The 5-Point Approach to Creating Faster Power
Here’s a riddle. There are two riders, Jim and Matt. They weigh the same. They can produce the same wattage for given power zones. They’re both motivated cyclists who love riding and racing. Matt is one of the best masters racers around, and he’s got a national championship title in his age group to prove it. He regularly dices it up with the local pros on the group rides. When he shows up for a state championship road race or crit, you better believe he’s one of the top favorites that everyone is watching. On the other hand, despite his best efforts, Jim often gets dropped on the weekly group rides. In races, he is no better. At his best, he can hang in with the peloton, basically along for the ride.
So, what is the difference between these two riders?
Believe it or not, I have been faced with this exact dilemma in my experience as a cycling coach. In my first few years running CINCH, I was very focused on power. I was trying to help my athletes raise their zones. The common coaching wisdom was simple: Raise your zones and your threshold, and everything will be good.
But then I came upon Jim and Matt. These riders seemed like they should be almost exact clones of each other, but they weren’t—not by a long shot.
This was the start of my two-year investigation into what really made someone fast . . . not what made them produce awesome power numbers. I spent hours staring at power files. I combed through the data produced by riders like Jim and Matt. I compared it with their race results, their feedback on how they felt, and how a race unfolded. I compared this training data with their ride metrics like speed and the elevation profile. I rode next to them and studied their pedaling techniques, cadence, and body position.
I also looked at my experiences in pro racing. I watched race video of top performers like Alberto Contador or Alejandro Valverde, too. Looking at them, I realized these guys don’t have more power than everyone else. It’s what they do with that power—how they use their technique on the bike and execution. That’s what helps them produce more speed. That’s what makes them great.
What I learned from my investigation would change how I coach athletes forever. Simply put: Power does not equal performance. It is the delivery of the power that truly makes the performance.
I found that there were five key areas that cyclists, experienced and novices alike, need to work on in order to deliver faster power: Power Control, Cadence Control, Body Position, Separation, and Transitional Control. But the discovery of these areas was just the beginning!
No one teaches cyclists these five points of execution to make the most of their wattage. Information and a training system on these areas did not exist. So how did top World Tour riders like Valverde and top masters racers like Matt develop these skills? They developed their tools through years and years of racing and competing against top-level athletes in top-level events. So how was I going to help older riders like Jim, who have jobs, families, and limited time, create the skills to make this “faster power”?
Through this analysis I had an epiphany. I realized that my cyclists, and thousands of others like them (even some pro riders), needed a guiding light to direct their training and improve their use of the power they had. They needed a compass to point them to the path of least resistance. Up until then, they were just trying to develop the biggest wattage club possible, so they could smash everyone with it. This compass would become the FORM North Star of Execution.
This star has five points: Power Control, Cadence Control, Body Position, Separation, and Transitional Control. Each has a key purpose to help you improve your technique and execution, to become more like my athlete Matt.
While the Four Pillars of the FORM Method are critical to your success as a cyclist, it is the Execution Pillar that most often gets people excited. Usually this one is a quick game-changer as it provides fast and noticeable improvement in areas where cycling progression usually stalls out.
In every race, there is the person who averages the most watts and hits the highest numbers, and then there is the person who wins. They are rarely the same rider. Even though our power-meter-obsessed sport has gotten to the point where it feels like the only thing that matters is normalized power or FTP, that isn’t always what wins races. Cycling is still a game like any other sport.
Take tennis, for example. The announcers might touch on the fact that Serena Williams can serve a ball at over 100 miles per hour, but that’s not the key talking point after the match. Instead, they discuss how brilliantly she placed her shots throughout the court, how she responded to her rival’s shots, how she used her powerful swing at just the right moment to hit the winning shot.
I want you to stop judging your cycling by the numbers on your power meter and start judging it based on speed. While it may be difficult to measure or quantify (because this isn’t the same as miles per hour), speed is what wins races. Of course, the first step is training and riding enough to establish a foundation of power that you can produce as a cyclist. The FORM Method will get you there. The crucial next step I’ll teach you is how to use that power in the most efficient way possible to maximize speed and momentum. That’s what Power Control is all about.
