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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, June 25, 2012

Power or Endurance?

Some thoughts I have had about training recently while I try to get back in shape from this winter's ordeal.  There might be enough here for anyone that is really interested in power to weight ratios (any climber?) and training to at least peak your interest and make you think about your own training.

I simply like trying to get more out of my body, nutrition and labor.  Only way to know if you are do that is to measure.

OK, so here one of the things I am currently measuring.  I am doing a 2 mile uphill ride on my bike.  Not the typical 2 mile uphill ride mind you.  This ride has a name, "The Zoo".

From a local web site that is nothing but bike climbs in the Seattle area.  This one is one of the most difficult if not THE the most difficult climb locally.  There are longer climbs in WA state but few as continually as steep the Zoo.  Only Lion Rock is harder imo.    The Zoo is 10 minutes away.  Lion Rock 2 hours.

"Zoo Hill - named after the small zoo at the bottom - is arguably the toughest climb in the Seattle area. Ascending 1200 feet over 2.5 miles, it has an average grade of about 10%, with common gradients in 15% and some sections approaching 20%. This is not a climb to be approached lightly.
Or, as one rider noted, "Zoo Hill is the puke-inducing lactate-producing gasp-fest that I avoid unless taunted.""

So I keep track of my time, bottom to top @ every ride, along with my average cadence, average and max HR.  To those numbers I add my body weight, gear/clothing weight and my bike weight.

With the right formula I get how many watts of energy I produce from a given time on the ride.  That has varied from 235 watts to 358 watts, depending on how fast I am able to ride the hill and how much my kit and I weigh on that particular ride.

I have been keeping track on of my weekly or monthly rides on the Zoo since 2005.  Literally every ride I have done there rain or shine.

 but I forgot where I stole the quote...
"training is not just about how far you can go. Training is about how hard you can go for how long."

At the moment I can put out somewhere around 350 watts.  I'm surprised it is up from 320 watts which had been a personal best 4 years ago when I was fit, slightly heavier and had more muscle mass.  But I am working on power right now so it is good to see the improvement.   Good enough, if I could actually hold that tempo and the 350 watts, for a 18 minuite ride on the Zoo.  Which would be a new personal best.  Problem is I can't produce and hold that kind of power for 18 minutes.  More like 5 minutes or less right now.

So I am strong enough but I just don't have the endurance.  But it took some serious time, measuring, testing and retesting to figure that out.   It wasn't an easy answer and it wasn't the first place I looked.  My original thought was I simply wasn't "strong" enough.  Not enough power.  Truth is I just need to produce the power I have, for a longer period of time.   Knowing all this  stopped me from looking at new gears and new bike parts as well.  

The real answer here?  I require the endurance to produce that level of power if I am going to make 18 minutes on the Zoo climb.  And while I am training for that I'll make sure to add strength training to my endurance (and LTH) training so I can produce even more power to go even faster...for a much, much longer period of time. 

I mentioned this before.  I use to do a lot of rock climbing.  Trad 5.11 and easy .12 cracks.  I was never very strong by comparison...and could never do more than a dozen or so pull-ups at any given time.   But I could hang a long, long time on finger and hand jams by comparison to my partners who could do one arm pull ups and dozens of reps.  If I had been smart I would have added a few more pull-ups and dropped a few pounds back then.  My rock climbing would have likely taken a big jump in technical difficulty because of it.

Climbing on a bike or climbing on ice and rock easily tells you that you can never be too strong or too light.  Unless of course you don't have the endurance to pull off your particular goal.  Be it a 17 minute run on the Zoo, the Enduro corner on Astro Man or a quick run up Rainier.   If you can do the hardest move on your project you have the power.  But do you have the endurance to link every  move for the red point?

Bottom line?  Make sure you are training for your goals and to your weaknesses.  Power and Endurance both have their place.  And for most climbing, on the bike or in the mtns, those two goals should be equal partners.  Or at the very least know how to define them for your own benefit.


Bruno Schull said...

