Input vs. Output

While I like to say that my triathlon racing strategy is “Swim, Fly, Run”, in reality it’s quite a bit more complicated, it’s terribly hard to output “fly” quality cycling at a moment’s notice, especially when you’re out there in variable weather conditions on variable road surfaces and most importantly on varied terrain. Unless you’ve got the dough to throw around for a power-measuring widget for your bike you’re stuck measuring an unreliable output: speed. The alternative to measuring output is to measure input, and I think that learning the difference between the two took quite a while for me to really learn. It might actually be the case that I only when started to track outputs (pace) vs. inputs (effort) in the pool, where things are very standardized, that I got to really learn the difference between inputs and outputs on the bike.

So, to introduce, I’ll start by sticking with the input/output comparison in the pool. I’ve learned pretty well how hard I can go for a 25m sprint, a 50m sprint, a 100m sprint, a 200m sprint, a 400m swim, a 750m swim, a 2000m swim and a 4000m swim. The keen observer here will note that along the way I switched from sprint to swim, that’s a mental input. Do I think I’m sprinting or do I think I’m swimming? I also have a pretty good idea of how fast I can go for each one of these efforts… read the other blog posts on swimming if you’re keen to find that out. The result in swimming is that the inputs are tied to the outputs. In basically all circumstances with a few exceptions, really choppy water, really cold water, wearing a wetsuit, etc. I know what effort-input it takes to result in what kind of pace-output.

In cycling the effort levels are generally not tied to the outputs via much of any calculation. For example. I did a 20km TT two weeks ago during training at an average HR of 154bpm (input) and netted an average speed of 40.94 kph (output). The next weekend I did a 40kmTT, and for the sake of comparison, I’ll just compare the halves, also each 20km efforts. I averaged a HR of 173bpm (input) and only netted myself 31.76 kph (output). In the second half. I netted myself 46.01kph (output) for 169bpm (input) during the second half. Now, there’s a few things to note here:

  1. The wind was headwind for the first half and tailwind for the second half, lending to the obvious discrepancy between speeds. The input was similar on both halves of the ride but the output was very different.
  2. The net result of the 40kmTT was a 171 bpm average giving me only ~37.6 kph. Does that seem right? Well, maybe the hills make me work harder and the wind makes me go slower. But really? an extra 15bpm of input and I get a massive 4kph slash in output? Something is wrong… it’s called riding with a flat tyre. Once again, inputs are not tied to outputs.
  3. Both of these inputs come in the thick of training. The resulting output is less than it would be if I were to apply the same input when freshened up. Arguably this is a modification of input levels between heavy training and fresh racing, I’ll accept that, but when the indicators of effort are generally perceived with the exception of heart-rate (which is only an indicative variable), then you’re best to work with the shifting perceptions as your inputs.

All this being said, the point isn’t really so much that I could have been a lot faster in the 40kmTT as it is that how fast you go in a 40kmTT is unfortunately pretty arbitrary. The inputs and outputs in cycling are kinda bunk, but that’s OK so long as you don’t use outputs all the time to train and race. If we go back to the “Swim, Fly, Run” strategy for triathlon, there’s still a matter of how hard you’re flying, and that should be something that’s dependent on distance and the demands of the race. So here’s my breakdown, perhaps you find the markers to be similar, perhaps you find them to be different:

