Cycling training and riding concepts: which of them were worth it?

I’ve hacked this sport of cycling for seven years now, and over the years I’ve picked up a wealth of knowledge about how one should proceed riding their bike – either for best training effect, to maximize efficiency, or for climbing long slopes up mountains. Today I take a look back and try to judge just how effective they were for my own kind of riding.


My personal cycling journey mirrors the beginnings of the Global Cycling Network (GCN) pretty closely, as both got their start in 2013. It was from them that I got the philosophy of pedaling a high cadence of about 90 RPM to help fight off muscular fatigue, and shift the burden to the cardiovascular system. This helped instill in me the habit of constantly turning the pedals smoothly, which became a cornerstone of my riding style especially on a small-wheeled folding bike.

It wasn’t until I got a proper cadence sensor a few years later that I realized what I considered my “high cadence pedaling” was actually mid-pack, at around 80 RPM. Granted, GCN does mention that one’s most efficient cadence is largely self-selected, and it takes quite a bit more discipline and effort for me to keep spinning the cranks at 90-100 RPM.

As I got further along with more serious training, however, I found that I wasn’t even maintaining my supposedly most efficient 80 RPM pedaling cadence most times, either. Instead, I noticed I gravitated more towards 68-75 RPM, especially on longer time-trial efforts on flats and very gentle slopes where maintaining a steady power output over the duration is more important. A number of triathletes and time trial riders subscribe to this philosophy, I noticed. As long as I am outputting steady power output, and I am doing so comfortably and without overloading my knees, I find that turning the pedals at a fairly middling cadence isn’t such a big deal. It may even be more efficient than spinning higher cadences for the same power output, as there is a lot less wasted motion.


The areas where keeping as high a pedaling cadence as you can makes the most amount of sense for me are long climbs. Disgraced as he is by doping scandals, Lance Armstrong was on to a winner with this particular tactic. Even then, by “high cadence” I don’t necessarily mean 90 RPM either. As I said earlier, there are countless other riders that are more comfortable than me with turning such high cadences, even uphill.

For my own riding, though, I seem to climb best if I stay within 65-80 RPM, using the gearing I have on hand to keep my effort at a sustainable level. I rarely go below this cadence range unless I am out of the saddle, stomping at least two cogs harder. Prolonged climbing efforts are a delicate balancing act, juggling the effort between your legs and your cardio, shifting the loading around different muscles in your legs.


As I’ve discussed before, your functional threshold power (FTP) is generally regarded as the highest power output you can sustain for a fixed time duration; most folks set this at one hour.

From experience, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking one should ride at least 100%-FTP efforts all the time, however, especially if you have a power meter aboard your bike. All FTP means is you can reliably expect to sustain this power output for that time. If your current activity requires you to last longer than this, you might want to dial down the watts so you can stand a chance of finishing. There is absolutely no shame in going 70-80% of your FTP up a climb, or even less, especially if it means the overall effort becomes more sustainable; you will have enough left in the tank and in your legs to finish strongly.

When it boils down to it, I’ve realized FTP is nothing more than an aid or benchmark for a particular cyclist, specifically meant for training purposes, and meant to be a litmus test of your potential ability. It’s not meant to be bragged about or put on a pedestal, and you are not necessarily defined by your FTP.

Besides, I’ve found the surest way of consistently increasing your FTP is to ride as much as you can just under it. Mine went up 40 W over four months doing exactly this. That also means making more gains is a matter of diminishing returns, though.


As a bike commuter, I committed this offense a little too frequently for my own good. While it may feel good pushing your physical limits every time you bike-commute, this is also a pretty easy way to give your heart too much of a good thing, in the form of exercise-induced cardiomegaly. If your rides are consistently pushing your heart rate too close to your maximal heart rate (normally computed as 220 – your age in years), thickening of your heart muscle walls and general enlarging of the heart may become a side effect. Depending on which cardiologist you talk to, this can be normal for endurance athletes…or it could hide signs of something more sinister.