Hi Dane,

Nice post. In a past life, I was one of those crazy, obsessed, bike racer people (now I just ride my mountain bike for fun) so I can't resist adding some comments. I assume you are calculating your power outputs from the elevation gain of the climb, your speed, and so on. For example, you need 250 watts to climb the hill in X amount of time. However, in addition to the power required to propel yourself upward, your body will certainly be expending more energy moving from side to side, bobbing up and down, etc., motion and effort which does not directly propel you up the hill, and which could be minimized. Which is a long way of saying that, if you make your riding technique more efficient, you might be able to go faster. It's the same rock or ice climbing: the best climbers are usually very strong and light, but they are also very efficient with their movements. So how you can you improve your technique on the bike? Well, the classic example would be to spend some time riding a bike with a fixed gear to develop a nice spin, or ride on rollers (not a trainer) indoors. A benchmark for a fluid pedaling would be able to ride rollers with only one leg siting no-handed on your bike...warning: only try this in a doorway! That said, although fixed gears and rollers are probably good for technique in general, I question the specificity or transferability of spinning a low gear on the flats vs. pushing a high gear on a climb. So that's the classic answer. What about a modern approach? Well, you could find a hill, or part of a hill, with a consistent grade that you can climb in about 5-10 minutes. You could ride the hill at a sub-maximal pace that would allow you to so several repetitions. Each repetition, you could try to keep you heart rate in the same range to approximate an equal effort. And then you could experiment with different body position, pedaling style, and so on, to see what gets you up the hill the fastest. The idea would be to maximize your speed while expending less energy. I don't know enough about power meters to give you any cogent advice, but I understand that they are powerful tools if you are willing to put in the time. Have fun! Bruno.

Dane said...

Hi Bruno, As a rider you'll appreciate this. Unable to keep an average cadence in even the low 70s on this climb I had decided to change gearing so I could. Because I had thought I didn't have the power to spin the smaller gears I am using now. That would require a decent financial out lay to switch over.

I rethought that idea and wondered if I could actually spin the gears I had....and maybe it was endurance I was lacking. By splitting up the climb into intervals (which i had not done previous) I can easily spin 70+ with the gear ratios I have now...just can't for the entire 2 miles. So it was endurance that was lacking not power. That revelation surprised me.

Technique is very important climbing (any climbing) and I do appreciate your input and suggestions. While sitting down and spinning never seems to be a bad idea :)

Bruno Schull said...

Hi Dane. That sounds like a good climb. One to do some time. Yes, they always say sitting down and spinning is more efficient, but, you know, sometimes you just want to stand up and hammer! There's nothing quite like the feeling of sweeping around a corner on a climb, standing up, looking ahead..even if you're just riding for fun. And what other more worthy goal is there really? regarding the gears and interval's been a while since I was involved in structured cycling training, but I do think that's a good direction to follow: find the gear/cadence/speed you want to maintain, and start with small intervals. Then gradually increase the amount of time you can maintain the pace. In a totally different corner of the bike world, I have been enjoying my new 29er. I resisted for a long time, but I am now a convert, for most types of trail riding. Off to Cham next week. All the best, Bruno.

PurpleJesus1994 said...

First. I gotta say 325-350 for 8-10 minutes is pretty darn good. Add too that all you have been through over the last year and it is nothing short of freaking AMAZING and very impressive to say the least!!

I was also a domestic Pro cyclist in another life. I would mirror most of what the prior poster said. I am pretty sure Power meters have gotten much less expensive since i was racing. My last power meter was at the time the cream of the crop "SRM" may still be and like $3500. It is one of the most effective and valuable tools a person could have if they are into specific "training" and not just recreating. Even if just recreating it is pretty rad and i would not hold it against any weekend warrior for wanting one. If you just like group rides and to hammer away then it makes no sense at all. However if you want to be the best guy on your group ride and are willing to train to do so it makes tons of sense.

A little perspective for you. At my prime on a shitty little domestic pro team i would do LT workouts on something like say Mount Lemon. Mind you this is at 25-30 years old and at my peak fitness. I would threashold workouts as three 15-20 minute efforts at 375 watts each with a 5 minute break between efforts. I remember it hurting like a sob and being humiliated by my team mate and training partner whom did his at 400....

Again i gotta say way to get right back at it man. If i am pushing out 300 anything in a couple more decades i will be shocked.

Also I agree with your comment about being a young 5.11-5.12 rock climber and power to weight ratio. As a new climber 3 years on ice and my first season on rock i am trying to employ as many of the training principles from my cycling days that seem to apply as possible. Power to weight may be the biggest of them all!!

