The world of training and physical conditioning is a complicated array of acronyms, numbers and tech nerdery that many of us struggle to understand, let alone use—at least to its full potential. Add to this that among the mountain bikers out there, many are vocal about focusing on riding and having a good time, and I don’t blame you one bit. I mean, who wants to worry about interval this and heart rate that on every damn ride? It’s enough to make your head spin and it can certainly take away from the fun of riding your bike.
However, that’s not the case for everyone, and for the number of riders vocal of not worrying about all of the fitness jargon there’s at least an equal amount out there that love nothing more than putting themselves squarely in the hurt locker and grinding their knees to a pulp.
Personally, after having spent a number of years chasing intervals and “zones” up, down, and around the trail network of Squamish, I was done. Completely, utterly, done. I was so over it in the end that my desire to ride for a little while was nil. After this, I made it all about the “jib-bike”, in an effort to get back to the fun side of things, which progressed to playing as much as possible when on the trail bike. For a couple of years now this has been the goal for a ride. Stopping to session fun/tricky parts of trail, jib some stupid rock, or call “challenge” on a climb when something strikes interest. You know, having a good time, still riding lots, and keeping things light-hearted, rather than focusing on hurting.
Enter the Trans B.C.
Regardless of this being what gets me excited when riding, getting ready for a large event like the Trans B.C. can require some proper preparation if enjoying the time at the event is at all on the radar. For those unaware, the Trans B.C. is a five-day enduro stage race throughout the Interior of British Columbia. The race will average 30km+ and 1,000m+ of climbing each day, which definitely adds up. The Interior is home to some rugged terrain, with steep climbs and descents, and average summer temperatures of 25º C (77º F). After spending a week riding in Rossland last year, one of the towns that hosted the event in 2016, I knew that riding day in, day out as prep wasn’t going to be enough to get me in shape for the event.
With this thought in mind, a couple of months ago I set myself the task of preparing to make it through the event while also making sure that riding remained fun. The goal is the same for the event too—I don't care about results, but having a good time each day and not feeling completely destroyed each morning is key. In the past, I worked solely with HR, but I did do my tests with my coach, Monika Marx, on her stationary bikes which include power. The testing process for me is a constant battle of “kill me now” and wanting to do well, but the benefits of knowing what you’re capable of are important in order to know where to begin—I understand that. It just isn’t my idea of a good time.
Leading into preparing for the Trans B.C., I wondered if something different could be done, and with power being more accessible to the Average Joe today than it was years ago, it seemed like a natural progression to check it out. Would it make training more fun? Unlikely, but maybe, just maybe, it would give me a better picture leading up to the event?Enter Stages
Stages launched their Dash hardware and Link software
earlier this year, claiming that the average rider can plug in their goal and use the software to prepare. It’s not required to use their dash unit, given that it works with any ANT+ and Bluetooth enabled device, but it is what I am using at the moment. It also is not necessary to have a power meter, but obviously the system is optimized to work with one.
The setup process can take some time, but they do include the option to "add this later" and for some items like your FTP, first-time power users won't have anything, so that is pretty helpful.
Stages Link login page
Link will ask for your basic details when signing up for the first time—things like name, email, where you are based.
Then it will ask if you have a power meter to register. Note: You don't have to have a meter to use the Links software.
If you do have a Stages device, you can get two months of their premium plan. Entering the device serial number here will give you the premium access, which includes unlimited plans, curated data analytics, access to the workout library and workout generator.
Then plug in your details including weight and whether you will be using a heart rate monitor or power, or both.
Stages Link will then recommend some programs based on your initial data. This and a lot of the information during the setup process can be updated from within your account.
From here preparing for the event or goal of any individual can begin. The first step is to work out Functional Threshold Power, and while the Link software can calculate an average for you based on some of your information, the results will be better if the test is done. This test involves a 20-minute hard effort, the hardest that you can sustain for the time period, from which you then take your average watts and heart rate from. These averages are then used to calculate individual zones and aid in training to get fitter.
