Fuelling for Cycling Performance

CF
Chris Froome (LaPresse)

Some commentators were skeptical of Team Sky’s explanation for Chris Froome’s 80km tour-winning attack on stage 19 of the Giro. His success was put down to the detailed planning of nutrition throughout the ride, with staff positioned at strategic refuelling points along the entire route.  If you consider how skeletal the riders look after two and a half weeks of relentless competition, along with the limits on what can be physically absorbed between stages, the nutrition story makes a lot of sense. Did Yates, Pinot and Aru dramatically fall by the wayside simply because they ran out of energy?

The best performing cyclists have excellent balancing skills. This includes the ability to match energy intake with energy demand. The pros benefit from teams of support staff monitoring every aspect of their nutrition and performance. However, many serious club-level cyclists pick up fads and snippets of information from social media or the cycling press that lead them to try out all kinds ideas, in an unscientific manner, in the hope of achieving an improvement in performance. Some of these activities have potentially harmful effects on the body.

Competitive riders can become obsessed with losing weight and sticking to extremely tough training schedules, leading to both short-term and long-term energy deficits that are detrimental to both health and performance. One of the physiological consequences can be a reduction in bone density, which is particularly significant for cyclists, who do not benefit from gravitational stress on bones, due to the non-weight-bearing nature of the sport. In a recent paper, colleagues at Durham University and I describe an approach for identifying male cyclists at risk of Relative Energy Deficit in Sport (RED-S).

You need a certain amount of energy simply to maintain normal life processes, but an athlete can force the body into a deficit in two ways: by intentionally or unintentionally restricting energy intake below the level required to meet demand or by increasing training load without a corresponding increase in fuelling.

EnergyBalance

Our bodies have a range of  ways to deal with an energy deficit. For the average, slightly overweight casual cyclist, burning some fat is not a bad thing. However, most competitive cyclists are already very lean, making the physiological consequences of an energy deficit more serious. Changes arise in the endocrine system that controls the body’s hormones. Certain processes can shut down, such as female menstruation, and males can experience a reduction in testosterone. Sex steroids are important for maintaining healthy bones. In our study of 50 male competitive cyclists, the average bone density in the lumbar spine, measured by DXA scan, was significantly below normal. Some relatively young cyclists had the bones of a 70 year old man!

The key variable associated with poor bone health was low energy availability, i.e. male cyclists exhibiting  RED-S. These riders were identified using a questionnaire followed by an interview with a Sports Endocrinologist. The purpose of the interview was to go through the responses in more detail, as most people have a tendency to put a positive spin on their answers. There were two important warning signs.

  • Long-term energy deficit: a prolonged significant weight reduction to achieve “race weight”
  • Short-term energy deficit: one or more fasted rides per week

Among riders with low energy availability, bone density was not so bad for those who had previously engaged in a weight-bearing sport, such as running. For cyclists with adequate energy availability, those with vey low levels of vitamin D had weaker bones. Across the 50 cyclists, most had vitamin D levels below the level of 90 nmol/L recommended for athletes, including some who were taking vitamin D supplements, but clearly not enough. Studies have shown that the advantages of athletes taking vitamin D supplements include better bone health, improved immunity and stronger muscles, so why wouldn’t you?

In terms of performance, British Cycling race category was positively related with a rider’s power to weight ratio, evaluated by 60 minute FTP per kg (FTP60/kg). Out of all the measured variables, including questionnaire responses, blood tests, bone density and body composition, the strongest association with FTP60/kg was the number of weekly training hours. There was no significant relationship between percentage body fat and FTP60/kg. So if you want to improve performance, rather than starving yourself in the hope of losing body fat, you are better off getting on your bike and training with adequate fuelling.

Cyclists using power meters have the advantage of knowing exactly how many calories they have used on every ride. In addition to taking on fuel during the ride, especially when racing, the greatest benefits accrue from having a recovery drink and some food immediately after completing rides of more than one hour.

For those wishing to know more about RED-S, the British Association of Sports and Exercise Medicine has provided a web resource.

A related blog will explore the machine learning and statistical techniques used to analyse the data for this study.

References

Low energy availability assessed by a sport-specific questionnaire and clinical interview indicative of bone health, endocrine profile and cycling performance in competitive male cyclists, BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine,https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000424

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, British Association of Sports and Exercise Medicine

Synergistic interactions of steroid hormones, British Journal of Sports Medicine

Cyclists: Make No Bones About It, British Journal of Sports Medicine

Male Cyclists: bones, body composition, nutrition, performance, British Journal of Sports Medicine

 

Strava Power Curve

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Comparing Historic Power Curves

If you use a power meter on Strava premium, your Power Curve provides an extremely useful way to analyse your rides. In the past, it was necessary to perform all-out efforts, in laboratory conditions, to obtain one or two data points and then try to estimate a curve. But now your power meter records every second of every ride. If you have sustained a number of all-out efforts over different time intervals, your Power Curve can tell you a lot about what kind of rider you are and how your strengths and weaknesses are changing over time.

