Smart Athlete

Category Archives — Smart Athlete

Should You Use Heart Rate or Power? (or RPE?)

The Take-A-Way:

Use Heart Rate to control/limit Aerobic or low-intensity focused intervals or sessions and Wattage (and feeling/RPE) to guide your Intensity. Having a session goal (low intensity or high-intensity day?) and the feeling the ‘correct’ intensity are your main concerns.

Heart Rate or Power?

Why choose? There was a push years ago to throw out your heart rate strap and just use power since it gave an instantaneous measure of the work you were doing. This movement forgot about the athlete (and their brain) and that minute to minute, day to day we can not assume that 200 watts is always the same (this is a good way to end up crying beside your trainer).

200 watts is very different 30 minutes into a ride versus 300 minutes into a ride

When doing longer, aerobic or ‘low-intensity’ sessions or intervals then heart rate will tend to have more utility. This helps us stay away from going too hard for the day’s goals. You might do an endurance ride at 65-75% max heart rate (MHR) but also use wattage to stay steady during your ride.


  • HR is slow to respond. When riding steady at low-intensity heart rate your goal is generally to ride continuously at a fairly stable pace so heart rate response being slower is not a big deal as the load is consistent.
  • HR is susceptible to heat, altitude and really any ‘stress’ or load on the body but this is not a bad way to track the training … of your body.
  • For very fit riders, very tired riders, or when riding in the cold you can have a lower HR while RPE is higher (and watts normal to high). Having Wattage to back up a decision to train at an appropriate level is quite useful and something I do often as my heart rate tends to be lower. In this sense it supports my feeling of what ‘low intensity’ is by saying ‘this is enough’.

Both / AND vs. Either/ OR

Having both power and heart rate lets you examine ‘efficiency factor’ and HR:PW (decoupling) by seeing what wattage you can do at a given heart rate and also how that relationship changes over the ride. These are great measurements of how your aerobic fitness is progressing that would not be possible if we threw our heart rate straps out.

The last climb in a hard race – Have you FELT this before in training???

Go Hard When You Go Hard

For intensity days it is more feeling that you should be focused on (I call this practicing ‘putting your hand in the fire‘). Wattage is useful to motivate, control and progress your efforts but for the sake of racing and developing your pacing/racing skill you should be feeling and observing how a given pace feels.

Once or Twice a week try and do repetitions that are hard but relatively stable between efforts (e.g. 3-4 x 8-12 minutes hard). Your wattage here is a great guide to stable intervals and session goals because you can see how you are doing during the session and gradually progress these sessions each week. It is important these sessions start looking [AND FEELING] like your goal event and the critical moments in those events (e.g. attacks, break-a-ways, climbs, the final climb, etc)

This focused work where we are paying attention and pushing into the red zone (putting hands in the fire) is critical. Too often athletes do 1 really hard and then quit the session and do not train as they intended.

Heart Rate for Intensity?

Heart rate can still be quite helpful. If you can start into your interval by feeling and/or power you can still use heart rate to help gauge if you are stressing your body equally or increasingly versus past sessions. In a hill repetition workout you might hit a certain peak heart rate in the first repetition then (on the same hill) you can hit the same or slightly higher peak HR on subsequent repetitions.

In the 3-4 x 8-12 session might see the peak heart rate in the 85-95%MHR range. What your heart rate peaks at and the time in different zones or ranges might also indicate how the session went (ie. accumulate minutes in tempo zone).

How many Watts am I pushing here ???

Racing with Heart Rate or Power

This is a related question and [I think] helps to explain why we must always be using our FEELING/RPE in training. We inevitably race by feeling and ‘in the moment’ so our training should prepare us for this physiologically, psychologically, technically and tactically.

Many fit mountain bikers struggle to steer around the trees while pushing those huge watts

Most offroad disciplines are technical and highly variable (temperature, surfaces, grades, etc) so power is hard to use during the race and heart rate might serve to limit the strain on the body early in endurance events (e.g. stay under 85%MHR for the first half of event).

Most if not all races require you to feel and think to pace your race optimally and use tactics appropriate to the race and your fitness/goals. In longer events, a heart rate or power limit or goal can certainly be useful for triangulation but it is not wise to go into an event without confidence in your ability to race ‘by feel’.