You’ll use the terrain to gain momentum when it suits the PTZ you intend to use. As things progress, you’ll find opportunities to maintain that momentum without going above or below that PTZ.
I know I just told you not to fixate on your power meter’s numbers, but we aren’t going to throw out those expensive components. Instead, similar to your own power as a cyclist, we’ll use those tools carefully to chase the elusive momentum that will help you win. There are two key Power Control concepts: Power Floors and Power Ceilings.
In my years of coaching athletes, I’ve discovered that focusing on power averages leads to average cyclists. You don’t want to be average, right?
Here’s what happens. People are given an average wattage number to hit in their workout and then they game the system. It’s only natural. They are told to ride 220 watts and at the halfway point of their 20-minute interval, they realize they’ve been doing 190 watts. So, they spike it to 250 for the rest of the lap and voilà! It was a 220-watt effort, right? Actually, half of the interval was below their zone, and half was above it. I doubt that’s what their coach wanted them to do.
So, we start with the Power Floor for any given effort. This is the minimum wattage that you should not go below after you hit the “lap” button to start your interval. If you go below it, you bleed precious momentum. To build back up to the correct PTZ, you will have to push harder than necessary, wasting energy. It is more efficient to stay above that floor.
As I just hinted at, cyclists love to chase those average power stats, even if it means riding above the zone they were supposed to be in all along. But wait: If you’re strong enough to push a little harder during an interval, that’s okay, right? Sorry, no. It might feel good at the time, or you might have the confidence to bust through that Power Ceiling, but I promise you that you’ll regret it later.
When you spike through that Power Ceiling, you’re almost always going to drop through the Power Floor right after. You max out your body’s physical capabilities with that spike, so it needs to recover by going below the floor. When that happens, you lose that precious momentum. This is one of the most inefficient ways to ride, regardless of what your power averages tell you.
Power spikes can also impact your body’s perception of the interval’s intensity. While your average might be right in your PTZ, the constant stress of going over the Power Ceiling leads it to think you are at an effort level beyond the zone. If you avoid the spikes, you’ll be putting less stress on your body.
Top cyclists have such great Power Control that their Power Floors and Power Ceilings are very close to each other. They can precisely stay in that PTZ for long periods of time, riding efficiently, maintaining momentum, and putting as little stress as possible on their bodies.
Around the world, cyclists who watched Lance Armstrong win the 1999 Tour de France were stunned. I know I was. And one of the things that stood out the most was his pedaling style, his high cadence. It didn’t take long for cyclists everywhere to start mimicking his form, riding at 100 rpm or more, spinning as fast as they could, thinking it would help them ride like the Tour champion.
While they were right to consider changing their cadence to go faster and ride more efficiently, they were thinking of this critical variable in the wrong way. Cadence is not a black or white, wrong or right, fast or slow choice. Never think you can set cadence like a thermostat and leave it alone for the rest of the ride.
Instead, cadence should change dynamically, based on the terrain, race dynamics, and your own needs as a rider, no matter what wattage you are producing. If you’ve ever paid attention to your car’s rpms while driving, then you already understand the basics of how cadence works for cyclists, because it is essentially the same. Higher rpms help you accelerate quickly from a stoplight. Lower rpms give you better gas economy at highway speeds. You wouldn’t try to drive in third gear at 70 mph on the highway, right?
For the foundation of the Cadence Control point on the North Star of FORM Execution, there are two key concepts that tie in directly with our comparison with a car engine. Both concepts relate to momentum, which as I’ve mentioned, is the key to riding fast and riding well. To gain momentum, focus on high cadence, usually 90–100 rpms, combined with high power. To maintain speed, switch to low cadence, around 70–80 rpm, with low power.
If you can develop your Cadence Control and start using it strategically, it translates into a number of cycling’s key performance components.
Cadence Control can help you develop more torque when you need it. Simply pedaling a steady wattage won’t necessarily translate into speed. People who ride like that often are caught on the cadence hamster wheel, spinning fast but going nowhere. When you time your cadence to deliver power at key moments to gain momentum or sustain it, that’s what produces torque.
Like I hinted at with the car analogy, carefully using your cadence can reduce stress on your own human engine. Low cadence is generally more stressful on your muscles. High cadence tends to tax your cardiovascular system. So, by using Cadence Control strategically, you can maximize your body’s efficiency.
