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How tech can make you faster

Craig Cunningham
22 Mar 2016

We take a look at how some of the technology and products out there could help you to gain some speed

Like a spoilt Millennial child, we’re suckers for a bit of tech. From making indoor training fly by to recording our power output that one per cent more accurately, we look at all the bits and bobs out there that can make you a better and faster rider

Strava

After its initial release in 2009, the exercise-tracking app has gone from just an app to a cycling way of life. The simple idea of curating ‘segments’ compels us mere cycling mortals to battle it out like the gods of the pro peloton. So much so that last year saw over 115 million rides uploaded worldwide, including 23 million rides uploaded in the UK alone. On Sunday 7th June, the world’s busiest Strava day last year, 4.1 billion kilometres were logged, which comes up just short of a visit to Uranus and back again. With pros and amateurs both utilising the app, Strava has bridged the gap between fans and their idols, much like Twitter did back in 2006, swapping your Lily Allens for your Alex Dowsetts. Sharing their performance inspires many riders to push themselves. As American journalist Tom Vanderbilt once said, ‘Strava may be a home for repressed Walter Mittys clad in the yellow jersey of the mind, but it can also unlock a kind of inner frontier of exploration.’ Here we can show you how…

How does it work?

Pushing aside the primeval urges of beating fellow cyclists towards that sweet KOM, Strava has a whole host of other features that can help you increase your speed. 

Monthly Challenges

By shifting the idea of training rides from the realm of monotonous mile-munching to competitive badge collecting, the regular challenges issued by Strava act like a call from the cycling gods. Initially, Strava incentivised these rides with loot you could purchase once you’d completed a challenge, usually in the shape of a one-off jersey. They’ve recently binned that idea in favour of  virtual roundels which appear on your profile – which is a cheaper option for us and no less desirable in its own way. 

The social-facilitation of the app and its challenges were dreamt up by Strava’s co-founder Michael Horvath who wanted to recreate his youthful days as a rower. ‘When you leave a sport,’ he revealed, ‘you realise that so much of what made you excited about being an athlete was the motivation you got from your team-mates. You can’t replicate that. It’s hard to find eight guys to row with every day.’ By digitally reproducing sport’s camaraderie, Horvath’s app can now push you to challenge yourself each month. 

Training Plans

Many enjoy Strava’s free custodian duties, recording data and keeping archives, but there is a plethora of tools that can be used to help you drop those precious seconds. By escalating to Premium membership, Strava evolves from dry record book to fully integrated coaching programme. By incorporating Carmichael Training Systems, Strava Premium proposes a host of training plans. With 10 four-week programmes to choose from, you can work on pretty much anything from improving your endurance, and training your lactate threshold to improving V02max. All plans can be adjusted to your weekly time spent on the bike, so you can train from just five hours up to 12, either indoors or out.   

Live Segments

One of the best ways to improve yourself is through the slight evolution of Strava’s segments. Live segments. ‘What’s the blimmin’ difference?’ we hear you ask. Well, using newer GPS devices, like the Garmin Edge 520, you’re prompted when a segment is coming up on a ride. Before you’d have to ride and hope you hit the segment at the right moment, then would review this once you were plumped in your favourite post-ride armchair. Now you can see exactly where the segment begins and ends as you’re riding it. The technology tracks you against other riders and shows whether you’re up or down on their time – a factor that’ll prompt you to either push hard or push harder. Much like a time-trial minuteman, your Garmin can give you an update on how fast you’re going, in conjunction with other wheelers. Seeing your progress in real time is a massive advantage – think of it as a Sir Alex Ferguson giving you the hairdryer treatment mid bike ride. 