  • Racing cyclocross I often could average 176-178 bpm for a 40-55 minute race. Cyclocross is a rather full-body version of cycling with lots of punchy-climbs out of the saddle and run ups off the bike etc. Doing that kind of HR on the bike when just using legs is more like a 5-10 minute best effort. If I can average above 170bpm while on a bike, I’m likely climbing out of the saddle at a HARD pace or really killing myself on the bike in an interval set, or drilling myself into oblivion in a TT. I usually can get it to spike up to there on almost any given day if I decide I really need to. I basically never can get it above 185bpm, although when doing VO2 testing I have managed to break 200bpm each time I’m on the bike, and have two people yelling in each ear not to quit yet.
  • The following are Triathlon specific intensity zones. What’s appropriate for road racing is generally what it takes to do what you want to do with the peloton. You don’t get to decide, and as such I don’t need to describe.
  • I treat Olympic effort as, mouth open breathing hard, need mental reminders more than every minute to keep the pace up. I also feel like I can taste it when I’m going hard enough. Perhaps this is psychosomatic, it might also be that once the blood lactate level gets up your taste and smell receptors do indeed start to pick up on it. It could also be that you’re breathing out a high concentration of CO2 and somehow you pick that up. In any case, I do use that taste marker as well. When TTing at that kind of effort it’s all upper leg limited strength it seems, and glutes, if I really go hard towards the end of the hour I can get a bit tight in my lower back. Calves always feel like they’re getting a free ride when going this hard. Observed HRs are 160-165bpm.
  • Half Ironman effort is basically where I’m at if I decide to go hard but don’t feed myself those mental reminders every 30seconds to keep pushing the pace. It’s a focused effort, I like to mentally focus on trying to ride as though I’m trying to maintain momentum at this pace. Keep the hard pressure on the pedals so there are no lapses in putting out the good power but I don’t need to be trying to incessantly accelerate. Last summer during my HIM races I made a point of taking note of how I felt at halfway, if I was on schedule with nutrition I gave myself permission to work a bit harder on the second half so long as I didn’t get a sore back. HIM effort for me is an eating threshold: meaning I can put stuff down my esophagus and it gets digested, or at least it definitely doesn’t come back up. I could maybe eat stuff when going at Oly effort if chewing it didn’t disrupt my breathing ability. When at the training camp in Penticton this spring I was often heckled for getting to the top of a climb and starting to peel a banana or open a bar to eat before we went down the other side. They thought I was showing off that I wasn’t going hard, I was just generally hungry. Some people will put their eating threshold down at a lower effort level than this, but this is where mine is. Just like the taste marker I use for Olympic type effort, the eating threshold is a personal preference of mine for Half Ironman effort. It works well for me so I use it. Observed HRs are usually around 150, capped at 155. (20kmTT average HR was 154bpm, came after 90kms into the ride. the output here – although I just told you not to use it – of ~41kph is an approximate Half IM bike pace, and being at the top end of the spectrum it would be a fast one!)
  • Ironman effort. This seems like a full balanced leg effort, upper and lower legs, little to no strain through my lower back. Try to stay relaxed in my oblique abs and disconnect the upper body from the lower body to stay calm. I’d characterize the effort level as what I could chat with someone with one sentence at a time. Not a full discussion. Can close my mouth and breath through my nose if I’m chewing for a while without getting out of breath. Maintaining enough mental focus to keep the pressure on the pedals at all times but devoting mental attention to peripheral details like staying relaxed through my shoulders and upper arms, keeping my head in an aerodynamic position (I basically never ride with my aero helmet on but I often pretend like I am so that when I do put it on it doesn’t go sideways into the wind.) HR 135-140. I can’t climb a hill out of the saddle at this HR. It’s impossible unless I get a triple chainring. If I’m going up a considerable hill the HR comes up, guaranteed into mid 140’s. The physicist in me says it’s OK to work a bit harder on the uphills than on the flats. The extra effort is more favorably being translated into moving me forward faster rather than pushing air harder, so the return on investment is favorable.
  • Long ride average HRs wind up around 115-130bpm. 130bpm only if I’m by myself and not sucking a draft at all. Minimum HRs while riding my bike (should probably call it sitting on my bike and turning pedals… hardly call it riding) is 100bpm. I’ve scored a couple rides below 100bpm this year already, they’re not useless, they’re enjoyable, and when the primary goal is to have fun I find it ridiculous to say that I shouldn’t do them.

There’s 5 inputs here, and that’s enough for triathlon in my opinion. There are a couple more input levels necessary to race well at cyclocross and race well in road racing, both of them are on the top end, they’re needed to train for the start in ‘cross, mashing gears to climb the barely climbable, running the sandpit, and for periods of the road race where a selection is being made. None of these things happen in a traditional non drafting on the road triathlon, and aren’t so necessary to distinguish, not that they don’t happen during training, for example on group rides, but they are used sparingly.

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