A power meter is an incredible tool for a coach and athlete to monitor the training and racing over time. It's consistent, it's accurate, and it's reliable. But is life that way? Is any race that way? Not at all. In life and in races you have deal with situations as they come up. An athlete’s power file can tell the story of a race and help us better target training to the specific demands of racing, because when an athletes are better prepared they are also better equipped to handle unpredictable challenges.
Sho-Air-Cannondale pro Pua Mata had an incredible year in 2013, both on and off the bike. She overcame a broken leg in March to win 5 of her first 6 races back from that injury, and she added another US National Championship to her list of accomplishments. In October she capped the season off with another big win at the 2013 La Ruta de los Conquistadores, and I couldn't be more proud of her as an athlete and as a person. I’ve never seen any athlete work as hard or be as dedicated as she was this year, in it shines through now each and every day.
After a great win at the Pisgah MTB Stage race Pua took some rest, but before ramping back up in for the final training block we had a few things to work around. Injury and sickness occur for everyone. Thankfully it was nothing major, but getting sick meant lead into La Ruta this year was far different than last year. As a coach, you can't hide that from the athlete because the athlete is the ONE DOING THE TRAINING, but we talked through the situation, pointed out the fact the engine was already built and did our best with what we had. A few solid sessions later, Pua was off to Costa Rica to connect with teammates Alex Grant and Manuel "Manny" Prado to recon the jungle and get set for a week of racing.
Stage 1 is the make or break day… for everyone. Neither professional nor amateurs really enjoy this day on the whole. Each one of my athletes goes into Day One with this game plan:
2. Do your best
3. Stick to what we practiced in training (pacing, hydration, nutrition)
You’ll notice that “win” isn’t part of the game plan. Stage 1 is very difficult and unpredictable. And racers also have to assess the competition. The path to victory at La Ruta starts with riding your own race on Stage 1 and focusing on the things you can control. If you lose sight of that overall strategy it’s easy to cook yourself on Day 1 and not have power for subsequent days. Pua wanted to go faster this year than last, but I reassured her to stick to the top 3 and she’d be fine. She did, and she was.
You can see in the SRM power data above, Pua climbed the first major ascent right around her lactate threshold in just under 45 minutes. Knowing the jungle was coming, we didn’t want her to dig too deep on the opening climb. All the same, she reached the summit just as quickly, if not slightly faster, than last year. Next up: the Jungle.
While we knew Pua’s climbing legs were strong, the broken leg and other factors had reduced the specificity of her preparation for the jungle section of Stage 1. She hadn’t spent as much time on her feet hiking with her bike, but there wasn’t any way to change that now. She just had to go for it. And because she's mentally tougher than I've ever seen her, she moved through the jungle just about as fast as last year. It zapped her legs a bit more, and I think we saw that later in the stage, but not too bad. I was seeing her on the course the whole day, telling her to settle in and drink more, so I do think that maybe led to some of it. Still having a few burly days left, we'll skim a minute here and there in aid stations if it means getting what we need and not stressing the body as much.
Also, Pua burns through about 600-700kJ per hour on a day like this. As a smaller athlete she doesn't have as many stored calories onboard, so I really encouraged her to push the food and electrolytes all day. You can see on the SRM file about 3,400kJ for the day. However, due to some time spent hiking (work that’s not reflected in her SRM file), I estimated her total expenditure around 3,600-3,700 total.
Not everything went according to plan. I arrived at Aid #2 a few seconds after she pulled away. Fortunately, part of the CTS Race Support process is making sure we have our athletes double, even triple covered. Pua was smart to slow down, drop her pack, get what she needed, and get out quickly. As we passed her on the road to Aid #2 I could see she needed calories, so at that station we had her get off the bike, eat some whole food, gain some perspective on the race situation, and then off she went. The longest hill climb was next.
As a general rule, I never worry about Pua climbing a mountain. Look at her pacing: perfectly ridden at upper Tempo power output from the start to where it's steeper, then lower tempo to finish. That climb ascended 2,600ft in 7.7 miles, and she climbed it in 56min. Knowing that she expended a lot of calories and lost a lot of fluids on the climb, she again stopped at the top, filled up on everything, and then continued. Even though there were only 20 more kilometers to go, on long days during stage races it’s important to continue fueling all the way through the line. In the last hour you’re eating for the next day. Many riders make the mistake of tapering off their fuel/fluid consumption too early.
Pua took the stage win and finished 30-40min ahead of the next pro women, the 2011 La Ruta winner. She had a comfortable lead, but in these races, nothing is certain. Pua knows that better than anyone, so took care of herself well and got to bed early for the next day.
The infamous Volcano Climb Day! Ticos dread it because of the altitude, and gringos dread it because it ascends 6,600ft climb in less than 20miles. And let's not forget the treacherous descent of volcanic rock, river crossings, mud, monkeys, and madness.