I would love to hear if I have forgotten to mention something or you have another idea or a follow-up question. The comments are available here or reach out via Twitter or the Contact page.

Big Goal Got Cancelled. What now?

At the present time (March 2020) we have a worldwide pandemic that has canceled pretty much everything for…well…for a long time. Things are very serious and no one really knows what will happen next. We are lucky to even be thinking about sport and how it fits into our day.

Beyond our present situation, races can get canceled or removed from your season for all sorts of reasons. Family emergency, race permitting/finance, weather, illness, and injury. It is always a blow to motivation and a threat to long term consistency.

With any disruption, our first concern must be our health. Recovering mentally and physically before resuming training. If stress from life is still present then we must be conservative in our training load to avoid further disruption. As you resume training focus on feeling/rpe much more than power, it will come back but be cautious going deep.

To distract myself from all that is going on right now, I turned to an old friend, The movie ‘Wedding Crashers’, for distraction. I ended up also getting inspiration for how to cope with canceled races.

“I knew I was never going to be a professional bullfighter, but that’s not why I did it.”

Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers

The reality is that none [few] of us can logically be using sport for ‘extrinsic’ (outside of us) reasons. We are not racing in the Olympics or The Tour De France, and no one is paying us. True, you might like the thrill of competition, the glory of an age-group podium, or the social side of races but if you are reading about training and racing than you have a love for the process. You are motivated and enjoy some variation or combination of: moving, training, adventure, connecting with people, nature, health, fitness, speed, pushing your limits or skill development.

So what now? 

As I work through this situation with the athletes I coach, I am finding that variations of the below two questions, or thought experiments, help to frame a couple of next steps and reflect on WHY we do any of it.

There are no wrong answers here. We are just looking to pull out what you like to do and what you would like to do more of in the future, even if the foreseeable future is uncertain. [You may have to watch Wedding Crashers a few times before your WHY becomes apparent.]

Thought Experiment #1 – Race or No Race 

A) If there are no races for this year … what would you do? Think about this in terms of your daily/weekly routine and workouts and hobbies … would you change anything?

 — OR —

B) If your goal race was 100% happening for sure … what would your day to day life/training be like? 

Are there differences between the 2 scenarios above?

What are they? Why? 

If there is a large difference between the two extreme scenarios, reflect on whether you can bring more of the no-race lifestyle into your day-to-day now, even for a few weeks and see if your fitness, motivation, or enjoyment of training changes. 

Planning a virtual race or challenge for the extrinsically motivated athlete (one who needs a goal to motivate training) can also be a good idea. Zwift, Strava, and FKT (Fastest Known Times) are possible avenues to look for more controllable outcome/event goals. 

Would you go to a Bike Park and jump your bike more? I know I would! Why can’t I do more of this regardless of racing?

Thought Experiment #2 – Long-term, Dream, 1-5 year goals? 

What do you want to do in 2021 or in 3-4 years or in? or 5+ years? (Think about your skills, fitness, achievements, athlete-self, lifestyle, etc) 

Do you need racing to progress in that direction? (Could you improve key skills or elements of fitness that would benefit even if there’s no racing this year?)  

Does racing NEED to be here to move in that direction? (Could you refine your technical skills by riding very technical MTB trails? Or ride more gravel without a gravel race?) 

What can you do without racing? 

Many of us want to be racing at a higher level or be ‘more of an athlete’. There is so much we need to learn and so much that DOESN”T need racing. Focus on what we can do NOW/this year. 

Ideas For Disrupted Times: 

Would you adventure with friends on crazy trails more?