I would advise investing in a heart rate monitor if you are a serious cyclist. Or at least consider it. That way, you can keep tabs on how hard your ticker is working and what its condition is. If you’re above 95% of your maximal heart rate, I’d strongly suggest backing off, easing up on the effort, and relaxing more to get it down.


I did not get a power meter of my own until I snapped up my friend’s Wahoo KICKR SNAP earlier this year.

In hindsight, I really should have gotten one much earlier. I have to say this was one of the best things I bought for improving the quality of my training. Coupled with pretty good instruction, available largely for free on the Internet (very sensitive bullshit filter required), a reliable and consistent power meter can give your training some real, irrefutable direction.

In my defense, good power meters have never been more accessible than they are now. They still cost quite a bit of coin, and they’re not worth much on their own without a compatible head unit/computer to display their readouts (so the expense of a power meter is really for two pieces of equipment, for most newbies), but they fully deserve the price of, say, a brand new wheelset, groupset, or other upgrade item.

As mentioned, the only power meter I have in my possession is my Wahoo KICKR SNAP indoor trainer – which means that I don’t have one aboard any of my bikes as of this writing. I can understand people who’d rather not run one while riding outdoors and just rely on feel, but I also recognize a power meter’s effectiveness as a pacing tool or gauge of one’s effort, especially on long climbs. You’ll have to be the judge of whether this benefit deserves the cash outlay.

I’d like to hear from you. Which training techniques or riding concepts held as conventional wisdom have you tried, and which have held up to real life scrutiny?

Squeezing the training juice from the Strava orange

Like many of you out there, I have had a long-term relationship with the ride-logging app and ecosystem known as Strava. I’ve been uploading my activities there since 2013. Prior to the middle of 2020, my interest in it hasn’t really moved beyond personal-best times on segments, accumulated ride mileage, route creation, cool challenges where you can actually win discounts on stuff, end-of-the-year bragging-rights pages…that sort of thing.

What if I told you that Strava has been profiting off the data it collects from you and your riding? Nothing new, right? That’s basically how many things free work these days – you are the product.

Now, what if I told you that you could use all that data you fed Strava…in order to better structure and periodize your training? And better yet – you could do it without paying a single cent?

Peak Torque and Hambini are two of my current favorite cycling YouTubers. As engineers, they cut through all the smoke and mirrors and show the bicycle industry for what it really is.

One of my favorite YouTube personalities of late, the British engineer and time trialist known as Peak Torque, mentioned in one of his videos a wondrous utility called Elevate. According to him, it was just about as good – perhaps even better – than the training analysis tools Strava hid under its subscription fees.

Curiosity thoroughly piqued, I decided to give it a whirl. I had already voluntarily given Strava this data anyway – what’s wrong in taking it back for my own purposes?

In a previous life, Elevate went by the name “StravistiX,” and it is the brainchild of a bloke named Thomas Champagne. In its current form, Elevate is a plug-in or extension for Google Chrome. According to Champagne, the long-term plan is to move away from its current form and blossom into an independent, standalone application.

After downloading it from the Chrome App Store, Elevate requires a few things from you as an athlete: weight, resting and maximum heart rate, and perhaps your FTP if you already have it. These are important inputs for the statistics the app can generate when compared to your Strava activity data.

This is where Elevate forks into two. As an analysis tool, it relies on synchronized Strava data that lives on your computer. As a Strava extension, it injects more detailed statistics into the normal activity summary screen, driven by your athletic data. We’ll start with that.


When navigating to your activity’s summary page on Strava using an instance of Google Chrome that has Elevate installed, you get a new section of extended stats. This is a high-level summary, which you can then drill down into as you click the “Display elevate extended stats” button.

Once you click that button, it becomes pretty detailed.

Depending on what sensors you have hooked up during your ride, real or virtual, Elevate takes their data and turns them into intelligble charts and graphs, broken up into zones. Some of them, such as speed, is of limited utility from a training perspective, but the heart rate and cadence charts can certainly help paint a more complete picture of you and your biomechanics.

The current hotness of training metrics, power, also gets the same treatment. You get a nice power curve graph as well, indicating your maximum output over a number of time intervals for this particular ride.


