Once a bike racer … Part 2, Interview with Andy Coggan, Ph.D.

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with Andy Coggan, father of the infamous phrase “Functional Threshold Power” and creator of the diabolical training levels associated therewith. We spoke about his athletic background and followed it up with a later discussion about training with power. His book, co-authored with Hunter Allen and Steve McGregor, remains the classic text on training with a power meter.

Seth Davidson: Let’s talk about training with power. Does it make sense to divide its application into groups such as casual riders, sport/competitors, and professionals? Or is the application the same for everyone?

Andy Coggan: It’s not the same for everybody but it’s more dependent on your orientation towards numbers. Even at the pro level there are cyclists who don’t want to dive into the data heavily and just turn it over to the coach. And you’ll find busy people who aren’t racing and don’t have enough time to train but are fascinated by numbers.

Seth Davidson: Are there any people who you would recommend not to train with power?

Andy Coggan: If I were a coach I would be sensitive to how an athlete perceives it. Part of it is a matter of presentation. I went for a run with a friend who was checking his watch at every mile marker, “Just for information, not for concern,” he said. There are people who think everything is a time trial. Way back I used to refer to the power meter as a cruel mistress indeed. You’re trying so hard and something is flashing on your bars saying, “You suck.” If you have an athlete who can’t take the periodic negative feedback and not cut himself slack, I can see how that would be detrimental to them. I know that some have argued that beginning riders should not train with power, that they should pay attention to their sensations, but I don’t believe that, because there is the objective measurement of your actual power output and your perception of how that is, and the two go together. Charles Howe used to say, “Power calibrates perceived exertion, perceived exertion modulates power.” You know what 200 watts feels like if you’ve trained with power. On the days when there’s a big discrepancy between how it feels and what the actual output is, that’s a sign there’s something wrong. Same if it’s a no-chain day, time to go for the win … or check the zero offset to your power meter! I don’t think that the data works against perceived effort. They’d never say that in another sport, like running, “Don’t call out their splits so they can appreciate the effort!” How would they know the effort without the splits? For most people it’s innate, we have a central nervous system to tell us how we’re doing, the power meter calibrates that.

Seth Davidson: What can training with power NOT do?

Andy Coggan: Chris Mayhew’s great line comes to mind. “It’s a power meter, it’s not a bolt-on motor.” This was before e-bikes, of course! You still have to train and it depends on your talent. I’d develop racers into three camps. Those who fairly quickly figure out how to properly prepare themselves for races and what tactics work for them. There’s another group at the opposite end, they’re clueless. They’re out there flailing away, having fun, they have no real in-depth understanding of how best to train themselves. They jump from one training program to another always looking for the next magic bullet. The people in between those two groups figure it out eventually but it takes longer than the first group. Those are the people that a power meter is most helpful for. You train a certain way, and then look at the results, it’s working or it’s not. You use a tactic and find out that you bit off more than you can chew and you adapt from there. Access to power meter data doesn’t make the fastest faster but it helps more people get fast. And this evolutionary pressure rises all boats, now there are three times as many people competing at your level. It does drive performance higher by widening the base.

Seth Davidson: What is the application for this middle group of riders?

Andy Coggan: Per Jim Martin, having access to data informs your decision making in so many ways. You know how track coaches will practice standing starts by having you do a couple of starts, then send you off to change to a bigger gear, do a couple more, go off and change to a bigger gear, etc.? Sounds good but in fact that particular method is meaningless. I gave a track webinar for power data and track racing, and the power data shows that with standing starts a maximal effort is a maximal effort and it doesn’t matter what gear you start in. If you have the data and are imaginative about how to use it there are multiple ways to leverage that information to have better workouts. I made a list of the top ten things I learned from using a power meter: The top three were Specificity, Specificity!, SPECIFICITY. Learning how specific the adaptations to training might be, that was the thing and it wasn’t hammered home until I could measure the output. Also I learned that I need to rest more. I discovered a successful approach to crits and road racing due to having access to power data.

Seth Davidson: How did you come up with “functional threshold power” a/k/a FTP as an anchor point?