Set Process/Practice/Skill Goals That take advantage of no Racing

Depending on what your current situation is, you may still be able to ride outside. If so, consider:

  • RIDE FOR FUN – this is often missed due to race weekends. Now, try to enjoy your weekends as much as you can in this situation.
  • RIDE BY FEELING – it is likely you are busy/stressed/tired … use your RPE/Feeling, resist the urge to hold onto wattage or HR at this time. Think consistency. [thanks to Adam D. for this thought in comments]
  • Technical & Hilly riding – Getting to technical/hard/awesome areas that you don’t usually go to due to travel to races and race schedules. Make your normal week of riding harder so your ‘normal’ is at a new level. (Please be careful on technical terrain, as you don’t want to injure yourself now.) 
  • Dismount/Mount – this is just important and translates into so much else on the bike in addition to helping save/recover from crashes. 
  • Speed Skill – Cadence, spinups, shifting, accelerating  – getting comfortable with high RPMs, going quickly and adjusting speed and effort. (e.g. 5 x 30 seconds at high effort/cadence)  
  • Executing Intervals outside – this is a skill that gets missed or lost due to racing but that will make you a much better cyclist/racer. 

Set Outcome/Experience Goals to Replace Racing

  • FKT (Fastest Known Time) or big rides can provide much of the ‘post-race high’ and still feed into your experience as an athlete. 
  • Improving your ‘base’, volume, fitness: With no racing, we have the opportunity to do more as spring comes then we usually would not be able to. For many cyclists, this is a very rare experience. Take time to learn about actually going through training blocks outside and raise your fitness (base).  
  • Improve your tests (fitness) – Seeing your training pay off in a measured way is something many people haven’t seen. (e.g. do 3-4 x 8-12 minutes hard *but sustainable* intervals 2x a week for 3 weeks and then rest and recover and re-test) 

I leave you with more Wedding Crashers:

“We have no way of knowing what lays ahead for us in the future. All we can do is use the information at hand to make the best decision possible.”

Christopher Walken in Wedding Crashers

More Insights/Perspective on Strategies for when Races Get Cancelled.

Contact me – or – Book a phone consult if you need help with reworking your season and setting targets

What is Your Workout?

This is a fairly specific post about doing a workout exactly as written versus doing the general idea of the workout (or even tweaking it!) More precisely, I am trying to head off confusion about what I am asking you to do when you get a workout through training peaks. With new clients always coming to Smart Athlete and existing clients adapting to new technology, this post was over-due. Hopefully, it also serves as a philosophical reflection for you when you follow a training plan or pursue a goal.


Remember we can do pretty much any workout outside … You can add structure to FUN and OUTSIDE! If you are looking at the ‘structured download’ this is not what I expect you to do (it is what a Smart Trainer might take you through). The title (and description) are what I am asking you to replicate given where you are and the tools/environment you have.

Bike training started outside! Remember that when you train – especially if you intend to ride and race outside!

4 ways to figure out what your workout is

  • Training Peaks emails you with your workout each day (adjustable in Settings) you read the description in that email (handy if you need to double-check something during your ride)
  • You check out the mobile app and then go do the workout (read the description/title and go for it!)
  • You read the title/description on your desktop computer
  • You follow the ‘structured download’ on your Garmin / Zwift Etc.

The Structured workout is more detailed … often TOO detailed

In all cases, it is critical to know that the structured workout is very close to the description and provides a generalized timing and specific wattages/RPE for each section of the ride BUT it is flawed in that it doesn’t allow you time to warm up, recover more, get to the hill, pause to help the kids or stop at a traffic light.

The specific wattages are base on your FTP which is nice to give you an idea in actual [absolute] numbers (e.g. 200-220watts for a 10min interval) but it doesn’t take into account if you are indoors, on a different bike, having a good/bad day, if it is hot, etc. This can be the best or the worst information to have … even on the same ride!

I do not intend for you to follow the workout to the letter

This same information can be examined in the Mobile App and in the Training Peaks Calendar.

There will often be a 3rd Description for the Download/Structured workout in your email/workout window (would be a scroll down in the image above – reflecting the BLUE workout builder about 2/3s up the screenshot)

You do not need to know/read/write down the download. It is more for a smart trainer ERG program and is NOT what I intend you to do if not using those programs.

I find the best results come from using Manual Mode but these downloads add another option for longer workouts to get some variation. Ideally when you ride you have read the description and done some planning to choose a route (or trainer setup) and set some targets for the day, however:

The key thing is to not try to be 100% accurate to the workout but to get out and try it!

  • If an interval is slightly different that is OK!
  • If you need more recovery take it!
  • If you need to increase/decrease output that is okay!
  • If you have a busy day but can still get out for the workout … read the title and the best you can for that day!