Strava provides two ways to view your Power Curve: a historical comparison or an analysis of a particular ride. Using the Training drop-down menu, as shown above, you can compare two historic periods. The curves display the maximum power sustained over time intervals from 1 second to the length of your longest ride. The times are plotted on a log scale, so that you can see more detail for the steeper part of the curve. You can select desired time periods and choose between watts or watts/kg.

The example above compares this last six weeks against the year to date. It is satisfying to see that the six week curve is at, or very close to, the year to date high, indicating that I have been hitting new power PBs (personal bests) as the racing season picks up. The deficit in the 20-30 minute range indicates where I should be focussing my training, as this would be typical of a breakaway effort. The steps on the right hand side result from having relatively few very long rides in the sample.

Note how the Power Curve levels off over longer time periods: there was a relatively small drop from my best hour effort of 262 watts to 243 watts for more than two hours. This is consistent with the concept of a Critical Power that can be sustained over a long period. You can make a rough estimate of your Functional Threshold Power by taking 95% of your best 20 minute effort or by using your best 60 minute effort, though the latter is likely to be lower, because your power would tend to vary quite a bit due to hills, wind, drafting etc., unless you did a flat time trial. Your 60 minute normalised power would be better, but Strava does not provide a weighted average/normalised power curve. An accurate current FTP is essential for a correct assessment of your Fitness and Freshness.

Switching the chart to watts/kg gives a profile of what kind of rider you are, as explained in this Training Peaks article. Sprinters can sustain very high power for short intervals, whereas time trial specialists can pump out the watts for long periods. Comparing myself against the performance table, my strengths lie in the 5 minutes to one hour range, with a lousy sprint.

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Single Ride Power Curve versus Historic

The other way to view your Power Curve comes under the analysis of a particular ride. This can be helpful in understanding the character of the ride or for checking that training objectives have been met. The target for the session above was to do 12 reps on a short steep hill. The flat part of the curve out to about 50 seconds represents my best efforts. Ideally, each repetition would have been close to this. Strava has the nice feature of highlighting the part of the course where the performance was achieved, as well as the power and date of the historic best. The hump on the 6-week curve at 1:20 occurred when I raced some club mates up a slightly longer steep hill.

If you want to analyse your Power Curve in more detail, you should try Golden Cheetah. See other blogs on Strava Fitness and Freshness, Strava Ride Statistics or going for a Strava KOM.

 

Strava Ride Statistics

If you ride with a power meter and a heart rate monitor, Strava’s premium subscription will display a number of summary statistics about your ride. These differ from the numbers provided by other software, such as Training Peaks. How do all these numbers relate to each other?

A tale of two scales

Over the years, coaches and academics have developed statistics to summarise the amount of physiological stress induced by different types of endurance exercise. Two similar approaches have gained prominence. Dr Andrew Coggan has registered the names of several measures used by Training Peaks. Dr Phil Skiba has developed as set of metrics used in the literature and by PhysFarm Training Systems. These and other calculations are available on Golden Cheetah‘s excellent free software.

Although it is possible to line up metrics that roughly correspond to each other, the calculations are different and the proponents of each scale emphasise particular nuances that distinguish them. This makes it hard to match up the figures.

Here is an example for a recent hill session. The power trace is highly variable, because the ride involved 12 short sharp climbs.

Metric Coggan TrainingPeaks Skiba Literature Strava
Power equivalent physiological cost of ride Normalised Power 282 xPower 252 Weighted Avg Power 252
Power variability of ride Variability Index 1.57 Variability Index 1.41
Rider’s sustainable power Functional Threshold Power 312 Critical Power 300 FTP 300
Power cost / sustainable power Intensity Factor 0.9 Relative Intensity 0.84 Intensity 0.84
Assessment of intensity and duration of ride Training Stress Score 117 BikeScore 101 Training Load 100
Training Impulse based on heart rate Suffer Score 56

Weighted Average Power

According to Strava, Weighted Average Power takes account of the variability of your power reading during a ride. “It is our best guess at your average power if you rode at the exact same wattage the entire ride.” That sounds an awful lot like Normalized Power, which is described on Training Peaks as “an estimate of the power that you could have maintained for the same physiological “cost” if your power output had been perfectly constant (e.g., as on a stationary cycle ergometer), rather than variable”. But it is apparent from the table above that Strava is calculating Skiba’s xPower.