Power Meter Analysis

Unlike Team Sky gaffer Sir Dave Brailsford, you don’t have the time or resources to scour hours and hours of video footage and crunch numerous numbers. Such a task would require the patience of a saint and the dedication of a Shaolin monk, but with Strava’s power-meter analysis you can cut right through all that. By implementing your power meter into your training, you can see how much power you’ve generated on the ride. With the help of Strava, you can log every effort and measure it against your functional threshold power (FTP). 

strava.com

Zwift

As you begrudgingly spin in your dank pain cave atop your turbo trainer, you may question what exactly you’re doing. Enter Zwift. The US company opened its virtual doors last year, allowing people to take to the virtual streets and train outside from the comfort of their home. Co-founder Eric Min thought up the idea after having to stare at his basement wall for hours on end. Zwift went from strength to strength in 2015, even recreating the UCI Road World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia. With plans to construct places both new and familiar in 2016, virtual-reality wheelers have a lot to look forward to. ‘It’s just a game though, it won’t make me faster,’ we hear you shout, but bragging rights are a powerful thing. With weekly group rides and competitive crits, you’ll be chomping at the bit to best your buddy’s time. And don’t let its soft graphics fool you, the calculations that go into making the game are as serious as the science that goes into making Froomey a Tour de France champ. ‘I’m all about watts per kilo over time,’ Jon Mayfield, Zwift’s co-founder and ‘game master’ said recently. ‘We want this to be fun and entertaining, but with legit training technology. We have a different virtual power than anyone. We use speed and acceleration, not just speed, as sprinting is important.’ 

Zwift also has the capability to integrate your training regime into the software, with memos directing you accordingly. On top of all that, you might spot a pro or two, such as Jens Voigt and Ted King who frequent Zwift Island. Imagine pitting yourself against them!

How does it work?

If you use a turbo trainer, you’ll be able to take part. The most basic set-up involves a trainer coupled with an ANT+ speed sensor and a PC, but if you’re lucky enough to have a compatible smart trainer (such as the CycleOps Powerbeam Pro, £925, paligap.cc), Zwift will instruct the trainer to mimic the virtual gradient by adjusting the resistance level. 

After an initial sign-up and gear set-up, you find yourself pitting your skills against fellow pain cave dwellers across the globe snatching KOM/QOMs and holding onto leader jerseys for as long as you can. 

zwift.com

Garmin Edge 520

Garmin’s cycling computers have dominated the GPS scene and with good reason. In July last year Garmin, revamped its beloved Edge 510 model, introducing a whole host of features including Strava Live Segments compatibility. That’s just the tip of it, though…

How does it work?

This little beauty is a really versatile piece of tech. Wear a heart rate monitor and it can analyse your warm-up and provide advice on what effort you should be aiming to accomplish on that ride – guidance that can really help you structure your rides. 

Unlike the pros, we amateurs don’t have a team of trainers following our every move but, if used right, the Garmin Edge 520 goes a long way to providing a similar level of assistance. When used in conjunction with a compatible heart-rate monitor, this small but powerful device can estimate your VO2max – basically the maximal amount of oxygen your body can deliver to your muscles in a minute – through its analysis of your heart rate variation. Knowing your VO2max will help you effectively break down your training schedule into different zones of effort (see page 6 of the free Guide to Spring Training that accompanies this issue). Much like knowing your functional threshold power, VO2max will dictate what training zones you will ride in and, by knowing this, you’ll be really be able to work on your marginal gains. 

Like a whole host of cycling computers, the Edge 520 can also analyse your cadence with the right sensors. Why is this good? Well, having a good cadence is paramount to maintaining energy levels efficiently. A simple thing like increasing cadence can pay huge dividends for very little effort. By doing this you push a much lower force thanks to the gear combinations. If you can make a habit of it your body will use less oxygen and will thank you century after century.

Power Meters

As the technology of pros trickles down to us regular folk, we have started to see the cost of power meters come down, too. Before power meters became a constant in the world of cycling analysis, old pros like Poulidor and De Vlaeminck would champion heart rate as the key to understanding their training better. So why are power meters so great? Unlike speed or heart rate, your power output is the purest measurement, mainly because it can’t be affected by external matters. It sits at the basis of everything you do as a cyclist, it’s the force you create to push the bike. Functional threshold power is the highest level of power you can hold for a set time. Your power output can be measured in a few different ways and, depending on how much cash you want to splash, here are a few different options.

