How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains

by | Jan 23, 2023 | Training "How To's", Training

Coach John Wakefield goes in depth and explains step by step how to analyse cycling training data to ensure you can grow as an athlete.

Bon dia people of WILD AIR!!

I need to start this article off by saying yes, it’s late, yes, I have gotten into trouble numerous times and let’s hope this isn’t my last article before being fired so I will try to make it a cracker to save face here. 

In my poor defence, I have changed teams from UAE Team Emirates to Team BORA-Hansgrohe and I have been trying to find my feet and stop putting toothpaste on my hairbrush in the morning. 

So getting into it, with the “new year and new me” phrases all over Instagram and what everyone is grateful for (or however that trend went), a genuinely good way to improve as a coach or an athlete is to be able to look at your training data and understand what is going on. How you analyse the training data and use it to make sure the training (prescription) ahead is going to create a stimulus is what nurtures real growth and ultimately makes you get faster and stronger, in layman’s terms.

Let’s get stuck in shall we??

Why we analyse cycling training sessions

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
why?

We analyse training data in order to track progression over time and modify or improve an athlete’s or your own performance while taking additional variables like fatigue into account when prescribing training. 3 key points here would be:

  1. Monitor progression 
  2. Training prescription
  3. Longitudinal analysis

Software tools used for cycling training analysis

While there are many different options available to analyse training and how it is done, using a good software system helps make it a lot easier for you to track the metrics you will eventually use.

The 2 most common and available software systems I believe are Training Peaks (WK05) and Golden Cheetah. These systems are external software systems. While Training Peaks online has a Premier option when you upgrade and does show a lot more metrics, this is still limited when you want to really delve deeper into your data. 

Cycling Training Analysis Tools
Cycling training analysis tools: Training Peaks and Golden Cheetah


WK05 for example allows you to have more metrics than the online, it has Nm of torque metric where the online does not for example.

Each of these software systems allow for you to create a personal landing page and additionally allows you to create analysis pages for certain sessions. Below are examples of a landing page that opens when I open the software system. As reference I use WK05 for my analysis, it does take time to set up and is not as user friendly as Golden Cheetah at 1st.

Training Peaks Is An Analysis Tool For Cycling Training Data

Here is an example of Golden Cheetah, as with WK05 you are able to customise as you feel.

Golden Cheetah graphs in many ways do provide a much better overall graphic for training sessions and I feel this is easier to use for the common person.

Golden Cheetah Is An Analysis Tool For Cycling Training Data

Understanding the metrics used in cycling performance training

Once we have set up and are ready to delve into the training, it is important to understand what we are looking at and why we are looking at certain metrics in a training session and overall data. 

Personally, I like to keep things simple and precise. This way you are not lost in 1000’s of charts and information that you land up cross-referencing and having no idea what is what. As your knowledge grows you can always add more, but for starters looking at the following metrics will set you off on the right foot and you will be able to analyse and cross-reference sessions without too much complication.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
  1. Duration is time of the interval
  2. Power is the power target and average for the session
  3. W/kg for the interval duration 
  4. HR average and maximal value for the interval duration 
  5. Cadence for session 
  6. Torque value for the interval duration 
  7. VAM if doing intervals on a climb

Torque and VAM explained

Some of you may not be sure about Torque and VAM. Many of the online software systems do not show you Torque as a metric but should you wish you work it out yourself in spreadsheet, the formula is: (power/rpm) *9.5488 = Torque (Nm)

Knowing this is important when analysing low cadence work. The unfortunate side of this is that you must use a power meter, you cannot get this value without it.

VAM – This was made known by the controversial Dr Michele Ferrari who back in the day was famous for being Lance Armstrong’s coach. It is abbreviation for the Italian term velocità ascensionale media, translated in English to mean “average ascent speed”.

In short, meaning that it measures how quickly you are travelling upward on a climb.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
Dr Michele Ferrari, coach to Lance Armstrong.

TORQUE – The rotational force applied to pedals during each pedal stroke. 

