Let’s face it, getting faster on the bike is hard. Even logging miles isn’t easy, especially for those who live in climates that have something called “snow.” Although there are plenty of us who miss rides due to any number of non-environmental factors. Some work hours well beyond a standard 40-hour workweek. Some have split-shifts that force us to miss the morning AND evening rides. Some live in cities where the nearest place to safely turn the pedals is an hour, or more, away. All of those and more are perfectly legitimate excuses to get slow on the bike. Excuses that TrainerRoad solves.
TrainerRoad is, at its heart, nothing more than a software application that reads ANT+ or Bluetooth SMART speed/cadence sensors, heart rate monitors, and your power meter, and displays it for you in a graph over time. That’s it. However, what Nate Pearson and his team of USAC coaches do with that data is magic. They have put together a staggering array of structured workouts for a number of different disciplines, from a short 30-minute interval session to three-hour percentage-of-FTP endurance fests, and everything in-between. And yes, they have triathlon plans that incorporate structured swims and runs, too. If you don’t have a coach, having TrainerRoad might be a pretty close approximation.
In order to use the supplied plans, you have to know what your Functional Threshold Power is. FTP is the average wattage you could produce during an all-out, hour-long effort, riding at your limit the entire time. A higher FTP, the faster you go, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For triathletes, the bike leg of a sprint might be done above FTP, since you don’t have to hold it for an hour, whereas your full-iron race day plan might be as low as 65-70% due to the length of the ride and the necessity to save your legs for the subsequent marathon. Knowing your FTP allows you to understand when you’re pushing too hard—or not hard enough—on race day. Of course FTP also has a profound impact on how you train, as well. Going out there and suffering nobly is for the birds. Training smart, by using FTP percentage targets, is the single fastest, most effective way to go from zero to hero on your bike split. And that’s exactly what TrainerRoad focuses on. First, though, we have to conquer the dread beast known as an FTP Test.
TrainerRoad has three options for determining FTP. First, if you already know it, you can simply enter it into the application. Otherwise, you have your choice of an 8- or 20-minute test to determine it. The 8-minute test is typically a little easier for novices to complete, as it is comprised of two all-out intervals, 8 minutes in length, separated by a 10-minute cool down. This gives a pretty good measure of what you can endure without having to do it all at once; something most newcomers to the sport would have difficulty with. The 20-minute test is generally better suited to those who are already experienced time-trialists, or for those who are accustomed to the mental and physical pressures of holding wattage at the very limit of what they can produce sustainably. Any way you choose, the magic begins after you enter your FTP and get working on a training plan.
Stick To The Plan
With the FTP test under your belt, it’s time to select a training plan, which means finding one that suits your needs. Want to build power quickly? Try the 40k TT plan. Looking for long-haul, steady-state endurance improvement? The Century (Full) plan might be your ticket. The triathlon plans (from Sprints to Full Iron) are also fantastic, and include your swim and run workouts, too. Each plan includes a low-, mid-, and high-volume option, corresponding roughly with 3, 4, and 6 workouts a week, with the length of the workout being somewhat dependent upon the distance you’re training for. The Sprint plan, for example, does not have the “Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition”-length workouts that the Full-Iron plan does.
The plans are designed to be about 8-weeks in length, and the workouts are intended to be done in order. Most plans do not incorporate an FTP test into the regimen, but you should be doing one every 4-6 weeks. So plan to replace a workout with one when you feel strong somewhere in that window. Don’t worry about losing your place in the plan, either. The plan helpfully marks where you left off to make picking back up easy.
Power without a Power Meter
If you don’t have a power meter, don’t worry. You can use TrainerRoad, too. They have a system that they call Virtual Power, which takes the resistance curve of your non-powered trainer and the input from your speed/cadence sensor, and gives a rough approximation of the wattage you’re putting down. It’s relatively simple to use, too. If you don’t have a power meter, the app will prompt you during setup to enable Virtual Power, and then you’ll select which trainer you’re using from a list of supported options. After that, it does the rest. We tried it for a week or two and found it to absolutely be good enough for a beginner or intermediate rider who is looking to build strength and stamina. Although the accuracy did leave something to be desired on our backup trainer, a CycleOps Wind. This wasn’t a deal breaker, as the data that came out of TrainerRoad’s algorithm was good enough to train on, but it didn’t match the numbers we were getting from our Power2Max meter. If we had wanted to keep our training data consistent, it would have been a problem as the swing was in the neighborhood of 30w. But adjusting FTP up and down within the app brought us in line with perceived effort for a given workout, and all was again right with the world. Switching between power meter data and virtual power will do in a pinch, but we wouldn’t recommend trying to build a training regimen around it.
We rode TrainerRoad for a year, somewhat on and off as our lives, work schedules, trips to the hospital, and plain old bad luck would allow. In that time, we noticed a tremendous improvement in our FTP, and our overall fitness. After coming back from a broken leg, we started with an FTP of 175 and finished two 8-week training plans at 243. That’s a 38% increase in power in just 16 weeks. We did some digging, and while our gains were exceptional, it appears that they might not be as impressive as we once thought. There was a study done in 2007 about structured trainer plans and it found that over an 8-week period, riders averaged an increase 12.9%. If you gained 12.9% consecutively, you’d be at 27.5% increase over 16 weeks, or just about 10% less than we did. I don’t know anyone who, in four months, would be unhappy with that kind of improvement.
The only thing TrainerRoad can’t manage to get us through faster are broken bones and casts, and Lord knows we tried. If that’s their limitation, we’re willing to accept it. For everything else, TrainerRoad will make you faster on the bike, period. From the plans, to the drills, to the podcasat, these guys have put together what we consider to be the definitive resource on structured training regimens, and the results of thousands of riders speak for themselves. As for us, we’ll be TrainerRoad subscribers for life.