For instance i try to climb outdoors 2-3 times a week. If outside i just do what is fun and climb cool shit. If i get rained out i make sure i get to the gym the same 2-3 times. I use my gym time as specific work time and not just fun time. In the case of no rain i still get to the gym once a week for specific work. If i have been climbing easy trad i work on strength and power type work. If i have been climbing sport i work on Endurance type work. Add to all that some general strength training core work and cardio and you can stay pretty busy!

Although nothing special being what hard climbers are doing theses days after only 3 months climbing rocks i am climbing 5.11-5.12 sport, bouldering V5 and leading 5.8 trad. I am sure i could push my trad grade i just do not feel the need to rush that one i would like to live a long time and climb cooler shit than New England 5.10's. Plus ice season is just around the corner now and i don't wanna be injured ;)

Always good to hear what you mind is preoccupied with in regard to your sporting interests.

Imop training is everything if you want to operate at the highest level in any sport.

Dane said...

Thanks guys and great stuff you are adding. Much appreciated. In case anyone starts looking really hard at the numbers I posted? I should have mentioned we are only timing a 2m section of this climb (from a TT course) and the power numbers and time frames are from that, not the full 2.5m ride. Right now I'm good for ONE as in 1, 5 minute push at 350...then it starts dropping into the 4 minute and 300 watt range very quickly. Don't want to give the wrong impression here. And yes the intervals still hurt like a SOB ;)

PurpleJesus1994 said...

Intervals workouts kick ass. Self inflicted pain is the best drug and the only drug left for me ;)

Dane if you are so inclined and being your little gear habit i would highly suggest a power meter. That is if you are riding that much and it kinda sounds like you are? If you do buy a power meter make sure know how to build a proper program or the tool ends up being nothing more than just a bunch of numbers that mean very little tbh.

If you are riding a bunch and looking to just get in the best shape you can i highly suggest also getting yourself a worth while cycling coach. It is amazing what structured training can do. In most cases what a coach offers is just a general outline a watchful eye to make sure you follow it. They also make adjustments when you are overcooking it and you cant see it or maybe when you could do more.

My guess is you might get off on the whole thing if is not something you have done in a previous life at this point? Mind you i said "good coach" and also pointed out a power meter is a waste if you do not know how to properly train with it.

I was also able to get a SRM used on E-bay or from another friend at a fraction of retail as they do not get pro dealed ever as far asi remember?

Anonymous said...

Dane - I wholehearted encourage you to check out Strava. I use the free iPhone app version but it's available for Garmin cyclocomputers and Android too.

At it's most basic level, it has broken out the entire cycling world into 'segements'. Say, that hill you're training on but through its social nature it's started to categorize everything from ones morning commute to the Ventoux.

As your ride, it silently tracks your time and location. When you get home, you can see how you compare ride-to-ride and even more fun, to others. With the right connectors, you can also get watts and HRM.

I've been riding competitively for 20 years and it's a complete game changer for tracking rides, even if you didn't think you were that into tracking rides anymore.

Besides being fun, it makes the type of analysis you're doing dead simple. Have fun.

Jon R said...


You should be able to pick up an old powertap pro (wired version is fine) for under $400 on CL or Ebay. Just make sure you get the cables and that it works. I could ask around for you too if you want.

I've trained and tested with power and it's a wonderful tool but can also be the devil in disguise. You can spend a ton of time analyzing data that offers you no conclusions other then "I'm getting stronger". Similarly you can create numbers that in reality might just hold you back because they are too conservative to illicit a training response.

Your lucky that you live in such a great area for training, lots of great moderate hills and a reasonable amount of flats out in May Valley to do tempo and steady state work.

I think the one revelation I had in training several years back is that unless you have a strong endurance foundation, and I'm talking high aerobic respiration at the cellular level and great fat oxidation, you are never going to be able to do real big workouts that develop power because you will blow through your sugars. I found 2 hour tempo rides with some bigger efforts on hills really increased my fitness quickly. I'm not sure I buy into LSD miles anymore, I think you can accomplish the same thing with shorter tempo rides.

One last interesting note. Bradley Wiggins has recently stated that what he changed this year is he kept his form through winter and isn't racing into shape. I know a coach in USA Swimming and she told me that their swimmers are always at 95%. Not that many of us are close to 95%, but I think some of the principles behind periodization might be wrong, or at least incorrectly implemented in most training programs.

Cheers, Jon