Slow and steady loses the race: correcting Greg Mueller’s mistake

I recently read a line in USA Triathlon magazine that I felt needed some correcting. The article, titled Ask the Coach: Bike Training by Greg Mueller, was featured in the April edition of the magazine. Mueller made a pretty serious mistake on the subject of cycling pacing on hills. Mueller stated “if you watch a power meter, athletes tend to increase their effort on hills then decrease their effort descending. This learned behavior carries over to racing, where it is not optimal.” What I intend to point out is that this statement is extremely misguided and give the correct advice.

Let us start with a math problem to clarify my frustration with this common belief of consistent pacing in cycling. There are two issues with this style of racing in which one bases all effort off keeping the power meter stable at a certain number. The first problem can simply be solved mathematically. We are going to have two riders, one implementing consistent power, Rider A, and one implementing consistent speed, Rider B. Both are completely identical in all but one way. Each rider must complete a two mile time trial: up a mountain for the first mile, and then back down the same climb. It is a fairly steady climb, with 4 percent grade average. Now I know this is an absurdly simple race that you will never face in a triathlon. However, just for the sake of simplicity, bear with me. The one way in which the rider’s differ is whether they followed Mueller’s advice or not. Rider A holds his effort steady and heads up the climb at 10mph and kept the power on the pedals to ride back down at 30mph. Rider B has not read the most recent issue of USA Triathlon magazine and hammers up the hill only to explode at the top and barely make it over. He sprints up at 20mph and coasts his non-functional body back down at the same 20mph. According to common thought, their times would be the same for the time trial, correct? 10+30=40 and 20+20=40, right? But that is not the way to calculate average speed. Average speed is affected by the amount of time traveled at that speed. Rider A’s first mile was completed in 6 minutes and second mile completed in a speedy two minutes. However, both of Rider B’s miles were completed in 3 minutes for a total of 6 minutes, besting Rider A’s 8 minute time trial by a whopping 2 minutes. This is a radical example, I know, but still a relevant one. If we exaggerate the effects to a much steeper climb, we’ll see the two mentalities split even further. If the grade is lessened, the effect is diminished but still remains relevant when races are won by seconds.

I know the example above was purely theoretical and who is to say that 20mph is even possible by that rider up that climb? However, I do believe I sufficiently illustrated the fact that the faster you go, the less return there is on each additional increase in speed. What we will see in this next example is that is even more true at high speeds. We have two cyclists attempting this time trial, one who aims for consistent power, and the other who aims for consistent speed, just as in the example before, crushing the same exact course as before. Rider A this time will aim for consistent effort at 300 watts. Rider B, however, in all his supposed naivete is about to kick Rider A’s ass by hammering up the climb at a realistically unsustainable 400 watts. Both riders weigh exactly the same at 170 pounds. The only difference is that Rider B has no idea what he is doing but as an enormous amount of ants in his pants and Rider A has been misinformed. Using a power-speed calculator (with it’s obvious limitations, it will still work for this example), we find that Rider A would make the climb at a speed of 14.7 miles per hour. But when he crests that hill, he rolls right over it and somehow manages to crank out those 300 watts on the downhill (difficult in reality). He makes the descent at an average of 37.5 miles per hour. This looks great; he was trucking for the last mile.

But then let us look at the example of the second cyclist who focuses on consistent speed instead of consistent power. Rider B races uphill at 18 miles per hour pushing his 400 watts. Having no clue about pacing, Rider B completely explodes at the crest of the hill and once again coasts downhill with power at 0 watts at 31.4mph

Now whip out those calculators again or just trust my math. Rider A’s mile 1 was at 14.7mph for a time of 4.08 minutes. His seconds mile was completed in 1.6 minutes for a total of 5 minutes and 40 seconds for the whole 2 miles. Rider B’s mile 1 was at 18mph for 3:20 and his second mile was at 31.4 miles per hour for a time of 1:55. His total time comes to a speedy 5:14.

While Rider B beat Rider A by 26 seconds, he, in reality, exerted himself less according to total work. This example could be amplified much more drastically to show another benefit to upping wattage on uphills. Wind resistance is not linear but is instead exponential. As speed increases, so does resistance, and in turn effort, and calories burned. Gravity however, is linear at elevations on the earth’s surface. As a cyclist goes harder, they go equivalent speed faster. To demonstrate this, let’s return to the power-speed calculator to find that at 20% grade a cyclist pushing 500 watts goes 6.4mph and at a 20% harder 600 watts, goes 20% faster at 7.7mph. What this means is that pushing those heavy watts downhill provides much less benefit than pushing those heavy watts uphill.

The only validity to Mueller’s statement was the accumulation of fatigue from these accelerations. It is well known to anyone who has ever raced in a criterium in cycling that accelerations can destroy the legs. But also, as anyone who has ever done this can tell you, the body can be trained to accept these accelerations and the first crit hurts worse than the second one. One thing I find that no coach can adequately stress to a triathlete is to implement these accelerations in training sessions. When approaching a kicker hill, I rise out of the saddle and power over it. At the crest, I drop my wattage down slightly below average. My average wattage definitely suffers, but my speed does not.  While the body can be trained to adapt to these accelerations, it still will not be able to sustain the same watts as if it were consistently trucking. However, the fact is that we don’t need to push as high of wattage. In the second example above, Rider B only had to push an average wattage of 255 watts compared to Rider A’s 300 watts and we saw the results of that race.

An additional benefit that I noted above is that pushing high watts downhill is exceedingly difficult. I am not exactly sure why this is but from holding a heavy wattage downhill feels uncomfortable compared to equal effort uphill. This style of racing essentially eliminates this awkward effort, recognizing that it is a waste of energy to hammer equal watts downhill. Riding hard uphill puts the highest amount of effort in a setting where the body is most welcome to it. On a really hilly course, popping out of the aero position when the speed drops below 15mph can open up the lungs and put the hips in a more powerful position. This position on the bike makes the wattage easier and can be followed nicely by a very aero tuck on the subsequent downhill.

All these demonstrations, however are still theoretical so what happens in reality? If all this math seems bogus to you, last year at Luray Triathlon, I implemented this technique to its most ridiculous extreme simply out of curiosity of its effect. I attacked the uphills with ferocity as if the race ended at the summit. On downhills, my chest dropped to the top tube, my hands tucked in Graeme Obree style, and I coasted. I beat the course record from the previous year by 51 seconds.

I’m sure Greg Mueller would admit his mistake, but I felt compelled to point it out before consistent power caught on as a racing strategy. For people who are worried about making it through the race, take it easy. For anyone who wants to go fast, look to limit the extremes of your speed by powering over climbs and easing on downhills and I guarantee you, your times will improve.

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