Have you ever tried to pedal at a high cadence and found yourself bouncing in the saddle? Believe it or not, that uncomfortable feeling wasn’t only because your muscles weren’t accustomed to spinning at 120 rpm. In fact, there are tons of connections between your mind and muscles, known as neuromuscular connections. Chances are, those lines of communication were old or broken because you rarely engage all of your different leg and core muscles to spin at such a rate of speed. We’ll now teach you to use high-cadence drills strategically to keep those neuromuscular connections active.
You’ll be glad you have those connections when you have to call on your legs to do a burst of speed. That’s when Cadence Control really shines. You need to gain momentum fast, so you switch into high-cadence, high-power mode to deliver as much circular force as possible to the pedals. Then, if you’ve mastered Cadence Control, you’ll shift into low cadence and lower power to maintain that momentum with less exertion when the terrain or race dynamics allow.
One of the most fun ways to use Cadence Control in real life is to do what we call “surfing the terrain.” Simply by adjusting your cadence, you can smooth out a road that has repeated small hills. You change your cadence strategically to absorb the bumps in the elevation profile. When you roll over the crest of one of these small hills, you can quickly pick up momentum by applying a burst of high cadence. Then, you settle into a low cadence to sustain the momentum into the next little hill.
In that same way, you can smooth out the ups and downs of the pace in a peloton. It can be frustrating to always feel like you’re on the back foot as one rider after the next drops the hammer on the front of the group. And you can waste a lot of energy by closing gaps or responding to attacks. Fortunately, once you refine your Cadence Control, these situations become far less taxing. When you’re cruising in the draft, you use low cadence to maintain momentum, and whenever the pace picks up, you can hit the high cadence to close the gap. As you ease into the draft again, you move back to low cadence.
When you start to do training rides and workouts with the FORM Method, your cadence is just as important to monitor as your power. Every workout should have a specific objective with your cadence, and sticking to that will help you become an expert at Cadence Control.
Even if you aren’t analyzing power and cadence data for hours (like I was), you can tell the difference between a rider like Matt, who is using Execution to get the most out of his available power, and a rider like Jim, who is missing out on a ton of speed and momentum. If you have watched enough bike racing and know what to look for, you’ll see it in their body positions.
I’ve seen that the riders who were unable to perform well despite having a lot of power to work with were falling short in three key scenarios. The first was when a rider needed to maintain high speed and high cadence on a fast, flat section of road or a downhill. They simply couldn’t stay above their Power Floor. The second area where I realized my athletes were falling short due to body position was on climbs where they needed to hold high power and high cadence while standing. The third and final area was sprinting while seated. Most cyclists can fake their way through a standing sprint, but without proper body position, riders fell apart when I asked them to produce high wattage while seated. In these moments, body position can easily give you an extra 20 or 30 watts to work with.
In all of these situations, body position was being hindered by three areas, or Points of Power: hands, hips, and feet. How do you hold the handlebars? Are your arms stiff and straight, perhaps how Frankenstein’s monster might ride a bike? You need to reanimate the arms—get get them bent and responsive instead. Straight-armed cyclists rest with the bars in the palms of their hands. With straight arms, it’s impossible to pull on the bars to generate power, move the bike freely beneath you, or to rock it back and forth while climbing or sprinting.
The biggest problem I see with the second Point of Power, the hips, is that riders do not have enough core strength, or they are not engaging it to drive their pedal stroke. I am a huge proponent of off-the-bike strength work to improve your core, so stay tuned for specific workouts later on. When it comes to body position, one of the biggest mistakes people make is they let their pelvis sit straight up on the bike, like they’re in a chair at their desk in the office. They end up unable to use the upstroke of their pedal stroke, cutting off the glutes, hip flexors, and hamstrings from contributing to their power.
Instead, you should be titling your hips forward and engaging your core muscles. This gives you more power on the downstroke and frees up the rest of your leg muscles to contribute on the pedal upstroke.
