Posts tagged #building power

Building Power on the Trainer and on the Road


March 7, 2017

Published in Issue No. 752

By Coach John Hughez

Sunday it was 62F (17C) in Boulder, Colorado, and I went for a great endurance ride up to Jamestown, a cluster of 250 homes at 6,926 feet (2,105 m) elevation. Although the weather was warm there was still ice in James Creek.

And, sure enough, Monday's weather was windy, wet and very cold (back down to freezing). Good trainer weather, in other words. This "shoulder season," as winter becomes spring, is perfect for trainer workouts on those days when the weather still won't let you ride outside.

Daylight savings time is just a week away, and spring is officially just two weeks away. The purpose of spring training is to build the endurance that you’ll need for 2017. This is also the time to start introducing power into your workouts. More power is useful whether you commute (that headwind!), do endurance rides (those hills!) or do fast club rides (hammer your buddies)!

As much as you need to, you can start your spring training in earnest on the trainer, while hitting the road on the nice days.

To get the maximum benefit, each workout should have a specific purpose. (Riding for fun is also a good purpose!) Every workout should include at least a 5- to 10-minute warm-up, a main set and then at least a 5-minute cool-down. Here are four examples of main sets to build power. Except for the one-leg pedaling, the workouts can be done on the road or on the trainer.

One-Leg Pedaling

The purpose of this workout is to practice and improve your ability to recruit all of the muscle groups that go into a powerful pedal stroke.

Clip in with your left foot and rest your right foot on a stool, box, etc. Here’s the drill:

  • 30 seconds pedaling with just your left foot
  • 30 seconds pedaling with both feet. Don’t bother to clip in with your right foot — that’ll break the rhythm. Just rest it on the right pedal.
  • 30 seconds left foot
  • 30 seconds both feet
  • 30 seconds left feet
  • 30 seconds both feet

Then switch legs and repeat the sequence. Imagining the following will help you to recruit all of your muscles:

  • Top of the stroke – imagine that you are pushing your knee toward the handlebar or kicking a soccer ball.
  • Down stroke — imagine that you are pushing down toward the floor.
  • Bottom of the stroke — imagine that you are scraping your toe along the floor.
  • Back of the stroke — imagine that you are lifting a weight around your ankle.

If you can easily do three 30-second repeats, then make the repeats longer with the same amounts of time pedaling with one leg and with both legs, e.g., three repeats of 45 seconds one-leg / 45 seconds two-leg.

Every second or third time that you do the workout try to increase by five seconds the duration of all three repeats of both the one-leg and two-leg intervals.

Sweet Spot

The purpose is to increase your sustained power, for example, for climbing a hill.

The harder you ride, the greater the physiological overload. The more you overload your body and then allow sufficient recovery, the fitter you’ll get. This is why hammering is such a great way to build power … only it isn’t!

When you ride harder, you do increase the physiological overload; however, you need even more recovery, both between hard efforts and between hard days. You’ll get more cumulative overload if you don’t ride quite as hard, do much more volume and don’t need as much recovery. This is riding in the Sweet Spotmaximum cumulative overload.

Training in the Sweet Spot is the optimal way to build sustained power (but not peak power.) You can gauge riding in the Sweet Spot by Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE): you’re riding harder than at a conversational pace but aren’t starting to breathe very rapidly. You should still be able to say a word or two but not more. If you’re training with power, the Sweet Spot is 93-97% of Lactate Threshold or 88–94% of FTP.

The workout:

  • Repeat 3 to 6 times [4 minutes in the Sweet Spot and 2 minutes easy]. The easy recovery part by RPE is at a conversational or slower pace, <83% of LT or <75% of FTP.

If you can do 6 reps, then progress to:

  • Repeat 3 to 6 times [5 minutes in the Sweet Spot and 2.5 minutes easy]. The easy recovery interval is always 1/2 the Sweet Spot interval.

Over several workouts build until you can do all 6 repeats, and then progress to:

  • Repeat 3 to 6 times [6 minutes in the Sweet Spot and 3 minutes easy].
  • As you progress, you can add another minute, with rest being half the total time in the Sweet Spot.