Torque = (power/rpm) *9.5488

VAM is an Italian word “velocità ascensionale media” but when  translated in English to mean “average ascent speed” or “mean ascent velocity”. 

VAM = (metres ascended x 60) / Minutes it took to ascend. 

VAM in application

I personally use the VAM metric heavily when analysing sessions and climbing speeds and power as I always want to cross reference and correlate if the power meter on that day or week for example was either under or over reading. It does take time to understand VAM and also if you are going to convert the VAM value into a W/kg value. Until you fully understand this metric, and the athletes themselves,  I would not venture down this road yet.

What is good about this metric is that you can prescribe training based on this when an athlete does not have a power meter, you can prescribe VAM as a target for climbing intervals. 

I find this more specific as an athlete can fake heart rate in a way, but you cannot fake VAM. It almost acts as an invisible power meter. Or if you are not convinced the power meter being used is accurate.

It is important to remember that factors like gradient, wind, and whether the athlete is on a MTB or a road bike will influence VAM value. When you analyse or use this metric for testing, apply the protocol. Same climb, bike etc.

Analysing “Hi Intensity” vs Low Cadence training sessions

The 2 examples shown below will be for (Hi) Intensity sessions and Low Cadence work. 

Hi Intensity intervals are performed at a cadence typically between 80-100 rpm and the metric we measure these in is Watts (W).
Torque intervals, also often referred to as over- or big-gear intervals, are simply performed through sustaining a high power output at a low cadence. The metric used to measure these is in Newton Metres of Torque (Nm).

While both are to be analysed they are done so by looking at different metrics.

Hi Intensity Cycling Training Example
Hi Intensity training example

Here is a 5 x 10min seated climbing interval set and the arrows are highlighting the interval or work to be done. If the athlete is using a power meter there will be a power value prescribed, if they do not, I will prescribe HR and VAM as targets.

Hi Intensity Cycling Training Example
Hi Intensity training example

In order to track progression and be able to compare sessions, you want to be prescribing and staying with an index and standardised training session which is able to be repeated. This will allow you as an athlete or coach to compare apples to apples. 

It may seem monotonous to some, repeating certain sessions, but it is difficult to compare 5 x 5 minute intervals to 5 x 10 minute intervals. By repeating a certain session you are able to ensure that you are progressing.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
Here heart rate (red) and power (pink) are being compared.

Depending on the software used I like to remove all the metrics I am not going to use in the graph. This allows me to get clearer data. You can see I have only Heart rate and Power on this graph. 

Once this is done we can go deeper into the session and hopefully you or the athlete has hit the lap button for each interval to make life easier for you. 

The 1st two metrics I look at are the VAM and W/kg. From there we look at the power average for the interval duration and what was prescribed for that session. Have they achieved the target range, or have they gone over or under? 

Monitoring the relationship between power and heart rate is a little tricky, you ride hard, your heart rate goes up. When you are fatigued, it is harder to produce the same amount of power, and when you really are fatigued, you find it hard to raise your heart rate. Add in weather and temperature and it again makes it a little more tricky.

However, then comes in the fact that the fitter you are or more form you have, the more power you can produce at the same heart rate. Tracking this over time or a good training block will give you a better idea where yourself or the athlete are at.

Knowing this will allow me to know if the athlete is progressing or carrying fatigue and I can also use my external systems like a wellness chart or SFT to correctly track this (more on this in our next article).

For a steady interval like a 10 min effort, I like to also look at the difference between Normalised and Average power. This would have given me a good understanding of how steady the interval workout was when those values are close together. 

  • Average power for each interval 
  • Average Heart Rate for each interval 
  • Relationship between power and heart rate 
How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
Breaking down an interval

Understanding torque in better detail

  • Rotational force applied to pedals during each pedal stroke. 
  • Measured in Nm of Torque (high cadence measured in Watts).
  • Cadence ranges between 30 and 50 rpm, depending on interval duration and athlete ability and how conditioned he or she is with this type of training prescription.

