short of "excellent" range, and nowhere close to "elite."

V02Max is something that varies for each individual and has a significant genetic component, which means you basically are stuck with what you have. But V02Max only defines the top end - the "max" - output you can produce in a very short, very hard effort. What is a more useful measure is how much of your maximum you can use over some longer period of time. This measure is known as your FTP - functional threshold power - and it corresponds to the level of energy you can sustain for 60 minutes. You can find this out by riding for 60 minutes, but usually a 20 minute test will do fine (for more about that, check out Allen & Coggin's book Training & Racing with a Power Meter).

My FTP looks to be about 230W at this point, but unlike V02Max, FTP is much more responsive to training so it will likely get better. Today, though, I can produce that amount of power for 60 minutes without slowing down. Based on the results of my first Max test, that's about 84% of my V02Max. So while my top-end power and my power-to-weight aren't particularly impressive, when I'm fit I can use quite a lot of the power available to me. This is not news to me, really. I always knew, for instance, that I cannot outsprint many people. And I can't overcook a ride either...trying to hang on to a pace that is too hard is a sure way for me to get dropped. But...what I can do is find a sustainable pace - and while it's not huge, it's still good - and stay there for a long time. If I can then coax someone else to go just a bit into the red, I can eventually outlast 'em.

And, I can recover really fast and at a relatively high level of activity. I don't need to back down the pace too much to get back to a decent level of effort. This means that I can attack from a fairly high pace, back off just a little and recover, and attack again...and do it over and over.

All of this I've known from experience. But now I also have some numbers. Here, for example, are all of the 30 minute sustained efforts I've done since the beginning of the study so far in a histogram, graphed along with the MaxHR for that same session.
30 minuted sustained efforts with Watts & HR
Already, an interesting trend has emerged here. I'm building fitness and improving my PR for sustained Watts over time, but I go through periods of improvement and then a moment of recovery. The ride on Monday 10/26 is a bit of an anomaly because the Saturday before I rode 55 miles, and so rather than try to go all out on that day I just set a pace for my FTP (230W). The week prior, I had set a new PR for 30 minutes each time. My best effort so far is 241.85W with a Max HR of 183BPM.

Some of the variation here is the result of me trying different pacing strategies as well. As I noted, there is no fooling the ergometer, and I dial up my own resistance (in Watts) for this workout. So if I want to ride, say, 230W for thirty minutes I can't start a whole lot lower than that or else I'll need to make that up later somewhere. That's quite hard to do in a short amount of time, obviously. It is average/normalized power we are talking about here, but there are no big spikes in effort on the ergometer.

The pacing strategy I generally pursue is to hold a relatively high rate of power - 230 or 240 W for the first 20 minutes or so - and then see where I am in the last 10 minutes. If I'm feeling strong, I can add resistance and go for a PR. Having done 240 a few times, I can say that it is very close to what I am capable of producing on any given day. There will not be huge leaps beyond this number, though I may (and I hope to) continue to improve over the course of the study. We will see where I can get in twenty more weeks.

For now, though, I am having a lot of fun. Geeking out over the numbers is part of that, so watch for more reports as we go along!