Wednesday, March 27, 2013

You can't touch this, part I

NP Busters 

are the spark for today's musing. It's an old topic but a fun one. I am however going to break this into two parts, first (Part I) to review the concept of Average and Normalized Power, and then (Part II) to chat a little on NP Busters.

An NP Buster?

So before getting into the discussion of NP Busters and just WTF I'm on about, let's just go back to Power 411 to remind us what Average and Normalized Power is all about. This is mostly for those that are new to the concepts, even though NP has been with us for a decade, the number of people beginning to use power in training and racing is ever growing and besides, a refresher is never a bad idea.

For those well versed in power meter analysis and associated software, they are no doubt familiar with the concept of Normalized Power and perhaps don't need to go over old ground the rest of this post covers. Much of what I am covering in Part I is also in this original item by Andy Coggan introducing Normalized Power. I suggest reading it if you have not done so before (and you're interested in learning about this stuff).
In summary, Normalized Power is neat a way of enabling us to make sense of rides that are, by their nature, highly variable in power output, especially when a straight numerical average of a rider's power output is often not that helpful in assessing the "damage" done during a ride.
With that said, you can wait for Part II, the NP Buster chat, or read on...

Average Power

Average Power is by definition fairly straightforward – being the average of a rider’s moment by moment power output over part or whole of a ride. For example, 5-minutes at 100 watts followed by 5-minutes at 200 watts equates to a 10-minute Average Power of 150 watts.

A measure of work done
Average Power tells us how much mechanical work was performed during a ride. This knowledge has numerous benefits, in particular when assessing daily energy intake requirements:
Average Power (watts) x Ride Duration (seconds) = Mechanical Work Performed (joules).
e.g. 150 watts x 600 seconds (10-minutes) = 90,000 joules (90kJ) 

Of course that's just the mechanical work done at the cranks propelling the bike forward, and not the total energy metabolised, which will be approximately 4-5 times that value depending on a few things, primarily a rider's individual gross mechanical efficiency (GME - the ratio of energy reaching the cranks as a proportion of total energy metabolised). The vast majority of energy we metabolise ends up as waste heat. That's just the warm blooded Mammalian way.

A (good) indicator of energy metabolised
Somewhat serendipitously, since 1 Cal (kcal) ~= 4.2kJ, we can as a reasonable first approximation use the kJ reading from a power meter file (e.g. 700kJ) and make a straight conversion of that number to energy metabolised (e.g. 700 Cal) since the GME and conversion of kJ to Cal (almost) neatly cancel each other out. The real conversion is probably more like in the range of:
1.05 - 1.15 x kJ of mechanical work done  = Calories metabolised.

A measure of fitness
The Average Power a rider can maximally sustain in a well-paced steady state effort such as during a flat time trial or on an indoor trainer is one of the most direct and objective measures of fitness. It is usually expressed in terms of maximal average (mean maximal) power for various durations (e.g. 1-minute, 5-minutes, 1-hour), and in terms of watts per kilogram of body mass (

It should come as no surprise that we can sustain a higher power output over shorter durations. Over the course of a training block, we seek to raise the power a rider can maximally sustain per kilogram of body mass for durations of relevance to the rider's target events. The higher the mean maximal number, the faster one can ride and/or the longer a rider can sustain a given pace. Along with a consideration of the specific demands of a rider's events, this is a fundamental principle that should guide a rider's training.

Normalized Power

So what happens when power output is highly variable, such as typically happens when we ride outdoors over variable terrain, or with a group, in a road, criterium or track race or over a mountain bike course; or perform interval efforts at various power levels with rest periods interspersed?

Racing, group rides, hills all provide for highly variable efforts.

In these common scenarios, Average Power can be a misleading indicator of intensity and understate the level of difficulty of a ride (often substantially so).

That’s because, and to quote Andy Coggan:
1. the physiological responses to rapid changes in exercise intensity are not instantaneous, but follow a predictable time course, and
2. many critical physiological responses (e.g., glycogen utilization, lactate production, stress hormone levels) are curvilinearly, rather than linearly, related to exercise intensity.
This latter point is really important. As power output goes up, the level of strain experienced increases exponentially.

Steady state
By way of example, let’s say a rider is capable of maximally sustaining 200 watts for about an hour . If we asked them to perform a 20-minute steady paced effort at 200 watts, then assuming they are not unduly fatigued, we should expect the rider could actually complete such an effort, since by definition they are capable of sustaining that power output for longer than 20-minutes. It would be hard, but do-able (indeed, over 20-minutes, a rider could typically maximally sustain ~ 104-109% of their 1-hour power).

Not so steady state
But what if we asked the same rider to perform a 20-minute effort with the same average power of 200 watts, except this time the rider is asked to perform 10 x 2-minute interval repeats comprising 300 watts for 1-minute followed by 100 watts for 1-minute?

Those with any experience of this sort of effort will know the rider would be very unlikely to successfully execute the prescribed session, despite the average power being the same. This is because the strain experienced during the 300 watt sections is far greater than the relative increase in power, and is not equally matched by the reduced level of strain experienced when riding the 100 watt '"recovery" sections.

Normalised Power is a clever means by which reported power output is adjusted to take into account the typical and natural variability in power output. To quote Dr Coggan:
“Normalised power provides a better measure of the true physiological demands of a given training session - in essence, it is an estimate of the power that you could have maintained for the same physiological "cost" if your power output had been perfectly constant (e.g., as on a stationary cycle ergometer), rather than variable. Keeping track of normalised power is therefore a more accurate way of quantifying the actual intensity of training sessions, or even races.”
This is one reason why we track Normalised Power, as it represents a more accurate indicator of the level of difficulty and is a helpful guide to changes in fitness over the medium and longer terms when the vast bulk of training data comprises rides of variable effort levels.

Feasible training sessions
Interval training, i.e. the use of periods of higher intensity work coupled with recovery periods, is quite a common feature in many training plans (usually because it can be highly effective in improving fitness). Normalized Power is very helpful in establishing whether a proposed training session is "physiologically feasible".

In the interval example quoted earlier (the 10 x 2-min 300W / 100W intervals), the Normalised Power for such a session would be 234 watts, meaning the equivalent physiological cost of riding at a sustained steady state 234 watts. Typically you would expect a rider with an FTP of 200 watts to be able to maximally sustain ~ 104-109% of their FTP for 20-minutes, or ~ 208-218 watts.

Hence the original prescribed session was unrealistic from the outset. You can use Normalised Power in this manner to guide the level of difficulty of training sessions, so that they are hard enough to provide sufficient stimulus to improve fitness but are not so hard they become impossible to execute. Nifty huh?

The underlying physiological principles and the mathematics of the Normalised Power algorithm are described in more detail in an article by Dr Coggan quoted earlier in this post.

There are limitations and caveats to how one uses and interprets Normalized Power, and that's for Part II, so stay tuned....