Aim for 80% is a passing grade (more on that philosophy here)

Event for Gravel Endurance

Have you checked out the Weekender Ride in Ontario on May 2nd/3rd 2020? My long-time friend Mike Garrigan and Blacksmith Cycles are putting on this event for the second year. I will be riding Day-1 on one of the longer routes so it might be a good chance for us to connect on the road and/or after for dinner in Midland!

Come Ride with me on some of Southern Ontario’s finest Gravel roads!

This event caught my eye because it is a low key weekend that could serve as a very good training block for a variety of abilities and goals while being a great social weekend as well. For many events, it is also timed well!

Learn More/Register

There is a range of routes (180km up to 350km split between the two days) and the price is quite good for a weekend that takes care of your accommodation, and route!

Is Your Goal too Big?

Each year I have a few clients that come to me with goals they have signed up for that are pretty big. Perhaps too big to do for there current abilities/lifestyle and/or too big for the time-line that has been established

Now I did write ‘Pick a big Crazy goal‘ but I also wrote “Can you prepare for the Goal You Have Set“, so there are some caveats and finesse in how we choose those yearly targets.

You are likely fine if …

If you have a goal that is motivating you and is just going to be a push then this is likely ok. Ensure you have a long term vision beyond the race and some practical skill/practice goals as well as event day ‘process’ goals that allow you to achieve success regardless of results/outcomes.

When I am working on bike-skills with clients I often ask if the skill they are about to try is more of a 9/10 or a 1/10 chance they will do the obstacle. If confidence doesn’t seem high we can always use safer drills, modifications, progressions & regressions to get confidence higher. With events and goals, this ‘closer to 9’ strategy is likely wise for many of us given all that we have on in addition to the sport. There is generally a way to modify the goal by tweaking the event type, distance, category, timing (different event, different year) etc.

Example of goals and skills

Some examples around my goal to finish an Ironman, which given my background in endurance sport wasn’t that ambitious (i.e. no time goal). My motivation was to learn to swim. So I had Skill goals around learning to swim in the year prior to the event. I had event day process goals to Focusing-refocus on my stroke/sighting in the swim whenever I started to panic (process), and I wanted to finish the swim in the race in under 1:30 (outcome) which was based on the simulations in training and allowed for the randomness of event day and my lack of experience in the event.

Too Much

An example would be signing up for an Ironman triathlon in 6 months if you can’t swim/bike/run. Often there are also lifestyle factors that limit your ability to train hard (i.e. health issues, busy work life, busy family life). Now this same person could plan for an Ironman in 3-5 years with a focus on one or two of the sports this year with some events and skill goals that they can fit into their busy life and see progress in over the year. It is important to note that this person might very well be able to finish an Ironman. The question is whether that is a good long term solution and what they will do after they finish it? … why rush?

If your goal is mathematically too much for you this year (ie. fitness/skills/speed is just too much to accumulate) than you have 3 options:

  1. defer to next year – many events allow this at least early in the year
  2. drop to a shorter (faster) distance – this is often available closer to the event and is a good way to get a feel for the event. SPEED and quality are great aspects you can take pride in at these shorter events.
  3. Be ok with ‘failure’ and see how far you can get – some clients have gone to events like MTB stage races as new mountain bikers knowing they wouldn’t make a few time cuts or have to miss a day or two. Then they went back the next year and did better, and again the next year. They greatly enjoyed the group meals and summer camp experience and went into the event with goals that they could achieve vs. goals that were all but impossible *at that time* given their previous experience and life ahead of the event.

I think all of these options are great! The key is to embrace that these are all part of a longer-term process of mastery and accumulating skills and well … having fun going on big training adventures to prepare for these crazy events!

We discussed this in a Q&A Episode of the Consummate Athlete Podcast

Female Physiology in Sport

This latest episode of the Consummate Athlete with Researcher, Masters Student and Cross-Country Ski Coach Anneke Winegarden gives some great insights into the world of Sports Physiology and some perspectives specific to female athletes. Anneke also gives some great tips for those wanting to try cross-country skiing or improve their Nordic performance!

