What’s the next big thing in training?

Look ahead 10 or 20 years, how are cyclists of the future training smarter and more effectively? We canvass opinion from three innovators at the cutting edge

“You can guarantee that in 15 years’ time we will be training differently.” That’s the forecast of Simon Jones, head of innovation at Team Sky.

He’s the man whose job it is to learn how to exploit the latest developments in sports science to make Team Sky riders go (even) faster.

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But futurology is a murky business, and predicting which developing trends are going to be silver bullets and which will be blanks is very difficult.

This uncertainty is why Team Sky expose themselves to as many ideas as possible — from hosting start-up competitions for budding sports technologists to arranging for Sir Dave Brailsford to spend several days in California meeting companies developing some of the most ‘out-there’ ideas.

From devices that clamp electrodes on the head to improve the ability to learn, to real-time sensors that can look deep inside a rider’s body and see what’s happening to their muscles and metabolism, not all of the blue-sky stuff will make it to the pro peloton or the mass market.

The relentless drive to understand and improve cycling performance is accelerating. As Brailsford said after his sojourn in Silicon Valley: “You can never run out of marginal gains.”

We spoke to three experts working in the field and asked them to peer into the future.

Simon Jones, head of innovation, Team Sky

Team Sky, stage nine of the 2016 Vuelta a España. Photo: Graham Watson

Team Sky, stage nine of the 2016 Vuelta a España. Photo: Graham Watson

“Imagine a cycling simulator which used augmented reality in an immersive environment where we could practise descending. At the moment, we don’t practise descending much because it’s risky to do it at race pace.

“Or augmented reality for set plays like a team time trial. In pro cycling you can’t get familiar with all the courses — every race is a new route and knowing the course is important, especially for pacing, making sure you deliver your effort when you need to. You could imagine a situation where you model the course and you are virtually there.”

It is, Jones confesses, blue-sky thinking. To imagine that a supercharged version of Pokemon Go could help pro cyclists go downhill faster or complete TTTs in perfect formation in the fastest possible time is a bit of a stretch.

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But nonetheless, it’s a mark of how seriously Team Sky take innovation that Jones has visited a £30m aircraft simulator to assess whether the technology could be applicable to improving performance for cyclists.

Team Sky’s answer to Bond’s ‘Q’ has assessed what evidence there may be for augmented reality’s usefulness.

At present, it’s of limited use because the studies show that the brain can detect that a virtual experience, no matter how immersive, is not real, and it disengages: the tech isn’t yet quite clever enough to convince us.

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However, this technology is developing rapidly and Jones is keeping a close eye on it. “I think it could all get very interesting,” he says.

But for now, Jones and the backroom boffins at Team Sky are concentrating on the human body in their endless search for improved performances.

He does not expect a “eureka moment” but a slow and steady series of continuous improvements as we learn more about the metabolism of world-class cyclists.

“We still don’t know a huge amount about the training process. Training is a bit like a black box — you do some training and then something happens at the end. There’s a lag. You train and you get worse and then when you recover, you get better.

“The science behind that, and the knowledge behind that and how individuals respond and adapt to training is the biggest and the most obvious area to look [for improvement potential].”

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Jones believes that understanding the interactions between training, nutrition, fatigue and recovery are where the next big gains could be found. And he’s using technology some would call old to advance Team Sky’s understanding.

“Heart rate variability has been around for 20 years but now you can measure it with good certainty and reliability on your phone. Understanding fatigue is important to us. It’s the people who understand the strain on the body, interpret the data and implement strategies to capitalise on the knowledge who will get the big gains.”

Jones reckons that wearable technology and sensors could yield new understanding of the metabolism, but he warns against serious amateur cyclists getting suckered by too many marketing promises.

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“You can now get all this data. But people get confused and suddenly two plus two equals five. Correlation is not causation. And people don’t understand that, especially if they look at a graph
on a piece of marketing showing that this equals this. That’s not necessarily the case.”