Once all of the above is done it's time to get out on the bike. When viewing the Links software (on a computer) there are recommendations for the sort of terrain that would work best for the ride, as well as a pretty detailed rundown on what to expect while out riding. Some of this is available on the Dash unit when starting a training ride, but I found that it's not as easy to read.
The Stages Dash has a lot of default options and can be highly customized with the information that you wish to see. With the main purpose of the Dash being to prepare me for the Trans B.C., I used one of the default screens that allow me to have the target watts and cadence shown on the screen while riding. This makes it super easy to follow along, with the Dash unit showing the current outputs and the goals that should be met for a given interval (time period). The intervals can finish automatically or manually by pushing the "lap" button (lower left of the Dash) and personally, I found with mountain biking in this part of the world, and still riding with friends too, it was easier to manually finish an interval.
The Stages dashboard device
For some, this could all be a little confusing, but the goal for Stages is that users will get a program to follow, and if followed well, will get stronger and be in better shape by the time their event or goal arrives. For some events, there are already plans established in the software and with Stages being a partner of the Trans B.C., the Link software already knew what was up. All entrants to the Trans B.C. also gained complimentary premium access to the Link software as well (for a limited time). After all the necessary details were submitted, Link spat out a six-week program and I’ve since been following that in preparation for what will be five hard, but no doubt fun days on the bike.
Full disclaimer: I’ve not been the perfect student. The first week of the program I was laid up, sick as a dog. The following week I was covering other media squid duties in New Jersey, so as it stands I’m coming up on four weeks of training. From speaking with my past coach, Monika Marx, and the Stages team, 6–8 weeks is the minimum to begin to really see tangible effects from training. If you are planning on training for an event, start as early as possible. If there is a week off due to illness, the Links software can adapt for that and shuffle things around. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an option for me.
The training calendar. Green means the ride was as scheduled, red is from riding for too long.
The good news is that after chatting with Stages own on-staff coach, Benjamin Sharp, it appears that I am on track for the event, but I had no idea without asking. The Stages Link software was built with the intention of covering the widest gamut of training knowledge possible—from complete novice to world class athlete, Stages have done their best to create a software that is accessible and usable by all who want it. The downside is that in its current state, it doesn’t differentiate between a user's knowledge level, which would be one suggestion that I have. For those that don’t have the time to study up from the outset, or even the desire to know all of the intricacies, a simplified version with less information and numbers would be a big asset, giving riders the option to better understand their current situation with only the relevant or desired details for them to view.
With that said, there are help topics available. Below are some basics from questions with Stages on-staff coach, Ben Sharp, and the help topics on the site:
1. FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is claimed as the most important power metric to monitor. What is FTP?
• FTP is the most common and most important because it is the root of your zones… but it would be short-sighted to only look at FTP, especially for someone preparing for an enduro event. With this format of racing, riders will never make use of their true FTP value (as hard as you can go for an hour). Rather you use the FTP to then break down and train for the more commonly seen 30-second to 5min efforts that are needed to train for enduro. Different events have different demands. Yes, a high FTP will be beneficial to most cycling athletes but, training that addresses the specific requirements for success in your event is also important.
• For the vast majority of athletes that the Stages teamwork with this is the cornerstone measurement for an event. Though Ben does note that for enduro racing it’s difficult to quantify this for each individual athlete. Focus seems to be more on the longer endurance side of the value.
• High FTP allows an athlete to better recharge their battery. Multiple short bursts (like seen in enduro) are continually discharging that and a higher aerobic level will allow the athlete to better recharge and keep the power going for longer.
2. What is a “T-score” and how does being above or below the predicted score for a given week of training affect preparation for an event?
• T-score is a value assigned to a workout based on the intensity (relative to your FTP) and duration. If you change the intensity of a ride, your subsequent T-score will change. By the same token, if you ride for longer or shorter, your T-score will be affected. It’s possible to do a medium to high-intensity training ride for 1.5 hours and rack up a T-score of 120. You could also do a low to moderate intensity training ride of three hours and also net a T-score of 120.