The third and final Point of Power is your feet. It might be easy to overlook the feet because, after all, they’re just connecting your legs to the pedals. Your quads are where all the power comes from, right? Although your feet and ankles aren’t necessarily generating the power you need to ride fast, they guide your legs through the entire pedal stroke. Usually, I see two extremes with athletes’ feet, and both hold them back. On one hand, riders who had once been told to “scrape the mud” off their shoes at the bottom of the pedal stroke greatly exaggerate the motion of dropping their heels. They end up not actually engaging their upstroke. On the other hand, some riders keep a perfectly flat foot through the whole pedal stroke. When I see this, I just imagine them on the elliptical machine in their local health club. Instead of pushing their power into the pedals, they’re just supporting their own body weight. In this position, they cannot engage their hip flexors and hamstrings to pull up. They end up wasting half of the pedal stroke this way.
As you might expect, I advocate finding the happy medium between an over exaggerated heel drop and a flat foot. It is a little hard to learn at first, and it can depend on ankle flexibility and cleat placement, but the heel is the key. Looking at the pedal stroke like a dial on a clock, your heel should be down from 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock. Then, it snaps up at the bottom of the stroke and stays up over the top of the clock before dropping again to start the cycle again. Your foot is never really flat when you pedal like this. It won’t come naturally, and you’ll need to practice it, but when you begin engaging all of the other muscles in your legs—hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and calves—you’ll see the difference.
The simplest way to describe Separation is that you are disconnecting your effort from whatever is happening on any given day of riding. Is there a big climb with steep pitches? That’s fine. You have your Power Floor and Power Ceiling, and that’s where you’ll be if anyone needs you. Is the peloton surging and bunching up during the nervous early miles of a race? No problem. You have your plan and you’ll use the other five points on the North Star of Execution to build and maintain your momentum to stay in the bunch—and more importantly, stay in the PTZs you intend to use.
When you look at the power data from a race or group ride, it will be more difficult to see how well you were executing the concept of Separation. Unexpected things happen when you’re in a peloton, so your numbers are bound to fluctuate. When you look at workout data, on the other hand, you’ll learn quickly how to tell the difference between good use of Separation and when your intervals are blending in with your warm-up, rest, and cool down phases.
Clear Separation of PTZ and Effort
The first of the three types of Separation applies to your PTZ and your effort. The biggest mistake that new riders make is they get excited to go out and hammer their intervals and end up going too hard in the warm-up and during the rests between efforts. This kills your progression because you end up wasting the energy you need to put in your best effort during the hardest parts of your workout. There needs to be clear, clean Separation between the different zones you use in any given workout.
Not only will Separation help you be at your best for the most important parts of your workout, it will also reinforce your body’s use of specific fueling sources. As you’ll remember, one of the keys to the FORM Method is developing the ability to shift through your PTZs so that you can strategically use your fuel sources. If you can be precise with your Separation, you can be precise with your body’s fuel consumption, improving your endurance and saving yourself for the most important moments of a race or ride.
If you have ever done a structured workout and then looked at your power graph, you should have an idea of what Separation of PTZ and effort looks like. You can tell when your intervals begin and when they end based on spikes in power. That’s just the beginning. I want you to scrutinize those graphs to see that you are staying within your Power Floors and Ceilings for each effort and rest. Those intervals should look square, not rounded or curved.
Clear Separation of Cadence
As I mentioned earlier, people have a bad tendency to set it and forget it when it comes to pedaling cadence. This is extremely limiting. If you only pedal at low cadence, then you’re likely going to tax your muscular system too much. Pedal only at a high cadence and you’ll rely heavily on your cardiovascular system. And in both cases, depending on the terrain, race dynamics, and speed, you’ll be missing out on the torque you need to build and maintain momentum.
Using the FORM Method, you will get to a point where you select the cadence you want to use at any given point. That decision is completely separate from the steepness of a climb or what the competition is doing. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to cadence, you’ll selectively use high cadence for acceleration bursts to attack or cover attacks on climbs. In a different scenario, during a time trial, you’ll use that same separation to shift into a faster cadence to gain momentum at the top of a rolling hill and low cadence to cruise through a fast downhill with a tailwind.
So, when you look at your workout graph, you should be able to tell immediately what cadence you were switching to during a given interval. Riders who aren’t experienced will have a cadence graph like a heart-rate EKG because it will always be dictated by the terrain or the race dynamics.