See the full show-notes and check out more episodes at

Actionable insights include:

  • Tracking your period to get a sense of where you are in your cycle and how performance is affected by different phases of the cycle
  • Getting further assessments if periods are being missed
  • Working on single leg stance and balance to improve skiing (ie. in gym)
  • Working on no-poles skiing frequently in warmups and workouts to enhance balance and glide.

2020 Leadville MTB Training Plan

The popular Leadville 100 Mile Mountain Bike Race announced its lottery winners (and losers … who then became winners due to some mistaken charges) this past week. So you may be now past the stress of getting in and now considering … how the heck will I prepare for this?

The big questions … Can you prepare for the goal you have set? Are you excited to prepare for the goal?

I have written about Setting Big Crazy Goals previously. It is important that at this early stage your big goals excite you and motivate you (and maybe scare you a bit). BUT I also find it is important that these big goals also provide WINS simply by moving in their direction … regardless of whether you get the goal (in the article I reference my doing an Ironman to scare myself into learning to swim). Your Winning with Leadville might be to learn to climb better, to mountain bike better, to go on some really big adventures this spring/summer with friends while training.

The Leadville Plan

With that said I have a 6-month plan that starts on March 3rd specific to the Leadville 100. It helps you build your fitness but also gives you ideas about how to improve skills, plan your travel and prepare for this big crazy goal.

You can learn more and purchase the plan NOW via training peaks and it will populate in starting on March 2nd and ending on Race day in Leadville, Colorado.

Need more Customization?

This is a stock plan and requires some adjustment on your part for your fitness and inevitable changes in your family/work schedules. I do offer Phone consults to help adjust these stock plans but you may also want to consider a 100% Made-For-You Plan for $99 (for 3 months) to get a more customized training plan or make the step-up to one of the Coaching Programs to add coaching feedback, accountability, file-analysis, and adjustments to your plan.

2020 Clinics w. Smart Athlete

The 2020 season is already underway with winter training camps and early bookings for spring and summer (and even for the fall Cyclocross preparation!)

Get something booked!

Joyride April – Get Ready for the trails

Already open for booking are 3 April Joyride150 Bike Park sessions to help you get ready for the outdoor riding season without worrying about how the weather looks – These run rain or shine in predictable Joyride! Book your spot now (also available same day for privates)

Spring – Log Hop Intensive – Dufferin/Mansfield – 2 hours

Book your spot now

Rocks and Descending at 3 Stage – 3 hours w. skills and guided ride

Book your spot now

Let’s Plan something for your group.

I wanted to give you a nudge and some ideas for your group, club, team or friend-group for 2020 cycling skill-building and adventures! The handout below includes some ideas and rough pricing but please feel free to contact me for more details.

On-location sessions are common for clubs at their local trails or for a bigger adventure come up to Collingwood for a guided session focused on technical trails or hilly gravel terrain!

Let’s start talking! Contact me!

Road Pedals, MTB Pedals, or Flat Pedals

Pedal choice may not seem like something that should be contentious but there is something about using clipless pedals over flat pedals (and vice-versa) that sparkes polarizing discussions and screaming matches.

There is also enough ‘cross’ over thanks to disciplines like Cyclocross, Gravel, and Enduro or ‘Trail’ oriented (non-racing) mountain biking that there can be a debate as to what pedal system is right, especially for non-pros when you have an option … or three for your pedal allegiances.

If you are racing road/track

We will get this one out of the way first, if you are among the most elite and specialized of athletes winning time-trials, sprints and triathlons then use the shoes that are ‘industry standard. This is the equipment used by the best and many of my arguments about using mountain bike shoes are moot if you are only pedaling maximally and looking for every second of efficiency, even at the cost of comfort and safety.

Road vs. MTB Clipless shoes

It is my belief that mountain bike clipless and flat-soled shoes are the way to go for many people who race.

