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The true value of data for cyclists

13 Jan 2022

The numbers that really matter for structured training

Amateur cyclists have never had more performance data at their disposal. Gone are the days when logging your mileage relied on a primitive cycle computer, pen and notebook. Instead, if you have the kit, there is a whole world of different data fields that you can track, record and log digitally for every ride – whether indoors or out. But knowing that you reached a maximum heart rate of 189 or spent 20% of your spin in zone three is pointless unless you use that data to guide your training and have an understanding of how to analyse it to get the most from your time in the saddle.

Fortunately, it doesn’t require a sports science qualification or the services of a coach to get the most out of your data. In fact, a lot of the tools you probably already use can take all of the guesswork out the equation...

How to analyse data to get performance gains

If you record your ride digitally, your eyes are likely to be drawn to the distance and elevation gain of your activity. Once you’ve basked in the glory of laying down some serious mileage or hitting four figures of ascent, it’s time to dig a little deeper and look at your session’s timeline graph. Depending on the sensors used, it could be as primitive as a single line that shows your speed overlaid on top of the elevation, or you could have additional fields like power output, heart rate and pedalling cadence thrown into the mix too.

This is where you can start to piece together the puzzle of your on-bike fitness. There’s likely to be a clear correspondence between elevation and speed, as well as power and heart rate – the harder you’re riding, the harder your heart is having to work to maintain your output. But it’s the lines that don’t follow the same trends that can reveal any weaknesses in your riding. 

Do you struggle to maintain a consistent cadence as soon as the road starts to steepen? It might be an idea to switch to an easier gear when hitting the hills or include some interval sessions in your training schedule if you want to see improvements. Does your heart rate crescendo when trying to hold a consistent power output around your FTP? Over and under drills could be the order of the day.

Go further still and you’ll see your power and heart rate distribution. Again, these can help you spot any weaknesses, but also show you if you might be overdoing it and need to factor in some recovery time. Most training rides (even HIIT ones) will predominantly be spent in zone one and two with some sprinkling of harder work to spur on cardiovascular adaptations and improvements. If the graphs skew to the right though, it’s a sign that your ride was tough, and there’s a risk of overtraining – or not being able to reach the intensity required – if you attempt another session shortly afterwards.

Finally, one of the key things to look out for and analyse is calories burned. A hard ride requires proper refuelling, and not eating and drinking enough after a workout can have a negative impact on recovery.

How to use data to improve your training

Learning how to read the data after the event is as well and good, but it’s the application of your analysis when out on the road or clipped in on the turbo trainer that is going to make each ride more focused, helping you reach your goals with no wasted miles. Previously, this might have involved an encyclopaedic knowledge of your zones, a training plan taped to a top tube and the ability to go hell for leather while keeping an eye on a bike computer. Now, there are tools that can make it as simple as riding a bike.

When used in ERG mode, indoor platform Zwift’s training plans and sessions tailor your turbo trainer’s resistance to a set power output – meaning no matter your cadence or gear choice, you can only max out at the wattage required at that moment during any part of a session. Each workout is also personalised to you and is based on your functional threshold power (FTP). In practise, this allows you to focus solely on pedalling and maintaining a consistent cadence, rather than having to worry about external influences such as other road users, hills or the weather.

This data-led approach to training should prevent you from overdoing it as well. Following a dedicated plan will help you build up your load gradually – preventing you from trying to do too much too soon. There’s also less risk of overexerting yourself within a workout.

Over time, a data-based approach to training will help you spot improvements. It could be something as simple as shaving time off of your PB up a climb, your ability to hold on to the pack in an eRace on Zwift or through better numbers during an FTP test.

A focused data-driven approach

It’s common to feel swamped by the amount of data on offer after each ride, but it’s a fairly easy thing to get your head around – and can lead to improvements in training techniques along the way. Plus, thanks to the likes of Zwift, using your performance stats to guide each session has never been more straightforward.