Stage 2 is not as long as Stage 1, which is nice but doesn’t necessarily make the stage any easier. In addition to the climbing, this day usually has quite a bit of temperature change as you climb from around 3,000ft to just below 10,000ft of altitude in fewer than 3hrs.
Pua started the day wisely, climbing right where she should: right at threshold or just below for 15-20min. In the process she shed some of the ambitious other racers who always think they’ll have good legs at the start, but really do not.
Like everyone else, Pua settled into the long climb. Note how the power stabilizes into the 200-220W zone. This is Pua's sweet spot for climbing on long days, and it equates to her Tempo output of just below. Note, too, how the power does come down a bit, little by little as she climbs higher and higher, while the HR remains about the same. This is typical for most elite athletes who know how to pace well. Power will usually come down at the same perceived effort due to a decreased partial pressure of oxygen; in other words, less O2 is getting into the working muscles, so it feels harder to do the same power. The athlete will either push harder to keep the watts up, or keep the effort feeling the same and let the power drop a little. Pua wisely chose to keep the perceived effort the same and ride a pace that is sustainable, letting the power stair step down over time.
I was at the top waiting for riders to come up, freezing my butt off. Since it was cold I knew Pua probably wasn't staying on top of her hydration as well as she normally does. Cold temperatures and hard efforts often make riders not want to take in fluids. The plan was to put the Camelbak full of sports drink on at the top, get some food, and go. We made a quick pit stop, Pua put on some warm clothes, knocked down a banana and hot coffee, and off she went.
I often say you climb all the way up and then climb all the way down on Stage 2 of La Ruta. You can see Pua hitting the climbs, but just endurance riding on the way down, knowing she put in most of the time to the next female on the hill climb. You can also see the climbing power coming back up as the altitude drops. By the finish she took the stage win and added 30 minutes to her lead.
Stage 3 affords the riders a slightly later start tie, but it’s also the longest stage. To get to the finish the racers have to make their through the mountain town of Turrialba, over a few hills, then onward toward the Carribean… but not without a few challenges along the way.
Even though this was the stage with the least amount of climbing, the riders still had over 3,000ft of gain in the first 25miles. These were shorter climbs, and all at sea level, so you can see Pua pacing a bit higher today, at Tempo and Steady State power, on each hill. The goal was to stay with some of the top male riders so once she hit the flats she had a good group to work with. She did a wonderful job of that, as you can see at the hill climb efforts below on the power file:
But as I was driving from aid station to aid station, all I saw was Pua at the front… She’d then pull off to let the men roll through, but they were taking short pulls or not pulling through… so Pua would go back to the front again. That meant she was doing more work than we had hoped for, which meant a greater expenditure of calories and fluids, so I made sure she got more sports drink and calories at the next aid station.
The railroad crossings are the big mental hurdle for riders on Stage 3. It’s a bit of a gut check to be literally walking on railroad bridges over fast-moving rivers and gorges teeming with crocodiles. Last year, Pua slowed down a bit on the bridges. Mentally prepared for them this year, she trotted across like the champ she is and made quick work of them. We can’t compare the entire final stage from 2012 to this year’s race because the courses were somewhat different, but we can compare certain sections. It was great to see that she moved through those sections as fast or faster than in 2012.
With a big lead over second place, Pua didn’t really need to dig deep on Stage 3. She needed to stay alert and engaged and get to the finish line, so she maintained a brisk pace. She rode most of the day at her Endurance and Tempo power outputs, and only rarely had to increase her intensity to above lactate threshold.
I was giving Pua more sports drink to take in at aid stations than planned, using the water to cool her. You can see on the power file that the temperature was in the high 90's while riding and shoots up above 100 while walking over the railroad bridges. That's important to note, as the heat stress on today's stage can zap a rider quicker than hard efforts. Fluid intake, electrolytes, and simple carbohydrates were the keys to surviving this one. It was a hot and challenging day, another 2,700kJ burned over 4.5hrs – with some added stress from the train trestles – it's a taxing day before the celebration starts!
By the end of Stage 3 Pua put another 30+ min on her next competitor and crossed the final finish line in typical classy form: bike overhead with a big smile on her face as the Champion of La Ruta for the second year!
Every athlete faces challenges during the year. Some are huge, others small, but they always occur. Having the most reliable and accurate training tools, along with frequent and frank feedback on the data, brings perspective and guidance to both the athlete and coach to help ensure success. We used the SRM power meter as much as possible this year, because Pua’s early-season broken leg raised the stakes and reinforced that every watt counts. As you can see – it worked pretty darn well.
P.S. Keep an eye on the Team Sho-Air Blog for Pua's next adventure before the end of 2013!