Here’s why I believe this:

  • Having two sets of shoes for most off-road disciplines is great.
  • Having the ability to walk (and fall less) when you go into the cafe or down those sketchy steps at home is great.
  • Having a bit more room for your foot to move in the shoe should be a good thing for foot health (which is apparently tied to everything…)
  • Practicing clipping in every time you clip in is important for many disciplines … starting is important (maybe everything) in Cyclocross and MTB-XCO
  • Practicing mounts/dismounts – This is important for most off-road disciplines and should be a year-round pursuit. Every time you get on your bike could be practice …
  • Easy to switch between bikes and get ready to ride each day.
  • Likely saving money on fewer total pedals/cleats purchased for ‘the stable’

It is difficult to argue for Road clipless shoes for the general public without resorting to personal attacks or ‘coolness’ or ‘tradition’ arguments. I tried in the above section for elites but aside from style (which is a fine argument I will accept and those who are pushing for podiums, I do not see the pros outweighing the small wins in skills, comfort, efficiency, money-savings, time-savings and so on.

It’s not just me saying this …

It also was also the basic conclusion in this GCN video that compared Road to Mountain Bike Clipless – there were ‘marginal gains’ in aerodynamics, possible comfort on long rides, and ‘perhaps’ more power transfer.

Flat Pedals vs. Clipless: For the skills

Flat pedals (using a ‘skate-board type’ hard-soled shoe) are usually associated with BMX or with kids but many very good mountain bikers use flat pedals. If you don’t race but ride mountain bikes it is worth considering for safety, comfort and skill development. If you race, it is still worth considering how you can spend more time on flats.

2 Anecdotes supporting using Flat-Pedals as an adult:

  1. Anecdotally, I did a 2-week flat pedal challenge on my cyclocross bike this fall and HUGELY boosted by barrier hopping skill.
  2. In my Ryan Leech course on Cyclocross Mounts/dismounts, I have seen many clients in person and online make huge progress in cyclocross mounts and dismounts simply by removing the need to clip in and out (and fear of falling over) away for a few sessions or even just a few repetitions.

If you are just learning to ride bikes or looking to improve your bike skills then flat pedals are the fastest way to learn. Skills like balance, cornering, hopping, jumping and standing to pedal. This is my experience mostly but it also seems like common sense. It is very likely how you learned to ride and how you rode for many years if you rode as a child. Not being terrified of falling over (not unclipping) and being able to get going after a stop/’dab’ is a HUGE accelerator for the learning in kids and adults.

It is easy to forget the way you learned after you have been clipped in for so long.

If you are trying to get a young person or someone you like to learn to ride then please do not give them clipless pedals. Many kids have raced at a very high-level on flat pedals. They are not trying to win sprints or attack climbs and they will be fine in the kid’s race and hopefully even better after the race where they go and practice jumps and tricks with their friends.

Perhaps more contentious is that most people (yes you, adult cyclocross racer) should spend some time on flat pedals whether that is on a mountain bike, a commuter and/or a BMX / dirt jumper. Learning to push into the bike is important.

Why be clipped in at all?

There is fairly good evidence that clipping in will help with aggressive or maximal pedaling. Again, no one is riding flat pedals for sprints and fast hill climbing. Several studies have looked at this such as

Studies aside, any debate should be settled by a sprint competition … everyone uses both types of pedals and completes some sprints … heck there is a study (let me know if you do it or find it…)


I think it is worth finishing by considering how pedal/shoe choice may influence injury. As cyclists, we end up with a lot of repetition, especially if we only use one type of shoes/pedal/bike position.

If you find you struggle with things like IT Band tendonitis, knee pain, foot pain or hip pain then it might be worth playing with using only mountain bike shoes and/or switching to flat pedals for some or all of your rides. The latter can greatly increase your movement options and allow you to modify the lateral position (this alone can be huge) of the foot as well as fore-aft as you ride.

Indeed I found this study by Fletcher (2019) interesting because they found that some people with an injury did better with different levels of flex in their clipless shoes. If simply changing flex in the clipless shoe modified injury then it is not a jump to think modifying cleat or shoe type might also influence discomfort or pain.

Personally and professionally with coaching clients, I have seen the switch to mountain bike shoes and also to flat pedals (for short periods at least) resolve many issues of overuse. Perhaps variety is the answer, it often is, but in my mind, the economic, safety, comfort and ability to go hiking up a random trail on my road bike at a moment’s notice is worth it (that last part might just be me …)