Torque is an important variable for cyclists because power is the product of torque and angular velocity. Improve the amount of torque you’re able to produce at the same cadence and you should, by definition, improve the power you are able to produce

For Training Peaks users these can be built in Training peaks online, however it does not give you the ability to prescribe in Nm of Torque, what you can do is just insert the value in the heading or description for as a range. It is also useful that the athlete or yourself has the Nm metric on their Garmin, Wahoo etc. so they are able to correctly complete the session. 

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains

I have used Golden Cheetah to help illustrate better the relationship between power and torque. 

You may, in this illustration, see drops in cadence during a session, these are often from a power meter dropping the cadence value when it is low. This does happen when the cadence is very low, and this specific meter unit is known to drop cadence readings when it is around 30-35 rpm.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
Low cadence correlates with high torque

The relationship between torque and power output

You will notice a higher torque value naturally over the power (Watts) during the intervals. During periods of high cadence (warm up and cool down), where easier gears are used, torque is low compared to the low cadence (hard gear) intervals.

Like power you will calculate your value in per/kg. For power we have the equation of Power / weight to get the W/kg value. The same applies to the Torque work but we use N-M/Kg. 

What is a good value then? Or what torque do we see when hitting out a 10 min 6 Wkg climb? Below is a reference point for on Average what we see in World Tour level Male and Female athletes.

Male: 

4min – 1.35 N-M/kg

10min – 1.2 N-M/kg

20min – 1.15 N-M/kg

Female:

4min –  1.15 N-M/kg

10min – 1.05 N-M/kg

20min –  0.97 N-M/kg

In some athletes, like Matt Beers for example, you see Mullet numbers. His 4 min is close to 1.8N-M/kg and his 10min is 1.5N-M/kg. But for those who know him, the Mullet is a freak when it comes to laying down the hammer. 

Examples of Torque sessions

Some sessions are not as set as the 2 examples above, should you be doing a race specific session or a set over a longer duration the application stays the same in terms of analysis. When the description is clear it is easy for the athlete to follow it.

This session was prescribed to simulate a race type environment but with specification on what their fatigue resistance was after 3000 kj of work and how they would or wouldn’t respond after that workload. Simulating when the final moves and selection is typically made at the end of a big mountain day.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains

As mentioned, the same rules apply, I am looking at 3 specific points in this interval being the acceleration, the sustained duration, and the final attack. 

If there was a large discrepancy in their effort after 3000 kj of work, we would then investigate why in more detail and once those findings are identified work on that going forward to increase performance after a high workload.

How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains
  • Are targets being achieved?
  • Average power for each interval 
  • Average Heart Rate for each interval 
  • Relationship between power and heart rate 
  • Compare average and maximum Heart Rate for each interval and session
  • VAM – are they doing the same VAM for less effort 
  • NP vs Average power
How To Analyse A Cycling Training Session For Performance Gains

Take home from the article? 

  • Stick to standardised sessions 
  • Difference between Watts & NM of
    Torque when analysing
  • Use the metrics you are comfortable with 
  • Prescribe training based off the analysis 

In closing, remember that you don’t have to use all these example in your analysis and tracking, use what you feel is useful to you and the athlete and stick rather to less but more specific metrics than a series of metrics that you get lost in and it provides no positive feedback as you don’t really understand what you’re looking at or reporting on.

Hope this helps everyone with their “new year, new me” approach and remember to have fun on the bike, this is why you started riding in the 1st place.

Gracias y adios!

To understand more about how to consider athlete wellness and past training data in future training prescription, read the next article here.


John Wakefield is a director at Science2Sport. In addition, John works as a Performance Coach for Team BORA hansgrohe. With a successful history in motocross, his cycling focus has carried over and found success in a World Championship Title, World Tour and World Cup wins and Multiple National Titles. Find more of his articles here.

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Coach John Wakefield. PC: Phot Fizza / Team UAE Emirates