Andy Coggan: Most people have heard of lactate threshold, a non-invasive indicator of muscular metabolic strain. There’s nothing magic about any point, it’s a non-linear increase, but we like to treat it as a point where lactate goes up. As you go over that intensity, lactate will accumulate and then level off. Ultimately there is a metabolic steady state at which you can maintain homeostasis for prolonged periods of time. Go a little bit harder and things spin out of control quite quickly. If you’re a trained cyclist the power output that corresponds to metabolic steady state is something that you can maintain for about 50 minutes. That’s about how long it takes to race a 40km TT, so quite pragmatically if you want to estimate your steady state power that becomes an anchor point for calculating training stress score. I came upon this based on my experience as a cyclist and training as an exercise physiologist. We were doing studies with trained cyclists and trying to answer the core question of what makes someone good. Historically VO2 max was the measure of an athlete but in the 1970s it was realized that muscular metabolic fitness was a more important determinant of endurance performance than VO2 max. VO2 max sets the upper limit for aerobic ATP production, but that’s only a few minutes at a time. Most endurance events are at some fraction of that maximal uptake which is dependent on our muscular metabolic fitness. The history is from when Tom Walters was at UT and a cyclist in the lab; we got fourteen cyclists all with the same VO2 max and different lactate thresholds. The performance test was “go as long as you can at 88% of your max.” The time to fatigue was a six-fold range. One guy made 15 minutes, I made 75 minutes. I was in Trexlertown in Fall of 2000 using a beta PowerTap, and heard a guy talking about power, John Verheul, telling someone that he wanted to be on the forefront of converting heartrate training zones into power-based training zones. I was driving home thinking, “You know, there is a power vacuum here. New tools are available and there is little information how to use them. Readily available public knowledge? There was little. And I said, “Why not me?” and decided to develop physiological power training levels. Then I went back to my physiological training and constructed the training levels around the 40km TT. The irony is that scientific literature, twenty years later, is trying to compare FTP against other things. Of course FTP existed before I ever named it. We all know what that limit is, it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it. I can’t define FTP but I know it when I feel it.

Seth Davidson: Recent researchers claim that FTP isn’t deep enough, for example it fails to account for wind drag. What do you think of having a more detailed profile than FTP for training with power?

Andy Coggan: Power is power, who cares about aero drag? It doesn’t matter, the day to day variability is a few percent. All training levels are arbitrary, do you need it determined to the nth degree when the athlete’s ability to execute and benefit from such a fine-grained determination is nonexistent? Related to that, training with power is different from training by power. Training by power isn’t appropriate. Power output is not constant riding or racing and if you’re fixated on trying to overly constrain your power output it’s less and less like racing. So I use training “with” power, not training “by” power. Many mistakenly believe that lab testing is the gold standard and field data is a poor man’s substitute. I believe the opposite. The best predictor of performance is performance itself.

Seth Davidson: Has training with power changed bike racing?

Andy Coggan: Aside from potentially making more people fast and therefore making it even more competitive, you do see people who complain about power meters and race radios because they take away the panache, I don’t know if that’s true or not and it’s subjective anyway. It would have the potential on a long climb, and you get attacked and you believe you’re better and you think their output is not sustainable, you might have the confidence to let them go and hope they blow up. At the end of the day I’m the competitive rider, and if people have algorithms to estimate how many matches you have remaining, in real time, I wonder if there’s any actionable intelligence in that? You still have to get up to the break. If you’re like me with a monstrous ego there’s nothing the power meter could say that would shake my confidence so I might as well have the data. If you can’t sprint it makes life simple. Who cares what the power meter says? There’s the break, you’re either going to reel it in or quit. I’m not going to quit just because the power meter says I suck.

Seth Davidson: How much does it cost to train with power, realistically, for a sport rider who takes fitness and competition seriously?

Andy Coggan: I don’t really know. It’s got to be $500? People will buy a left-leg only PM because it’s inexpensive and you get your left leg power x2 under the assumption that you’re symmetrical. However, asymmetry in human movement is the norm. A lot of knowledge and tools have been proposed so how do you get on top of it to use your own data to your best advantage? Some people are good at self-education, some aren’t. The  convenience of having everything all in one place was the motivation for our book [Training with a Power Meter]. Coaches are helpful but there is plenty of free reading material all over the web. I went my own way. How much you get out is how much you put in. You shouldn’t be intimidated by it. The first thing after getting a power meter is not to change anything, ride for two weeks or a month to get a variety of your normal riding in and then start looking at the data and see if you can learn anything about yourself that is useful. If you want to speed up the process you can buy a book or hire a coach. But a coach can look at objective data in a data file but can’t know what the athlete was feeling. So there definitely is value in self-analysis as opposed to outsourcing it entirely.