• The generated plans in Link rely on a set total T-score for each week to build your fitness level. To achieve these T-score totals, the generator has to add a combination of intensity and time. Less time means more intensity, but one can only fit so much intensity into each workout and in these cases, the time may slightly be extended
3. What is ATL (Acute Training Load) and how does it relate to the above, and my FTP?
• Your ATL is a short term daily average of your T-score. This total represents the sum of your recent workouts from which you are likely still suffering residual fatigue.
• Coach Ben refers to ATL as our fatigue.
• ATL is usually calculated over a two week period. It’s an average of your T-score over these two weeks. By default, the Link software is setup to calculate ATL as a one-week T-score average. More advanced users can easily update this to the regularly measured two-week interval.
• The intensity portion of the T-score calculation is based on intensity relative to FTP. Then the daily T-score value is averaged over 7 (default) and 42 days to calculate ATL and CTL respectively.
4. What is CTL (Chronic Training Load) and how does it work with the rest of these numbers?
• CTL is our fitness—historically how much training an individual has done. Basically, our training over the last six weeks averaged out. It’s taken from our T-Score.
• Stages feel that it’s a good idea to average over a 70 T-Score leading into an event. However, going into a multi-day event (like the Trans B.C.), in the most basic terms, you want to have the highest possible CTL (fitness) with the caveat being that you want to enter the event with a balanced or more likely positive TSB. Coach Ben notes that you would not want to sacrifice a positive TSB in the name of training a few extra days (during your taper) to keep driving your CTL up. Entering a multi-day race like this fatigued is not a good idea.
5. What does TSB (Training Stress Balance) mean for my training if it’s in the negative?
• TSB is the subtraction of your ATL (Acute Training Load) value from your CTL (Chronic Training Load) value. This means if you’re training for a week comprised of much higher average T-scores than your training over the last several weeks, your TSB will be negative, indicating that a rider’s form may be suffering and that they’re fatiguing, however, it’s also building fitness. “To get better, sometimes you have to get worse.”
• A negative number means that the individual is more fatigued. Stages note that in preparation for an event athletes will have negative form. (As I am seeing currently). Leading up to the final steps to the event the training will taper and do less training volume and duration in order to bring the TSB up to positive.
• Being in the negative is normal and Stages say what we want in order to get better/fitter in order to prepare the body for the event. Once we recover (the taper leading into the event) we will be fitter for the event.
It’s a lot, huh? What does it all mean for me as I prepare for the Trans B.C.? Well, I feel quite good on the bike, but I have yet to do another test and see where my numbers are. It’s hard to say how much of it is a direct result of the training provided because I’ve generally just been riding a lot too, which always makes you feel better. However, at the very least it’s peace of mind knowing that I’m riding with some structure that is aimed at preparing me for the event. Knowing my fatigue level (TSB) is quite interesting too, and approaching the event I will be looking to get that back to level, or even positive.
To really see if I am ‘fitter’, another FTP test is necessary, but going into the final week of preparation now is not the time to do this. Also, as mentioned above, the next week is about tapering, as per the program, to make sure I'm not fatigued from the preparation so far. For those interested, here are my numbers as of the time of writing (June 26).
• FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is 316
• T-score is 431
• ATL (Acute Training Load) is currently listed at 61.22
• CTL is currently 44.75
• TSB (Training Stress Balance) is -16.46
Chatting with Stages' Coach, Ben Sharp, he’s confident that I am in fact ready to go and based on the riding that I do, he feels that the numbers may be a little lower than actual, stating that these are only for the last six weeks and don’t take in the history of riding prior to starting the program. It’s nice to hear, but I still feel that every day is going to hurt at this point. Time will tell, and I will report back after the event with how things went, and some follow up numbers after some recovery and another test.