For Elevate to work its real magic, it needs to synchronize with Strava so that it can extract your activity data and save it locally. Doing this for the first time can be pretty tedious, as Strava places data caps on activity data export, and Champagne himself says this is one of the bigger downsides of Elevate’s current existence as a Chrome extension app. If, like me, you have seven years’ worth of activities hosted on Strava…expect the initial synchronization to take multiple attempts spread out over a day or three. Once you have everything, though, future sync-ups for new activities are quick and simple, and Elevate allows for easy backup of activity data to sync to, say, another computer running Google Chrome.

With sync-up done and Elevate brought up-to-date, we get to the really good stuff.

“Year Progressions” is a real-time comparison of your workouts through the years, done against factors like time, distance, or elevation. Fairly basic perhaps, but with Strava doing its best to hide more and more of its functionality behind a paywall, this is still welcome.

“Fitness Trend” is where Elevate really shines. Using your activity data and your athletic stats, it will attempt to calculate three metrics it calls Fitness, Fatigue, and Form. The app then plots these on a trend-line graph over time as the X-axis. The positive graphs are Fitness and Fatigue, while the negative graph is Form.

The thinking here is you want to train to increase your Fitness, but each time you train you are also going to increase your Fatigue. The difference between those two values is your Form, which gives you an educated estimate of how your body is responding to your training: are you getting enough of it, or do you need to back off and take a rest day?

A little metric called “Stress score” also shows up on these screens…and I have no doubt many of you will recognize it from elsewhere. The idea is to gradually and progressively increase this stress score with training, so that your training can lead to performance gains. All the while, you also have to manage the Fatigue level.

My Fitness Trend graph as of July 17th, 2020.
My Fitness Trend graph as of August 13th, 2020.

If you’re preparing for an event, the Fitness Trend graph can also help you with the so-called “taper” period, where you rest a week before said event. The trend-line graphs for Fatigue and Form literally taper to a point at the far right; it appears you’d want to have the event happen when you have the least possible Fatigue but have positive Form at the same time. It might even help you with your next FTP test.

Now, this sort of calculation and analysis is hardly unique to Elevate; there are quite a number of other apps that can do this as well. The real hack with Elevate is that it can do this for free. For that alone, I’m quite inclined to make a donation just to vote for Mr. Champagne’s good efforts creating and maintaining Elevate, and someday even bringing it into fruition as a dedicated app. If you can make sense of the analysis and plan your training and recovery accordingly, I think this can be a pretty powerful tool.


The loss of fitness and the gain in weight since my crash has been…quite obvious.

After two months of absolutely no saddle time, I decided to take matters into my own hands and reclaim what I lost.

It’s been roughly a month or so of slogging away at the turbo trainer. While I’m still nowhere near what I used to weigh, and I don’t realistically expect to lose any weight, I am feeling the lost fitness slowly creeping back.

Looking over my activity log on Strava reveals I’ve been repeating one particular workout. GCN has a workout set against the Passo Sella in the Dolomites, with erstwhile fan favorite Matt Stephens motivating you through twenty-eight minutes of intervals at 9/10 effort, at 100, 80, and 60 rpm.

This is highly convenient, both for days when I’m starved for time but still need training, and as a barometer of my fitness. The three screenshots below are a good track of my progress.

November 11, 2019.
Average speed/heart rate/cadence: 19.9 km/h, 153 bpm, 73 rpm.
November 22, 2019.
Average speed/heart rate/cadence: 20.8 km/h, 141 bpm, 75 rpm.
December 3, 2019.
Average speed/heart rate/cadence: 21.4 km/h, 138 bpm, 76 rpm.

In a nutshell, I am hitting faster road speeds and spinning at higher cadences, yet at a lower heart rate. Subjectively, I find that I can finish my sessions without feeling depleted.

This is tangible, measurable progress. And it all came to fruition on my first real outdoor ride, where JC Peralta and I hit the rolling hills and false flats of Alabang.

I’m still a heavy bastard, and still an easy target for fat-shamers. Very few people know or understand what goes on behind the scenes. Even so, the small wins need to be celebrated. If you cannot be proud for yourself and your achievements, nobody else will do it for you.