Stages power meter

Waiting at the gateway to the world of power meters are Stages ready to guide you by the hand. Their meters replace your left-side crank arm and measure the power output of one leg, doubling it to give you a reading. Team Sky use them and if they’re good enough for Sir Dave and the boys, they must have some pedigree. 

saddleback.co.uk

Powertap

Created by turbo-trainer producer CycleOps, the Powertap was engineered to be one of the most accurate meters out there, claiming to measure within 1.5 per cent either way. And when
you know your power output to that level of accuracy, your training can only benefit. However being a hub-based system, you have build it into a wheel so if you want to race and train on different wheels, you may need one for each set. 

paligap.cc

Garmin Vector

The simplest, easiest and lightest of the whole bunch award goes to Garmin. Its Vector pedal power meters weigh only 426g and can easily be taken off one bike and put on another. By measuring power output where it originally exits the body, the Vector can measure the output more accurately and by using a pair of pedals it can measure each leg individually. Why’s that handy? Well, bodies are all slightly asymmetrical and each leg will produce slightly different power readings, so measuring the output of one leg and doubling it can sometimes be misleading. By knowing the variations, you can adjust your training accordingly to compensate. Being a pedal-based system, the Vector can also analyse your pedal stroke. By doing this you can then see how to make your strokes more efficient and harness energy that would normally be wasted. 

madison.co.uk

Infocranks

If you want to go the whole hog, go for InfoCranks – adopted by British Cycling for their incredible accuracy. The Australian makers have done away with single crank-arm measurements and have created a whole crank system. By having power recorders in both cranks you get an even more accurate reading than, say, in a system like Garmin’s Vectors which need to recalibrating quite frequently. Paying that extra bit of cash means no recalibration is required, no matter what bike you integrate your cranks onto.

infocrank.uk

Ithlete HRV monitor

In 1977, Seppo Säynäjäkangas (yeah, we know, we had to write it!) invented the world’s first mobile heart rate monitor that athletes could use as they trained. Seppo (we’ll stick to his first name) created it as an aid for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski team before switching its use from snow to tarmac. Since then it’s become a mainstay for any training program. Now Ithlete is aiming to change the game with its heart-rate variability monitor. 

How does it work?

An average heart rate of 60bpm doesn’t mean a single beat per second – the pauses between beats can vary from half a second up to two seconds. Knowing your heart rate variability (HRV) is useful because studies show that athletes who are overtrained have a lower HRV – surprisingly, higher HRV indicates a healthier heart. The Ithlete HRV monitor measures HRV to give you a clearer picture of how your training is going.

By monitoring your HRV you’ll know if you’re overtraining. This will allow you to better plan training and recovery periods so you can hit those sweet spots for longer. According to Ithlete founder Simon Wegerif, ‘By taking a short measurement of HRV every morning and comparing it to your own baseline, you can quickly see how recovered you are and can therefore decide how hard you are able to train that day. If your HRV is at a good level, you can really go for it, whereas when your HRV and recovery are lower, you can either spend time on aerobic development or take a well-earned rest day.  By adjusting training volume and intensity, you maximise adaptation while minimising the risk of overuse injuries.’ 

myithlete.com

Aftershokz headphones 

Wearing ear-buds while riding is a perennial heated debate among cyclists but these clever wireless headphones work via bone conduction, so the wearer isn’t cut off from ambient noise. By vibrating directly against the cheekbones sound appears in the inner ear, with nothing blocking the ear canal itself, so you’ll still hear that truck revving behind you. Using them with an app like Endomondo (endomondo.com) can turn your phone into a virtual coach, yelling split times at you each kilometre or providing alerts when you hit a heart-rate or power zone. Compatible with most music apps, Endomondo also allows you to play motivational tunes at the same time. Plus it’s free – or £4.49 per month for the premium version. 

aftershockz-co.uk

Solos smart eyewear

Like the hoverboard, decent virtual-reality glasses are one of those magic products that we’ve been promised is just around the corner since at least the early 80s. While not strictly speaking a virtual reality headset, an augmented reality display like the sleek Solos from Kopin is the next best thing – they’re like regular cycling shades but with your metrics projected onto the lenses in front of your eyes. Unlike similar products, the brains of the Solos are in a paired smartphone app, which frees up space and battery power. Speakers in the arms and a mic allow for audio prompts and voice commands, so you can control what’s displayed without removing your hands from the bars. See solos-wearables.com for further details. 

solos-wearables.com

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