Despite the methodical collection and interpretation of data, with its reliance on hard evidence, seeming like a very slow process towards steady gains, Jones says that there is always the possibility of a breakthrough.

“Sports science is still young, and it’s not inconceivable to think there are breakthroughs to come. At the moment on the bike, we are 25 per cent efficient because 75 per cent of energy is lost through heat. To improve efficiency by five per cent could lead to a massive increase in performance. That might happen in my lifetime.”

Ben Sharp, power education specialist, Stages

geraint thomas pinarello dogma k8 tour de france bike stages power meter

Stages power meter, as use by Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas. Photo: Chris Catchpole

If there is one company that has been in the vanguard of the power meter revolution in training, it is Stages.

The pricing of its single-sided product made power meters more accessible than ever, and their relationship with Team Sky was transformational in getting power-monitoring accepted by the section of the cycling community that takes training seriously.

Stages’ Ben Sharp thinks that the way we understand data from tools like power meters and other sensors is likely to be the area where the next big leap in training techniques is found.

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“You are seeing big developments in wearables, like lactate measurement devices. Some of them need development to be as widely accepted as power meters, but we are getting closer to that.

“You have tools for measuring heart rate variability and sleep quality, for instance. But being able to broker and display this information in a way that’s meaningful to everyone from expert coaches to beginner users is the real challenge.

“At the moment you could have 18 different metrics on 18 different spreadsheets and there is a risk of paralysis through analysis. Having a metric that is unified, rather than disparate, is the challenge. A lot of companies are striving to take in all this information, then relay it to the consumer, for example, how recovered they are.

“A way to look at all this information in one place is the tipping point. The real challenge is to find a way to illustrate the relationships between all these metrics and to be able to see a cause-and-effect relationship between one number and another.”

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Stages is working on integrating the numbers its product generates with online platforms. Specifically, it has a new partnership with the Australian platform Today’s Plan.

“We are working collectively with them on technical development,” says Sharp. “A power meter is a tool and it can help you go faster or achieve your goal but simply bolting one to your bike doesn’t do that. There is information that must be understood and interpreted to get the best out of the tool.”

Sharp agrees that the march of technology in the training arena is unstoppable and that wearables are probably the most exciting branch of sports science presently. Is Stages involved? His answer is guarded: “We have regular discussions about things which are not necessarily related to what we are doing now — we are always keeping our options open.”

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He will say no more, but as one of the leading popularisers of advanced measurements using sensors, Stages are likely to be involved in the next big developments in this area.

“We are going to continue to learn more about the metrics we are already taking and how to use that information to promote best possible performance. But there are things that are being developed that we might not even be able to conceptualise. Look at power meters. What was previously innovative becomes customary in a quick turnaround time.”

End every ride with the right routine

Tammy Walters, sales director, BSX Insight

American company BSX Insight is leading the charge in wearables for cyclists. Its crowd-funded Insight product got off to a rocky start; the first version was not well received, but version two is much improved.

Its optical sensor embedded into a sleeve worn over the calf uses infra-red light to measure how oxygenated muscles are.

An algorithm converts this muscle oxygenation (SMO2) metric into an estimation of lactate threshold (LT), which allows extremely accurate training zones to be set, based on individual physiology.

Until now, accurate lactate threshold test was only possible by drawing blood repeatedly during a ramp test in a sports science lab. The Insight allows cyclists to take LT tests as often as they wish without suffering through a ramp test in an expensive sports science lab.

“One benefit of taking frequent LT tests is that you can tell if your training is working. If you don’t see improvements in LT, you know you need to make changes in training,” says Walters.

The SMO2 analysed by the device can be read in real time on a head unit such as the Garmin series. Early adopters are reporting encouraging results (see below).

Now the company is taking the next step in real-time analysis of metabolic processes and is developing a wearable hydration monitor.

The device, worn on the wrist, would give users a constant read out of the amount of water in the body, theoretically removing the risk of becoming dehydrated to the extent that it affects performance.