Seth Davidson: People used to joke that wattage didn’t mean anything for bike racing. If it did, all we’d have to do was pin up our numbers at the start and collect the prize money. Is that the essence of racing now? What do you think about that?

Andy Coggan: There is the white hot crucible of competition. If you can improve performance by one percent it increases an athlete’s odds of making the podium at the Olympics by a factor of five. It illustrates how tight things are competitively. Let’s say I knew everyone’s power output and aero drag, and other factors, I could probably predict their TT within a few percent. But that few percent would totally jumble the finishing order. If you beat someone by 15 seconds in a TT you might beat them later, but 30 seconds? Someone’s going to need to get a divorce or quit their job. But in a mass start event power output won’t tell you who’s going to finish where. They don’t do stage races in distance running, the longest race is only about two hours. Why? It comes down to drafting. Because you can draft on a bike you can’t tell who’s the best in just a few hours because the next day the results could be different. So you need longer and longer races, day after day, and after 28 days the stronger emerges.

Seth Davidson: What is the interplay between your research and training with power?

Andy Coggan: None whatsoever. My research is NIH-funded, unrelated to sports. My research has been aging-related.

Seth Davidson: What is training with power going to look like in ten years?

Andy Coggan: There was a power vacuum that I attempted to fill. Hunter Allen has been a proseletizer about power meter training. A lot of my ideas have been used by others but not supplanted. They may be in the future, there are cycles in scientific research as well, 20-30 years go by and people revisit the issues because technology advances. We don’t respect our elders and the younger generation comes along to prove us wrong and that may happen. Just for fun: “The way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” per Linus Pauling, the only guy to win two Nobel prizes. You never run out of ideas.

Seth Davidson: Do you think that the more we rely on data to define our activities, the less enjoyable they become to participate in or to spectate?

Andy Coggan: It comes back to your personality. If my wife’s Garmin watch battery runs down in the middle of a run we joke that, “If you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen.” I still record every workout but don’t analyze it. I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t measure, but do I get pleasure out of logging it? In ten years a lot of this, it may be that our solutions have no practical merit, but the act of thinking about it is pleasurable. The tools I’ve proposed are too complicated for the average person, so if the goal were to have the biggest impact on the greatest number of people, as opposed to selling niche software to geeks that like to crunch numbers and write their own software.

Seth Davidson: You said in a podcast that in retrospect you wish that training with power had been more of a “black box.” What did you mean?

Andy Coggan: You think about having larger databases and treating the individual less as an individual which is not ideal. In medicine we rely on multi-center trials that your doctor is hopefully up to speed with but nonetheless treats you as an individual for dosing, etc. It hard to automate and explain the process of that ideal. Reaching the most people and having good, not necessarily the best results, simplifying it, your name/age/weight/goals, absorbing data and spitting out the next workout never tells you how you got there, requires no knowledge or input on your part. That’s an extreme description but power training needs to be simplified, i.e. take away choices from the users that they don’t even know are being made.

Seth Davidson: Jeff Fields was at the Olympic Training Center one year and Eddie B. was discussing data from the ergometer and how they used it to select athletes. Jeff raised his hand and said, “Yeah, but your ergometer can’t measure desire.” What do you think about that quote?

Andy Coggan: He’s right. If you can’t predict the outcome of a race based on the power people can generate, then you can’t predict it on physiological markers that indicate that power. Having a sufficiently high VO2 max is a necessary but not sufficient condition for elite athletic performance. Sounds so wise but even that is double speak. How high is sufficiently high? What is elite? There are many people walking around who if you measured their physiological capabilities are potential pros and champions but only a limited number become professional or champions. Some could be desire, error in measurement, circumstance. You can’t rely on physiological data anymore anyway for athletic selection. Nor can you rely on power data.

Seth Davidson: Thanks very much for speaking with me.

Andy Coggan: You’re welcome.

END


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