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Despite taking up cycling at the tender age of 13 (30 years ago!) and doing numerous types of racing over the years, I’ve never actually done anything that resembled structured training in any way. The closest thing I’ve done is go out attacking local Strava hill segments for a summer on the run up to the 2014 Hill Climb season. So, with an Italian Gran Fondo in the diary for early March as a target I thought it was a great opportunity to hook up with a coach and see what gains can be made from a more structured approach. Spoiler alert, it helps, a lot.

The target

BL (Ben Lowe): All training needs a target so when my brother got in touch late last year asking if I’d join him at the 2017 Gran Fondo Strade Bianche the seeds were sown for hopefully getting fit enough to keep up with him. After riding it last year (coming 32nd overall) he declared it the best event he’s ever done, and he’s done a fair few, so it’s definitely one for everyone’s tick-list.
The Gran Fondo (presented by Trek with Sportful providing the official event jersey) follows the same course as the women’s professional race including all of the white road sections but fortunately has fairly manageable statics of 127 km and 1350 m of climbing. Now the goal was set, time to get a coach!

The Coach

PD: Hi, I’m Philipp Diegner – Sport Scientist, cycling coach and writer on everything concerning endurance training. Specialised in individualised training for various cycling disciplines and performance analysis. Working with various Cat1/Elite riders and ambitious sportive competitors. For amateur riders that want to take it to the next level over the winter or even during the season, I put a strong emphasis on quality interval work, ideally on an indoor trainer to increase efficiency of the training. Head over to my twitter account @Pdiegner for performance analysis of professional road racing in cooperation with VeloViewer – compare yourself to the pros!

The Coaching

PD: We had three and a half months to get Ben in top shape for Strade Bianche. When he started the structured training mid-November, Ben’s FTP was around a respectable 320W.  Our goal at that point was to improve his overall performance first – a combination of his endurance and his threshold power (FTP) – to allow him to work harder for longer. As Ben has around 8-12 hours to train we passed on a real base training phase and started right away with mixed training blocks including at least two intense sessions per week. Ben has been doing lots of Sweetspot intervals (15-40min) and shorter efforts around his threshold to stimulate adaptation.

Over the course of 2 ½ months Ben has increased his FTP by a significant amount –to more than 340W now. A lot of Ben’s quality sessions have been performed on a Wahoo KickR with Zwift using the integrated ERG mode to set fixed wattages to ride at. By controlling the power output via the trainer’s resistance, interval workouts can be completed very close to the planned intensities. Ideally, you maximise the intended effect compared to outdoor rides – as proven by the rapid progress. Another contributing factor are Zwift races that provide a particularly intense stimulus that usually can’t be simulated outside at all outside of actual races. With Strade Bianchi about 4 weeks away, we will continuously increase the intensity, adding shorter intervals at 105-120% of Ben’s FTP. These VO2max efforts mimic the short, steep climbs of the race and will allow him to raise his performance level to an even higher level.

Thoughts so far

BL: The number 1 benefit I’ve experienced in having Philipp coaching me is I actually do all of the workouts as it feels like I’m being assigned homework and if I don’t hand it in I’ll get into trouble! With everything being logged automatically and uploading straight to Today’s Plan there is no easy way to lie about what I have, or more importantly, haven’t done. Using the ERG mode on the smart trainer also forces me to do what has been prescribed, I can stick it in a single gear and just concentrate on holding the correct cadence for the duration using Netflix and Podcasts to distract me from the hurt.

My wife compares me to a greyhound: capable of some fairly decent athletic performances but much happier just lazing around all day so more than half the battle is just getting sat on the trainer in the first place! Early on I certainly felt a fair bit of fatigue in the legs but they are much more used to the repeated workouts now and the largest reason for struggling on a session is from not getting enough sleep the night before.

Finding the time around work and family life is quite a challenge and I’ve had to miss a couple of sessions but Philipp will shuffle around the schedule so my progress doesn’t suffer.

Considering we’re only at the beginning of February my FTP is already higher than my previous high point from the summer of 2014 so I’m really impressed by what is possible with only a very limited amount of time on the bike per week.  My next FTP test is set for this coming weekend so I’m excited to see if I’ve continued to progress. It would be nice to try and get it up to 350W but that will mean averaging 370W for the 20 minutes (FTP = 0.95 x avg Watts over 20 minutes) which makes me a bit nauseous just thinking about it!

Read all about how you can find your FTP using VeloViewer from your Strava data here.

Technical choices

BL: As Philipp mentioned, the majority of my structured training has been done indoors on the Kickr using ERG mode in Zwift (which can only use the Kickr as the power source for the ERG at present, not an external power meter). Philipp sets up all the workouts in Today’s Plan which can export to numerous formats including Zwift’s workout so it is very easy to bring them into Zwift and get straight into the session with no faffing.

Initially I had a few issues with the Kickr outputting far too high power values compared to my Stages and Vector power meters (up to 25% more) but it was resolved after a short exchange with Wahoo support, now it tends to be 10-15W lower than the Vectors when in the 300-400W range when warmed up. This does mean that I’m putting out slightly more Watts than I should during the ERG sessions (up to 40W more for the first few minutes) but I can live with that, most of the time.

For the Zwift races and max efforts (e.g. FTP tests) I’ve used the Vectors as the power source with the Kickr just providing the variable resistance.

I’ve also got my old Ultegra Stages on my winter bike and treated my new MTB to a Stages so I’ve done a few 8 minute interval sessions on those bikes too to get a bit of fresh air. It has been really interesting seeing how high the power values are on the technical MTB climbs around here.

The only thing that I’ve missed is having the ability to use my Vectors as the power source for Zwift ERG sessions. The Wahoo app is supposed to be able to do that when using their workout mode but it hasn’t worked for me. I’ve also used iMobileIntervals a couple of times but as far as I know this has the same limitation as Zwift in that you can only use the smart trainers power values for ERG session.

A big thanks to Philipp for providing me with the coaching and to Sportful for sorting me out with a VIP entry into the event so I can start near my brother at the front rather than 3000 people back (fingers crossed)!

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