“It would let you know in real time whether or not you are drinking enough,” says Walters. Drinking to thirst is a “lagging indicator”, she adds — meaning that leaving drinking until you’re thirsty may be too late.

The science on drinking to thirst is contentious and inconclusive, but Walters maintains real-time monitoring gives serious amateurs the best possible chance of succeeding in their goals.

“It’s exciting to have choices. In the past, these kinds of tools were limited to pro or elite athletes. This puts it into the hands of everybody.”

Metrics of the future?

Illustration: Jason Hardy

Illustration: Jason Hardy

1 Core temperature

Measuring core temperature in real time could theoretically help you keep cool when it matters most, for example, by easing off your pace, using the shaded parts of the road, dousing with water, etc.

2 Haemoglobin

Knowing at any moment the haemoglobin content of your blood could potentially help in understanding your peaks and troughs in performance.

3 Lactate

If blood lactate could be continuously measured, rather than by finger-prick test, the accuracy of training zones could be further improved — possibly helping to training optimally.

4 Oxygen saturation

Could knowing how much oxygen is currently in your muscle be a superior way of monitoring lactate?

5 Sweat rate

If your onboard computer told you exactly how fast you were losing water, you’d have a clearer idea of how much to drink — possibly very useful indeed.

6 Hydration level

Similar to sweat rate, and perhaps even more useful, an accurate real-time measurement of hydration status would allow you to stay optimally hydrated at all times.

7 Energy efficiency

It’s blue-sky thinking at present, but improving how efficiently your body turns fuel into forward motion — and, in turn, tweaking the factors affecting this percentage — could be a game-changer.

8 HR variability

Knowing the precise gaps in time between heart beats may help build a picture of how well recovered you are — thus, HRV may help to determine when to back off and when to press on.

Mark Lansdown: early adopter

Mark Lansdown by Russell Ellis

Eager for marginal gains. Photo: Russell Ellis

As a medical doctor with a keen interest in sports physiology, Mark Lansdown was one of the first in the queue for the BSX Insight.

He was looking to improve his TT times in events ranging from club 10s to 12-hour marathons, and to hone his fitness for competing in crits. As a veteran athlete, in his 50s, Lansdown was acutely aware of the value of training precisely and being aware of the need to recover effectively.

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He has now been using the BSX Insight (RRP: £277) for more than a year — and his experience is that more frequent testing of his LT is much more practical than either lab tests or using power or HR to approximate his threshold.

“Compared to a 20-minute threshold test using Trainer Road, the experience is less unpleasant so it makes it easier to test more often,” says Lansdown. “The manufacturer claims it is more accurate as muscle oxygenation — a surrogate for blood lactate — is used in the algorithm.”

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Lansdown adds that one of the original motivations for signing up to the crowdfunding model for the Insight was that it would end up a good deal cheaper than investing in a power meter but would be just as useful for setting training zones.

He is uncertain whether it could replace a power meter for the dedicated data geek because of natural variation in SMO2 levels.

“For me, though, the biggest benefits have come from using SMO2 to fine-tune my warm-up before time trials and explore what my most efficient cadence is at different power outputs.

“I have started to explore using it to pace time trials but the expected day-to-day fluctuations in SMO2 may make it less reliable than power.”

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The experimental amateur thinks there’s still a gap in the amount of knowledge available to make the device accessible to a wider base of cyclists, who may not necessarily have a comprehensive understanding of sport science.

“There is still a shortage of information readily available on how to incorporate real-time SMO2 into everyday training and racing. [SMO2] can be displayed on the newer Garmin devices using an app, but the data is not presently saved to the FIT file. You can save SMO2 instead of cadence on some Garmin devices.”

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Lansdown doesn’t regret the investment, and believes that his specialised knowledge has helped him get the best from the device — a theory supported by a series of recent PBs in his chosen TT events.

“With a background in medicine and physiology, this device appealed to me and I think I have benefited from the insights it has given me into my response to exercise.”