Additional Resources:

See my eArticle Intensity 2016: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness. The eArticle provides 10 different sets of workouts for 10 different training objectives. Each set includes 5 to 10 workouts, both structured interval-type workouts and unstructured free-form workouts. Just $4.99; $4.24 for Premium Members!


The purpose is to increase your power by improving the way your nervous system controls your muscles. In other words, you don’t need bigger or stronger muscles, you just need to use the ones you have more effectively!

A muscle is composed of motor units. A motor unit is a muscle fiber and the nerve that controls it. When you pedal, your motor units don’t naturally all fire at exactly the same time, so you’re wasting power. When you sprint, you’re demanding peak power and your body learns to coordinate the firing of all of the motor units. It’s like dialing in the timing on your car engine.

The workout:

  • Shift to a fairly hard gear, e.g., a 53 x 15, and sprint flat out for 30 seconds. If your cadence is under 60 rpm, then use a lower gear so that you’re pedaling 5 to 10 rpms faster than your normal cadence.

If you’re training by RPE your legs are screaming!

If you’re training by heart rate then ignore your HRM during the sprint — the increase in heart rate lags the increase in effort, so your HR won’t get up there until after you’ve sprinted!

If you’re training by power then try to produce the same peak power on all three sprints.

  • Shift back down and pedal until you’re fully recovered — don’t rush it — 10 minutes or more of recovery before the next sprint is fine. By RPE this recovery phase is at a conversational pace, 69 – 83% of LT or 56 – 75% of FTP.
  • Shift back to the hard gear and do another 30-second sprint. Get plenty of recovery.

Then do a third sprint.

As you get fitter you can either increase the duration of the sprints, three by 35 seconds, three by 40 seconds, etc., or decrease the recovery between sprints.

VO2 Max

The purpose is to increase your VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that your working muscles can use. You can increase your VO2 max through long endurance rides — hard to do in the winter — or through very short intense efforts.

Michelle Grainger taught me the workout. This is similar to sprinting; however, you don’t get full recovery between your max efforts.

  • Repeat 3 to 5 times: [20 seconds flat out, 40 seconds very easy and then four minutes tempo pace.] By RPE the tempo pace is the pace at which you can still talk but can’t whistle, 84-94% of LT, 76-90% of FTP.

When you can do five repeats, then decrease the tempo duration:

  • Repeat 3 to 5 times: [20 seconds flat out, 40 seconds very easy and then just three minutes tempo pace.] 

Or you can increase the duration of the max effort:

  • Repeat 3 to 5 times: [30 seconds flat out, 30 seconds very easy and then four minutes tempo.]

How to Maximize Your Benefit

To get maximum benefit, do the same workout, for example Sweet Spot, for several weeks and then switch workouts. The intensity workouts (Sweet Spot, Sprinting and VO2 max) are described in increasing difficulty. So start with several weeks of Sweet Spot.

However, doing the same workout (progressively harder each time) can get pretty boring — I mix them up.

You can do the one-leg pedaling as many as three or four times a week — you could even include it in the warm-up for one of the other workouts.

Because the Sweet Spot, Sprinting and VO2 Max workouts are hard, you should only do them once or twice a week. You should have a recovery day before and after each of these three workouts, and if you’re doing them twice a week, then at least one recovery day between the workouts.

Rollers Help Develop a Smooth Stroke

Also in this issue, Brandon Bilyeu reviews Kinetic's Z rollers. Rollers are another great tool to complement riding the trainer. Riding rollers is the best way to develop a smooth, round pedal stroke. If you are skilled at riding the rollers, you can also use the rollers to do long, steady, higher-intensity workouts like the Sweet Spot workout. However, the sprints and VO2 max workouts are impossible to do on the rollers.

Daylight savings time is just over a week away and spring is officially just over two weeks away. Hopefully, you and I can get on the road soon! The trainer workouts are still very useful workouts to do during the week and on days that don't allow you to ride outside. And except for one-leg pedaling, you can do them on the road as well.


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

Posted on March 9, 2017 and filed under tech tip.