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  • Writer's pictureKurt Braeckel

What is "Work"?

There is a common saying among endurance sports coaches and their athletes: "There are no shortcuts - you gotta do the work!" In my experience as an athlete and as a coach, this adage is true. It's not one that I appreciated as a young athlete - I was not the most disciplined teenage runner, and often wasn't very motivated to get out and run on my own.

When I got back into endurance sports in my mid-20s, I was more focused and disciplined. I incorporated a mantra into my own training: "Discipline trumps motivation."

There will be plenty of days when you don't feel like doing your training. You're tired. There's a good movie on. It's cold or wet or windy or... you name it. Sometimes, you need to listen to your body when it's telling you to take a day off - you're sick, you've overtrained, or your sleep or diet has been poor for several days.

On other days... Discipline trumps motivation.

Get on the bike, ride easy, and spin your legs out... you might be surprised how much better you feel once you get going.

So back to "work". You get faster on your bike by riding your bike... and then recovering from the work you've done. But first and foremost, you have to do the work. There are no shortcuts.

There are no magic workouts that will make you faster by this weekend. Consistent work, followed by disciplined recovery, done month after month, year after year, is how you achieve your potential in endurance sports.

Brittanica defines work: "In physics, a measure of energy transfer that occurs when an object is moved over a distance by an external force at least part of which is applied in the direction of the displacement."

In cycling, the external force is generated by the rider - that's you. The object you're moving is the combination of the bike and your body (along with anything you're carrying). The energy is transferred from your body to the pedals, through the drivetrain, and down to the tires on the road, propelling the bike forward. At the most detailed level, it's the mitochondria in your muscle cells, producing energy in the form of ATP largely using oxygen and/or glycogen (sugar)... and that energy goes all the way down to the road surface. It's pretty incredible to think about!

Work is measured in Joules, or kilojoules (kJ) for cyclists. The amount of kJ of work you do on the bike roughly translates to the number of calories your body burns (not exactly, but close enough for our purposes). The bottom line here: the more kJ you burned, the more work you did moving the bike!

So here's your quiz for today:

Take a rider with a 285W Functional Threshold Power (FTP), weighing 71kg. (IF = Intensity Factor, a quick measure of the physiological toll on your body from a workout. 1.0 is the equivalent of riding at your functional threshold for one hour; an IF of 0.65 is a moderate, zone 2 endurance ride).

In which of the following rides did this rider do the most work?

  1. Moderate endurance: 3hrs steady low- to mid-Z2 at ~180W average power. (IF = 0.65)

  2. Sweet Spot: Warmup + 3 x 30min at 90% of FTP on 5 min recovery between + Cooldown (total session: 2hrs) (IF = 0.85)

  3. Threshold: Warmup + 35 min at Threshold (280W) + 1hr endurance riding ~180W + Cooldown (total session: 2hrs) (IF = 0.81)

  4. Group Ride: A 3h 45min group ride of varied intensity with very hard sections and lots of coasting (IF = 0.77)

In order from left to right, here are the Strava power distributions for these rides:

Do you have your answer?

Here are the work values from those rides:

  1. Endurance - 3hr low- to mid-Z2 ride: 1912 kJ

  2. Sweet Spot - 2hrs with 90min at 90% FTP: 1607 kJ

  3. Threshold - 2hrs with 35 min at 100% FTP: 1445 kJ

  4. Group ride - 3h 45min with hard efforts: 2094 kJ

If you guessed the Group Ride, you win the prize... or do you?

Take a look again at those values for work - remember, work is the transfer of energy via the application of force to move an object. So in which workout did I (oh yeah, these are all my rides by the way) do the most work?

Yes, it's the group ride, no trick here... but look at that 3-hour, relatively easy endurance ride... It's barely less work overall than the significantly longer (45 min) smash-fest Great Western Loop workout group ride that had a threshold section, a bunch of VO2max time, some sprinting, and a couple of other high-powered efforts.

The endurance ride (#1) was entirely conversation-paced, with steady pressure on the pedals, and never any real stress. Every other ride was physically far more taxing and difficult to recover from. I could've done it again the next day.

If I had done a ride of equal length (3h 45m) at low intensity, the work done would've been much greater, almost 500kJ more, than the group ride... and again, much easier to recover from!

Intensity Factor (IF) shows the physiological cost of a ride in a quick snapshot... 1 hour at 1.0IF is a very hard ride. Nearly 4 hours at 0.77 is also highly taxing, as are 2 hours above 0.8.

In the cases of rides 2, 3, and 4, each of these rides would cause much more fatigue than 3 hours of relatively easy riding. It's not uncommon for me to feel restless legs and struggle to sleep, and often feel some soreness after a 3x30 at 90% session - that's why I don't do them very often at all!

AND, I actually did LESS work overall than if I'd gone out for a longer, much easier ride even though I was much more fatigued afterward.

Same with the group ride - while I did about 150kJ more work, that ride was FAR more difficult for me to recover from because of the intense efforts that were thrown in there, even with almost half the ride spent in Zone 1 or coasting!

To improve in cycling, you've got to "do the work." You've got to do it consistently, and you've got to do it over the course of months and years.

Your training is a balance of doing quality work and recovering from that quality work so you can do more work again. The point of today's exercise is to show that you can do a TON of work by going out and riding steady, easy, long rides that give tremendous aerobic adaptations and are relatively easy to recover from. You don't have to smash yourself flat day in, day out. In fact, when you do, you're likely digging yourself into a hole of fatigue that won't allow you to go do more work (or do more quality work) over the course of the next few days while your body recovers.

You won't achieve great race results by riding easy every single day. Equally, you won't achieve great race results by riding hard every day. Training is a balance of the two, done at the proper times, to achieve peak fitness at a time when you want to have your best performance. That's called "periodization"... it's what gets you on your best form when it matters, rather than being faster than everyone in December when it doesn't.

The bread and butter of your training are where you can get the most work done with the least fatigue cost to your body - and that's those long, easy rides I've written about a few times now. If you're sacrificing those rides in the hopes that a few harder intervals in shorter sessions will maximize your capabilities, you aren't doing the work. You can improve that way, but eventually, you will plateau without those longer, disciplined rides.

There are no shortcuts... you gotta do the work (and then recover from it and do it again).

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