Tooling the numbers: Getting the most from data-driven training

Looking to up your training game? Dig into the numbers, but don't over-analyze them

Photo: Tim De Waele

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

I wasn’t in shape. So, I was only too happy when the pros took the Cascade Cycling Classic’s first big climb easy. Where normally 30 riders crest the top together, this year over 100 of us made the selection. I was lucky. But later, when I got home, the friend I was traveling with started complaining about how hard the pros had climbed. I made the mistake of blurting out, “No they didn’t,” and landed myself in a heated argument. My friend quoted his VAM and power-to-weight numbers as evidence that the pros were at full gas. I countered with the fact that anytime someone tried to pick up the pace, the leaders would yell, “Hey, tempo buddy!” I was fighting a losing battle. In this age of power meters, the numbers too often trump reality.

Don’t get me wrong. Training has come a long way from the old-school European pro just riding hard for six hours every day. Proper scientific training with power is allowing riders such as Taylor Phinney to compete at the highest levels. Phinney’s coach, Neal Henderson, understands the numbers as well as anyone. Henderson is the head coach at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and was recently honored with the USOC Coach of the Year, Doc Counsilman Science Award. Ask him to help you and he’ll pull your data into a series of over 30 charts that allow him to see more about you than you know yourself. Yet, Henderson is the first to say the numbers are just a tool. “The goal isn’t just to improve the numbers, but to translate those improvements into results at races,” he said.

If you own a power meter and are wondering how to read all those fancy graphs and scatter plots, check out or the book Training and Racing with Power, published by VeloPress. But if your overall goal is to turn your numbers into performance reality, Henderson offers the following key dos and don’ts.


Upload your data and look for weaknesses: Henderson points out that the best racers train their weak areas. A power meter is a great tool to find where you are strong and weak. See the sidebar for suggestions on how to target areas for improvement.

Compare your numbers over time:
Especially in the winter months when you have no races to test your form, compare your numbers to early points in the season or the same period in previous years to gauge your own progress.

Assess how you feel: “Sometimes an athlete’s description of the ride is more valuable than the data,” Henderson said. If you do a series of two-minute intervals, the numbers will show how hard you went. But knowing that you were suffering and couldn’t complete the set shows that you’ve found an area of weakness.

Use a heart rate monitor: Henderson likes to triangulate heart rate, power, and perceived effort to get a complete picture. If you head out for a ride and your heart rate or perceived effort has changed a lot relative to your power, it means something. A rise in heart rate is a sign of fatigue, stress, or dehydration, while a drop is a key warning sign of burnout and the need for an extended rest.


Don’t focus on your one best power output: Many riders look at their peak, five- or 20-minute efforts as evidence of their strength. But what they miss is repeatability. “The biggest numbers,” according to Henderson, “aren’t at the end of the race, but in the build-up to the end. Being able to keep going hard or do multiple hard efforts is critical.”

Don’t seek big power in races: The winner of the race is sometimes the rider who pedals the least. According to Henderson, “Winners don’t always see their highest numbers in races. They learn how to save energy.” What can be even more valuable than reviewing your peak efforts in your race file is to look at how much time you spent at easy power levels. A winning cyclist spends most of the race at, or at less than, 60 percent of functional threshold.

Don’t let power dictate your race: Henderson warns that some riders focus on power at the exclusion of developing a tactical sense. Worse is when they pull the plug after seeing a big number at a critical moment. “Some riders need to put a piece of tape over the power reading,” Henderson said.

Don’t base your training on race numbers: We can often put out higher numbers in races, especially heart rate, which is elevated by the anxiety of racing. Using race numbers as a basis for training zones can lead to overtraining.

One final “do” that Henderson reinforces is to calibrate your power meter before every ride. Too often, riders come to him excited with their sudden pro-level numbers, only to find out they didn’t zero their meters.

Numbering your weaknesses

One of the first things Henderson has an athlete do is a one-hour power test. It consists of all-out efforts for five seconds, five minutes, 20 minutes, and one minute, in that order, with approximately 10 minutes of spinning between each. Each effort tests a different physiological system. To see how your efforts stack up, check out the performance level chart created by Dr. Andrew Coggan at the TrainingPeaks website. But what is most important is how you stack up relative to yourself. If you can produce a pro-level, five-minute effort, but a Cat. 4 level for one minute, then your anaerobic capacity is an area that needs work. Likewise, if you are targeting a time trial, but your functional threshold isn’t up to par, you want to make it a focus. Here’s a brief description of what each effort means and how Henderson recommends training that system.

Neuromuscular power

This system is critical for sprinters and track riders. Henderson recommends training it with very short, high-torque efforts such as standing starts in a big gear. Another approach is to accelerate as quickly as possible, at a high cadence, both seated and standing.

Anaerobic capacity

A good anaerobic capacity is critical for handling the flurry of attacks near the end of a race. Four to five minutes of repeated, 20-to-40-second intervals with even shorter recoveries (10 to 20 seconds) can help to build this system.

V02 Max

A five-minute time trial is a good estimate of your VO2max power. This is a critical system for handling the most difficult points in races, like short, sustained climbs. Henderson recommends a series of short intervals such as six or seven 30-second efforts at about 150 percent of threshold power with 30 seconds of rest between each. These intervals should be followed immediately by a two-to-three-minute sustained effort at your five-minute power level.

Functional threshold

The 20-minute effort is a decent estimate of your functional threshold (your highest sustainable power), but an even better estimate is your normalized power for the entire one-hour test. Good training software such as Training Peaks can show you your normalized power. A high functional threshold is key for riders who like time trials or breakaways. Henderson recommends long intervals at 95 percent of your functional threshold. Start with four-to-eight-minute efforts and build to 15 to 20 minutes.

Trevor Connor is a long-time cycling coach and researches both exercise physiology and nutrition at Colorado State University.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.