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More Accurate and Faster Cycling Power Test Protocol Being Developed


Pro triathlete Colin Campbell tests his power.
Triathlete Colin Campbell tests his power.

The growing popularity of training and racing with power hinges on understanding how to read and use the numbers an athlete generates. But how do you get big numbers and ride faster? According to Ming-Chang Tsai, a PhD candidate in Exercise Sciences at University of Toronto, athletes get stronger and ride faster by using a proper prescription of training stresses and by regularly testing  to monitor the effectiveness of a given training period. Tsai sees flaws in the current testing models and has been hard at work creating a new one, developing a mathematical equation to predict performance and quantify anaerobic/aerobic systems on the bike (and other endurance exercises such as swimming, rowing and running).  The study has produced some promising data for a new testing protocol, which will help cyclists monitor their training more easily.

The former national rowing team member (Taiwan) and competitive triathlete and runner, also holds a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and brings his in-the-field athletic experience to his physiology and computational research.  As an athlete and researcher he wants to develop a test that is more practical and precise than the current models, but also one that allows for physiological differences among endurance and sprint-based athletes.

Currently, the most popular test in the cycling community is the 20 minute test to determine aerobic fitness or Critical Power (CP)  also known as Functional Threshold Power (FTP).  CP or FTP can be estimated as 95 per cent of the 20 minute average power.  The other test is a three-minute all out test, which originated out of the University of Essex in 2007.  The mentally and physically exhaustive nature of the three-minute all out test often deters athletes from wanting to repeat it to monitor fitness levels.

Pro triathlete Leanna Lee taking part in Tsai's power study.
Pro triathlete Leanna Lee taking part in Tsai’s power study.

Tsai insists that  the 20 minute test is a problematically rough estimator: “It is an estimation (due to a necessarily inconsistent effort during a 20 minute test) of an estimation (about 95 per cent of an athlete’s  20 minute average power), the CP/FTP number you get is not an accurate CP of an individual,” he explains.  While the 3-min all-out test is more accurate, it is an extremely unpleasant experience for the athlete.

Once the parameters are accurately obtained, one can make performance predictions and prescribe individualized interval training intensities.  To  capitalize on this information Tsai explains athletes should also learn about their recovery capacity. In his second-related study, Tsai looks at the anaerobic energy-refilling rate during interval workouts.  It is currently unknown how much anaerobic energy is regenerated during the rest period of an interval workout session. Is the regeneration higher or lower at the beginning or the end of the workout?  How does the regeneration rate respond to intensity, work time and rest time? Tsai argues that by knowing these relationships, athletes can find the proper recovery time or work time to maximize the quality of a workout  and optimize training gains.

Being at U of T, Tsai has had access to some big talent and impressive power output by pro triathletes and pro cyclists in the area. The 80 person study also includes male and female athletes ranging in age from 18 to 60+, from sprinters to endurance athletes  and from recreational  to elite athletes with under a year, t0 25+ years of cycling experience. Tests are conducted on what appears to be a pretty standard spin bike from the 1990s, but is really an extremely sensitive, sophisticate unit worth upwards of $25,000.  This past weekend he also conducted his protocol on a team of junior track cyclists at the Forest City Velodrome in London Ont.

Tsai and his PhD supervisor Dr. Scott Thomas, as well as the University of Toronto are currently in the middle of patenting the algorithm he developed. Tsai stands to revolutionize the way athletes train with the information they can gather from these tests, customizing their training and racing plans with precise wattage and maximum efficiency.