I always give my CINCH athletes a specific cadence to work on, depending on whether they’re doing longer climbing intervals or short bursts, or all-day endurance rides. No matter what the effort, you should be able to feel the difference when you’re on the bike after you get used to this system.
Clear Separation of Momentum
This third and final type of Separation is where the magic happens. Separation of momentum is where abstract concepts related to power and cadence translate into real results on the road. If you’ve ever imagined launching a solo attack to win your local race or time trialing faster than you’ve ever gone before, Separation of Momentum turns dreams into reality.
It is a complex concept, but essentially, you will strategically use your skills of Power Separation and Cadence Separation to generate momentum at the most opportune points of a course.
When you look at a graph that combines power, cadence, speed, and terrain, you’ll learn to see those key moments when you build your momentum over the crest of a hill, accelerating in speed, applying your power consistently with higher cadence to produce more torque. This brings you up to speed. Then, if you see the terrain level out, you should see a drop in cadence with more consistent power to keep that momentum without pushing your body beyond its limits.
This is how the best cyclists in the world win races, but up until now, the concept was rarely talked about or examined. Remember those rides where you felt powerless to control your effort, lost in the washing machine of the peloton? Imagine what Separation can do for you.
During the majority of my career as a pro cyclist, my coaches gave me interval workouts that focused on steady efforts. I’d shoot for an average power number on a climb or for a time trial course, and if I could keep raising that number, well then, I was making progress.
Unfortunately, the 200 or so pro riders that showed up to any given race in Europe didn’t care at all how my power numbers were improving. They went right to the front and smashed it. There were plenty of times when I could handle this type of violent race pace, but it was always the worst early in the season. I guess I just needed more “race miles” in my legs, right? Wrong. My training was fundamentally flawed for one key reason: Cycling is not a steady sport.
I’m sure you’ve experienced that kind of out-of-control surging that makes the peloton feel like a Class V river rapid. Up until now, you might have thought you’d always just be along for the ride, but when you reach this point of the FORM Method’s North Star of Execution, you’ll be able to start utilizing Transitional Control to take control and thrive in the unpredictable, very unsteady sport of cycling.
Transitional Control ties together all of the other points on the North Star to give your legs an array of tools like a Swiss Army knife. By changing your PTZ, varying your cadence, adjusting your Body Position, and harnessing Separation, you’ll have Transitional Control at your fingertips, and it will empower you to do three critical things that will lead to success in any cycling event.
First and foremost, Transitional Control is your key to cycling’s most valuable currency, momentum. You’ll gain it when you need it and keep it when you have it. Executing the four other points on the star will lead to more momentum at a lower energy cost, allowing you to ride faster with less power expended and calories spent.
Second, with Transitional Control, you have the ability to control race scenarios. When you see who is with you in a breakaway or a small selection at the end of a hard race, you’ll reach a point where you can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, compare them to the cards you’re holding, and hit them with a move that will put you in the best possible position to win.
Third, when you’re not completely in control of the race scenario, or perhaps you’re riding with a group or category that is a bit faster than you’re used to, you can turn to Transitional Control to respond to race dynamics. You’ll be able to follow surges and accelerations efficiently, without going beyond your capacity. You’ll also be able to find the right combination of power, cadence, and body position for the terrain, even if it isn’t right in your wheelhouse.
The workouts in the Appendix will teach you the basics of Transitional Control. They’ll show you what it’s like to shift gears with PTZ and cadence. At the same time, they’ll be training your physiology to switch between fuel sources and comfortably ride at a variety of cadences. Above all, we won’t be teaching you to ride a steady interval. That would be boring, and cycling is never boring.
Some examples of how we educate and coach you using the Northstar of Execution are:
- How to produce the optimal pedal stroke technique both seated and standing to create the most power.
- How to use body position to control effort, power, and speed on all terrains.
- How to use cadence to accelerate, carry speed, decelerate, and maximize efficiency.
- How to be strategic using zones, cadences, and body positions to optimally use energy on all different terrains and competitive scenarios.
- How to use the concept of surfing the terrain, to create and maintain speed in key places and moments.
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