The calculations of Normalized Power and xPower both smooth the raw power data, raise these observations to the fourth power, take the average over the whole ride and obtain the fourth root to give the answer.

Normalized Power or xPower = (Average(Psmoothed4))1/4

The only difference between the calculations is the way that smoothing accounts for the body’s physiological delay in reacting to rapid changes in pedalling power. Normalized Power uses a 30 second moving average, whereas xPower uses a “25 second exponential average”. According to Skiba, exponential decay is better than Coggan’s linear decay in representing the way the body reacts to changes in effort.

The following chart zooms into part of the hill reps session, showing the raw power output (in blue), moving average smoothing for Normalised Power (in green), exponential smoothing for xPower (in red), with heart rate shown in the background (in grey). Two important observations can be made. Firstly, xPower’s exponential smoothing is more highly correlated with heart rate, so it could be argued that it does indeed correspond more closely with the underlying physiological processes. Secondly, the smoothing used for xPower is less volatile, therefore xPower will always be lower than Normalized Power (because the fourth-power scaling is dominated by the highest observations).

Power

Why do both metrics take the watts and raise them to the fourth power? Coggan states that many of the body’s responses are “curvilinear”. The following chart is a good example, showing the rapid accumulation of blood lactate concentration at high levels of effort.

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Plotting the actual data from a recent test on a log-log scale, I obtained a coefficient of between 3.5 and 4.7, for the relation between lactate level and watts. This suggests that taking the average of smoothed watts raised to the power 4 gives an indication of the average level of lactate in circulation during the ride.

The hill reps ride included multiple bouts of high power, causing repeated accumulation of lactate and other stress related factors. Both the Normalised Power of 282W and xPower of 252W were significantly higher than the straight average power of 179W. The variability index compares each adjusted power against average power, resulting in variability indices of 1.57 and 1.41 respectively. These are very high figures, due to the hilly nature of the session. For a well-paced time trial, the variability index should be close to 1.00.

Sustainable Power

It is important for a serious cyclist to have a good idea of the power that he or she can sustain for a prolonged period. Functional Threshold Power and Critical Power measure slightly different things. The emphasis of FTP is on the maximum power sustainable for one hour, whereas CP is the power theoretically sustainable indefinitely. So CP should be lower than FTP.

Strava allows you to set your Functional Threshold Power under your personal performance settings. The problem is that if Strava’s Weighted Average Power is based on Skiba’s xPower, it would be more consistent to use Critical Power, as I did in the table above. This is important because this figure is used to calculate Intensity and Training Load. If you follow Strava’s suggestion of using FTP, subsequent calculations will underestimate your Training Load,  which, in turn, impacts your Fitness & Freshness curves.

Intensity

The idea of intensity is to measure severity of a ride, taking account of the rider’s individual capabilities.  Intensity is defined as the ratio of the power equivalent physiological cost of the ride relative to your sustainable power. For Coggan, the Intensity Factor is NP/FTP; for Skiba the Relative Intensity is xPower/CP; and for Strava the Intensity is Weighted Average Power/FTP.

Training Load

An overall assessment of a ride needs to take account of the intensity and the duration of a ride. It is helpful to standardise this for an individual rider, by comparing it against a benchmark, such as an all-out one hour effort.

Coggan proposes the Training Stress Score that takes the ratio the work done at Normalised Power, scaled by the Intensity Factor, relative to one hour’s work at FTP. Skiba defines the BikeScore as the ratio the work done at xPower, scaled by the Relative Intensity, relative to one hour’s work at CP. And finally, Strava’s Training Load takes the ratio the work done at Weighted Average Power, scaled by Intensity, relative to one hour’s work at FTP.

Note that for my hill reps ride, the BikeScore of 101, was considerably lower than the TSS of 117. Although my estimated CP is 12W lower than my FTP, xPower was 30W lower than NP. Using my CP as my Strava FTP, Strava’s Training Load is the same as Skiba’s Bike Score (otherwise I’d get 93).

Suffer Score

Strava’s Suffer Score was inspired by Eric Banister’s training-impulse (TRIMP) concept. It is derived from the amount of time spent in each heart rate zone, so it can be calculated for multiple sports. You can set your Strava heart rate zones in your personal settings, or just leave then on default, based on your maximum heart rate.

A non-linear relationship is assumed between effort and heart rate zone. Each minute in Zone 1, Endurance, is worth 12 seconds; Moderate Zone 2 minutes are worth 24 seconds; Zone 3 Tempo minutes are worth 45 seconds; Zone 4 Threshold minutes are worth 100 seconds; and Anaerobic Zone 5 minutes are worth 120 seconds. The Suffer Score is the weighted sum of minutes in each zone.

The next blog will comment on the Fitness & Freshness charts available on Strava Premium.