The PMC: capturing the essence of TARWAP

What an obscure name for an article! Bet I get about 5 hits.

This is an article about training with power and integrating classical periodised training planning into the theories expounded in “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” by Allen and Coggan (“TARWAP”). Although there is a lot of overlap between the two, to me TARWAP represents a fundamental mind shift, that’s not easy to get at first (or even second) read.

The Performance Management Chart (PMC) is one of the most useful tools in WKO+. The concepts behind it are fairly straightforward, and are clearly described in an article on Training Peaks website. However, coming from a “classical” background, as described in The Cyclist’s Training Bible by Joe Friel, it took a while for me to grasp the significance of this tool and, moreover, how to integrate it with what I already knew about training. It’s taken me a while, but I’m starting to get there, and I want to try and share what I’ve learnt. I hope this piece might help some people who are going through the same process as me.

This article assumes some familiarity with classical periodisation of training, by which I mean a “3 weeks on / 1 week off” cycle based training plan. I’m not going to try to redefine that, or to rewrite the TrainingPeaks piece, but I do need to define some terms, which I’ll quote directly from Hunter Allen:

  • CTL = Long term effects – workouts done 15 days ago and older
  • ATL = Short term effects – workouts done in the last 14 days

Now, what does the PMC look like? Here’s one I made earlier (click the picture to expand). The blue line is CTL, the magenta line ATL, and the yellow bars TSB.

Using the PMC – a “classical” view.

A periodised training plan typically has 4 basic sections: “Base”, “Build”, “Peak”, “Race”. In Base you do lots of zone 2 volume, in build you add some intensity and drop some of the volume, in peak you’re all about intensity, and in race you go out there and put all this fitness to work.

When I read TARWAP for the first time I thought I got it, and to an extent I did – I tested for my FTP, I started working to power zones instead of Heart Rate zones, and I saw decent progress in my training and performance. However, there’s a whole section of the book devoted to the PMC, about which I was very much left thinking “yeah, and?” I could see how long term and short term effects would matter, but I didn’t really “get it” in the way that I got the more “project managed” approach described by Friel and co. What really helped me was to take a step back.

Looking at the PMC again, we can see the blue line rising over time as training continues and fitness and fatigue is built over the long term. Ok, that’s clear, you train more, you get fitter. The question is, what’s actually driving that blue line? It’s a rolling average over the last X days of your Training Stress Score (“TSS”). TSS is calculated by WKO+ / TrainingPeaks as part of logging your workout, and basically is a measure of how much stress you placed on your physical systems through a particular workout. Think about it in terms of tiredness – checking my old data, I can see that I generated a TSS of about 90 for:

  • A 2.5 hour ride out to the country averaging zone 2
  • A 1 hour 2×20 interval session zone 3 / zone 4

So, the PMC is capturing training stress (TSS) and how it builds up over time. Going back to the periodised training plan, we can see that in fact, the typical plan is working on the same basis. For example, in the “base” section, we doing lots of volume – we’re accumulating TSS from the length of the ride, not the intensity. When we shift into Build, we accumulate less TSS from volume but more from intensity. And so on. Realising this really opened my eyes, as I finally appreciated that in fact a periodised plan is only one way of generating the TSS that is being measured in the PMC. This training effect is captured by both the ATL (short term work) and CTL (long term fitness), irrespective of how it is being generated. I felt quite liberated, and started to think about my training in a much more fundamental way. As a consequence, I refocused my off-season training on two things: making sure I was getting enough TSS every week to keep the blue CTL line creeping upwards, and focusing my training on the types of efforts that would be most useful for my racing.

Rethinking My Training

Just briefly, I want to give an idea of how you can apply this in practice. First off, set your self a target CTL gain per week – Coggan suggests CTL increases of 4-8 per week are sustainable, and I’ve certainly managed that, but everyone’s abilities and time is different. As we’ve seen, higher TSS means (up to a point) higher fitness. Typically I work out one week in advance the type of sessions I want to do, focusing both on the TSS contribution of a training session and how my week is structured to balance training, recovery and “real life”. I’m not tied down so much to a rigid plan, or feeling guilty if I’m not doing workout x on day y. I also try to get the best “bang for my buck”, so I train in the sweetspot – the best trade off between TSS and ability to recover from the workout.

I’m going to stop now, as this post could go on and on, but quickly, what does that mean in terms of “real work”? Let’s think about in terms of specificity – focusing on training which is going to support the types of efforts I’m going to be making in a race. Well, I’m a fairly low level road racer, so what do I need to be able to do?

  • Ride for 2-3 hours at variable pace, probably averaging zone 3
  • Ride at or above threshold for short-medium intervals
  • Ride at “top end” for short efforts
  • Sprint

If you’re like me, I suggest you think about things in the same terms.

(p.s. FTP, FTP, FTP!)

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