Friday, September 25, 2015

Quarq Factor Phase Three - The Elevation Effect

Quarq Factor   
  Phase Three - The Elevation Effect
In the last Quarq Factor Installment, we examined the "Euro Effect" on race power and how various International UCI events differ from those in the US. Specifically, the highly technical nature of the courses, larger fields, and higher and deeper level of competition than in the US requires a significantly higher initial output (1 to 2 min. peak power) to be competitive. How well riders deal with that initial effort and the highly intense first lap output determines subsequent lap output and ultimately their race performance. 

After the brief and illuminating foray into European Spring racing, for Phase Three of the Quarq Factor the remaining three US summer races provided an opportunity to examine the effects of moderate to very high elevation across three UCI Junior events: the Missoula ProXCT, Colorado Springs ProXCT, and the National Championships at Mammoth Mountain, CA. 
The Quarq Factor Criteria

At Whole Athlete, we use a standard called Maximal Steady State (MSS), a real-world performance threshold of 20-30 minute peak power and heart rate which reflect readily measurable and repeatable criteria confirmed with either a simple field test or through the validated MSS testing protocol used at the Whole Athlete Performance Center

During a mountain bike race, a better representation of the highly variable workload over time is normalized power since it represents the physiological demands by estimating the power that could have been maintained had it been constant. For each rider, normalized power as a percentage of their individual MSS gives the value relative meaning since each person's specific power levels can be quite different. We will keep each rider's actual power data confidential, yet still provide a representation that is meaningful and informative.

The Elevation Effect

With three domestic UCI events on tap for the Juniors, culminating with the very high elevation National Championship race at Mammoth Mountain, the Whole Athlete/Specialized Team embarked on a four-week high elevation acclimation race camp to prepare the riders for the hypoxic demands of racing above 8000 ft. The first stop was the Missoula ProXCT where the course climbs up to moderate elevation at just under 4500 ft., followed by the Colorado Springs ProXCT at a high elevation of 6500 ft., and finally Nationals in Mammoth on a course that topped out at the very high elevation of 8800 ft. 

Many sea level riders experience adverse effects even at the moderate elevation of the Missoula ProXCT course. Given the pure climbing nature in which almost all the elevation gain occurs in the first 3/4 of each lap, pacing is critical. The race starts immediately up the main climb with little to no recovery until the highest point. Despite the successful outcome of the race for our riders, a few fell victim to an unsustainable initial output (Table 1). Athlete 3 and Athlete 4 both suffered later in the race from their first lap efforts, with Athlete 4 fading significantly from such a hard starting lap at 115% of MSS. Only those who are from high elevation were able to bounce back from the fast start, and those that rode the first lap at or below their MSS normalized power performed the best.

At the high elevation of Colorado Springs, the athletes from elevation performed best, as those from sea level were still in the acclimation process. Yet despite not being fully acclimated, all of the non-elevation athletes paced it well and thus performed well (Table 2). The punchy nature of the course resulted in lower average power for most of the riders as compared with Missoula. 

The main target - XC National Championships in Mammoth - posed a major challenge to those not fully acclimated to high elevation. With a course that climbed from 8000 to 8800 feet of elevation each lap, the thin, dry air was sure to be a factor. Even those who live at relatively high elevation are challenged to avoid the common pitfall of starting too hard at such altitude where it can be impossible to recover from going too deep early on. With this important strategy in mind, most of our athletes kept their initial lap under control, and those that did performed well. The exceptions were Athlete 3 who struggled to come back after an early crash, and Athlete 4 who started harder than sustainable at such high elevation, fading significantly in the last two laps (Table 3). Once again, the ability to start hard enough without going too deep, maintain steady pacing for the middle laps, and finish with a strong final lap resulted in the best performances.

Table 1: Missoula, MT ProXCT - Junior UCI
Normalized Power as Percentage of Maximal Steady State
Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5 Lap 6 Race Avg
Athlete 1 100% 89% 91% 89% 93%
Athlete 2 105% 94% 91% 97% 97%
Athlete 3 108% 90% 90% 96% 97%
Athlete 4 115% 103% 95% 78% 100%
Athlete 5 91% 86% 88% 85% 84% 88% 87%

Table 2: Colorado Springs, CO ProXCT - Junior UCI
Normalized Power as Percentage of Maximal Steady State
Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5 Lap 6 Lap 7 Race Avg
Athlete 1 77% 80% 76% 79% 83% 80%
Athlete 2 100% 97% 99% 101% 108% 102%
Athlete 3 105% 106% 100% 102% 114% 106%
Athlete 4 99% 85% 86% 90% 91%
Athlete 5 77% 80% 76% 77% 79% 79% 88% 80%
Athlete 6 88% 82% 86% 92% 88%
Athlete 7 87% 81% 80% 86% 84%
*Final lap for each was a half lap.

