In the last decade, I’ve learned that prescribing workouts (the “what” of training) is likely the easiest part of coaching.

Sure, programming, planning, and periodizing take some level of knowledge and skill, but quality differences between training plans never matter more than a cyclist’s ability to nail the number one objective in training: consistency.

The Robots are Coming

Like other industries threatened by automation, as a cycling coach, I cling to the idea that the humanness of my careful, bespoke workout prescription is somehow superior to what the robots are copying and pasting into a training calendar.

But the more I think about it, I’m not in the same business as automated training apps, at least I shouldn’t be. I’m in the business of providing context, clarification, and support. I’m in the business of helping cyclists be more consistent. Teaching consistency is my business, the rest is just details.  

If I’m doing my job, each of the athletes I work with should be able to answer both of these questions, for every workout I’m asking them to do:

  1. Why am I doing this workout?
  2. How can I best execute this workout, and/or make adjustments as needed?

Mistakes Will be Made

The most common mistake I’ve made as a coach is to jump ahead in the training process, driven by a false sense of urgency to get training “up to speed” rather than invest the time necessary to teach the language of training at the onset of coaching.

Over the last two months, as I’ve moved all my coaching to a new online training platform, I’ve been excited to rethink how I do things, starting with giving more attention to better teaching the language of training. Here are the three primary languages I use to describe and prescribe training throughout the coaching process:  

  1. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This subjective language encompasses the physical and psychological experience of training; i.e., it’s all about feeling.
  2. Power Zones. This objective language is used to more accurately understand cycling intensity; i.e., it’s all about specificity.
  3. Energy Systems. This language of exercise physiology strengthens the relationship between workout prescription and desired training response; i.e., it’s all about context.

Let’s walk through a sequence of how these training languages are best understood. Prefer a short video? You can check out a few highlights of the training languages we use in the short video below.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

RPE serves as a vital method for observing the mind/body integration during exercise. RPE can help more clearly describe our training, as well as serve as a tool to prescribe training workout intensity. Here’s the system we use.

RPE is a subjective scale of exercise intensity used to describe and prescribe cycling effort

Power

Today, training with power needs no introduction. I use a simple six-zone system with an approximation of power at threshold (zone four) serving as the anchor for all six zones.

Intensity above the threshold is greater than 100%, intensity below the threshold is less than 100%. 

A power zones system is an attempt to objectively describe and prescribe cycling intensity.

Stronger Together

Neither power or RPE viewed in isolation provide a complete picture of training. By utilizing them together we get a more precise image of training in which the subjective nature of our experience is combined with the objective measurement of intensity. Developing the ability to switch between both training languages is a vital skill as you continue to improve as a cyclist.



Used together, RPE and Power form a more complete picture of cycling intensity

Context of physiology

Our understanding of RPE, power and why we do specific workouts is further enhanced with a basic understanding of the three energy systems that contribute to cycling performance. 

Energy system breakdown for maximal effort across the power/duration curve.
The three energy systems act as dimmer switches making variable contributions to power output on the bike. The ATP-PCr & glycolytic energy systems are considered “anaerobic” while the oxidative system is considered “aerobic” [1].

Bringing it all together

When we blend all three languages, we have a more effective tool to understand exactly what we’re doing in training, why we’re doing it, and how to be more flexible in how we execute workouts.

Approximate energy contribution to cycling training zones. (ATP-PCr, glycolytic, and oxidative)
When viewed together, we can see how an understanding of the energy systems contribution to power output, alongside RPE and power zones, helps to guide a deeper understanding of each workout we do.

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Nate Dunn
Founder/Head Coach
Data Driven Athlete

References

  1. Kenney, W. L., Costill, D. L., Wilmore, J. H., & Human Kinetics. (2020). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Written by Nate Dunn M.S.

​Nate has spent his entire career in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.