Table 3: XC National Championships, Mammoth Mountain, CA
Normalized Power as Percentage of Maximal Steady State
Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5 Race Avg
Athlete 1 83% 85% 84% 86% 85%
Athlete 2 102% 99% 97% 96% 99%
Athlete 3 101% 87% 80% 78% 88%
Athlete 4 108% 95% 86% 76% 93%
Athlete 5 83% 80% 78% 80% 87% 82%
Athlete 6 92% 84% 87% 88%
Athlete 7 88% 82% 78% 83%

Table 4: Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power by Event
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140%
Event: Missoula Co Springs XC Nats Missoula Co Springs XC Nats Missoula Co Springs XC Nats
Athlete 1 9:05 7:08 8:38 11:00 9:15 10:15 7:40 4:30 2:45
Athlete 2 7:00 4:30 6:39 12:00 11:33 12:00 14:00 18:00 15:00
Athlete 3 8:48 7:15 8:40 11:30 16:00 9:10 6:00 12:20 3:45
Athlete 4 15:15 13:30 12:30 11:10 6:36 7:00 6:20 3:30 4:00
Athlete 5 12:00 11:51 10:00 14:15 12:15 9:15 7:45 7:15 4:15
Athlete 6 13:07 9:04 5:54 5:23 4:20 3:00
Athlete 7 10:41 9:09 5:15 4:14 6:30 3:15

Table 4 shows time at MSS power and above by event. Consistent with data from the spring races, the course profiles once again influence power distribution. Courses with more sustained climbing such as Missoula and Nationals tend to have less time spent at the highest power range, whereas the punchiness of a course like Co Springs results in more time >140% of MSS. It is interesting to note that individual differences between athletes show up in their time at various power ranges, which underscores where each athlete naturally excels. For example, Athlete 2 and Athlete 3 have excellent relative supra-threshold power. Athlete 1 and Athlete 5 also have good supra-threshold power, yet also show more depth of sustainable power and the ability to maintain a high "floor" of MSS to 140% of MSS power, even on punchier courses. Tables 5-11 below further demonstrate the individual differences when looking at each athlete's power separately.

Table 5: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 1
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Missoula 9:05 11:00 7:40 Sustained
Co Springs 7:08 9:15 4:30 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 8:38 10:15 2:45 Sustained

Table 6: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 2
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Missoula 7:00 12:00 14:00 Sustained
Co Springs 4:30 11:33 18:00 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 6:39 12:00 15:00 Sustained

Table 7: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 3
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Missoula 8:48 11:00 6:00 Sustained
Co Springs 7:15 16:00 12:20 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 8:40 9:10 3:45 Sustained

Table 8: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 4
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Missoula 15:15 11:10 6:20 Sustained
Co Springs 13:30 6:36 3:30 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 12:30 7:00 4:00 Sustained

Table 9: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 5
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Missoula 12:00 14:15 7:45 Sustained
Co Springs 11:51 12:15 7:15 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 10:00 9:15 4:15 Sustained

Table 10: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 6
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Co Springs 13:07 5:54 4:20 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 9:04 5:23 3:00 Sustained

Table 11: Comparison of US Summer Events - Athlete 7
Time at Maximal Steady State (MSS) and Supra-Threshold Power
MSS: 100 - 120% 120-140% >140% Climbing
Co Springs 10:41 5:15 6:30 Short/ Punchy
Nationals 9:09 4:14 3:15 Sustained

Season Summary - What have we learned?
The nature of cross country mountain bike racing, specifically at the international level has evolved into a shorter and more intense event than ever. Most UCI courses tend to favor those able to produce significant and repeated supra-threshold power, but also with a high sustainable power floor to back it up. The ability to start hard and produce a very high output without going too deep, recover well, and follow it up with strong pacing to finish without fading tends to result in the most successful performances.

While the unsustainable nature of the start of XC races is typical, the ability to regulate the initial output and ride within oneself is critical. There are many who are able to start fast, and even ride a very fast first lap. But without the depth and proper pacing to back up the initial lap, battling the inevitable fade throughout a race can be a losing struggle. Thus the dilemma we face in the need to start hard enough to be competitive, recover, and maintain a high output throughout. In US racing, there tends to be more opportunity to start a bit more conservatively, build throughout a race, and still perform well, while in Europe the level of competition and unyielding pace demands a fast start and the depth to back it up. With comprehensive power data now available thanks to the Quarq XX1 powermeter, we can see exactly what needs to happen to be successful at the highest level. 

Cypress Gorry
Gorry showed his consistency all season.

Kelsey Urban
Urban battles in Euro mud.

Haley Batten
Batten excelled at high elevation.

Anders Johnson 


About the Quarq Factor Project
A longtime tool for road racers worldwide, the powermeter has become a valuable asset for the mountain bike as well with the release of the Quarq XX1. For the 2015 season, the Whole Athlete/Specialized Team has partnered with Quarq Powermeters to employ this powerful tool in an innovative project called The Quarq Factor


By analyzing race data throughout the year, the team will determine optimal pacing strategies, measure power requirements of each course, and explore what it takes for each rider to continue on an optimal development path with greater training specificity.

Whole Athlete/Specialized will publish an analysis of the data periodically to demonstrate the power of the Quarq for competitive cyclists looking to take their racing to the next level.

About the Whole Athlete / Specialized Team

A non-profit Junior / U23 development program, the Whole Athlete/Specialized Team's mission is to invest in the future of our youth and the sport of cycling by developing young athletes at the regional, national, and international levels with dedication, integrity, and fun. Our mission is enabled by coaches, mentors, volunteers, and donors of the Velo Development Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

The 2015 Whole Athlete / Specialized Cycling Team is a program of the the Velo Development Foundation, generously supported by Whole Athlete, Specialized Bicycle Components, Quarq Powermeters, Marin Natural Medicine Clinic, Marin Cyclists, DNA Cycling, Osmo Nutrition, ProBar, Oakley, Tam Bikes, KewlFit, Rock Tape, Elemental Herbs, DZ Nuts, ProGold Lubricants, Enduro Bearings, Feedback Sports, Play Hard Give Back, ESI Grips, Mellow Motors, Genuine Innovations, and Bungalow Munch Organic Granola.
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