How To Sweet Spot During a Group Ride
I wrote the original sweet spot article fifteen years ago and it is nice to hear how many athletes have added it to their training and benefited. Sweet Spot Training is incredibly effective! Since then I've written the "How to Sweet Spot" and "How Much Sweet Spot" training tips based on questions I'd get from athletes, friends, journalists and other coaches. In the How To Sweet Spot article example #2 was "Group Ride Sweet Spot" but here now that technique deserves it's own training tip. Why? Because group rides in the sweet spot are an incredibly beneficial form of training. I've been coaching athletes how to train in the sweet spot on group rides for years an I'd like to describe that here so you know how to as well.
What is Sweet Spot Training?It's zone and a training technique - both combined together. In the graph below, the sweet spot is located between high zone 3 and low zone 4: between 84% to 97% of your FTP (power at threshold). For the non powermeter user I would call it "medium hard" - below your 40k time trial race pace, but harder than a traditional tempo workout.
How to ride in the Sweet Spot on Group Ride
From the How To Sweet Spot tip its example # 2: "ride on the front in the wind, take longer more frequent pulls. Do more work, be aggressive. While all this is going on, use your powermeter to confirm that you are indeed sweet spottin'. Or participate in a group ride with stronger riders that force you to ride harder just to stay with the group." Let's break that down with several of considerations.
The "hard" group ride:
One of the best training techniques that's been around long before sweet spot training is to train with stronger riders. Girls go ride with the boys, Cat 3's ride the the P1/2's, and old guys with the young guns. By doing so, you are forced to keep up and in order to stay in the group you are probably riding in your sweet spot!
When the group's pace pushes you just right (in the sweet spot), this is one of the best sensations you can experience on a training ride. I mean you can literally feel yourself getting faster (haha). How can you tell? Two ways: by feel and with your HR and powermeter data, primarily post ride. During the ride, ask yourself, "am I riding 84-97% of my race pace? Just under threshold?" If the answer is yes, you are riding in the sweet spot.
A quick glance at your wattage will often confirm whether or not you are in the sweet spot. Back home in front of the computer, analyze the durations during the ride when it was 'on' and look for heart rates and/or normalized power (> 10 minutes) between 84-97% of your Functional Threshold HR and Power (FTP). That is the sweet spot.
I like to calculate how much time was spent in the sweet spot with a manual analysis of normalized power for the sections of the group ride where it was 'on'. For example, in the file below you can see once the group got going there were 5 sections where the athlete rode in the sweet spot for a total of 64 minutes in sections of 24 > 9 > 9 >10 > 12 minutes.
That is a great training day, the athlete had fun an would not have been able to conjure up that amount of sweet spot volume of on their own. Plus the athlete got some skills practice by riding in a group, drafting, holding wheels and maneuvering in the bunch.
Go with the Flow
Often times when an athlete implements this technique (training with stronger riders) he or she is at the mercy of the group's pace. Sometimes the group may go too hard and the athlete is dropped and other times maybe the group doesn't go that hard. In these cases, I'll encourage riders to simply go with the flow because the pro's outweigh the cons. Many public group rides follow a route and a script. In other words, the group rides the same route and goes hard for this section, slower thru that one and then its game on for the final section. I like these group rides for athletes because you can coach them thru the group ride by introducing strategy and tactics before the ride and then analyze the data and quantify the amount of sweet spot training they achieve.
The "medium" group ride
What if you are riding with a group that may not push you near as much as the hard group ride? For example a team ride where most everyone is equal in ability and power output. In this case there are two ways to ride in the sweet spot:
- Take longer pulls on the front
- Ride out in the wind
Approach these rides by taking longer than normal pulls on the front (in the sweet spot). Then rather than dropping all the way back to the very back of the group, only drop back a few wheels so that you can take a pull sooner (like 1-3 minutes) with less coasting from sitting in.
When you take sweet spot pulls that are truly in the sweet spot and don't go harder (use your powermeter to double check during the ride to not pull too hard) you can drop back for 1-3 minutes, catch a breather and hit the front again for another long sweet spot pull. Depending on your ability level and the dynamics of the group ride, you may be able to take sweet spot pulls over and over again for 1, 2 even 3 hours or longer.
What if you can't make it back up to front after you've recovered? Then simply slot out to the right of the wheel in front of you to catch more wind and less draft*. Modulate your draft and the speed of the group will put you right up in the sweet spot. Check your powermeter during and data after. Experiment and adjust. This is where windy days in crosswinds tend to promote good sweet spot training. Plus skills. The next time it's gusting sideways for your group ride, relish that you'll probably get in more sweet spot training because of the cross winds.
*slot out to the right towards the edge of the road and never to the left where cars from behind are coming. Sharing the road goes both ways and the group is already presumably two abreast. Making the group 3 riders wide is not safe nor good group ride etiquette.
"Train Dumb, Race Smart":
Leave your ego at the coffee shop when using these two sweet spot techniques because it'll be easy for your teammates to attack you from behind. Plus when you arrive at a hill where the group goes for it or a 'game on' section you may not be able to respond.
Riding hard in the sweet spot on the front of a group ride is an old school training technique that has been around much longer than sweet spot training. Your teammates or the riders behind you in your draft have have been sitting in while you've been slogging away getting good training in. Yes, you know you'll be attacked, and potentially dropped (this is the 'dumb') but the 'smart' is that you are getting good training in to use later on in the year when it matters the most: at the races. An there you'll be sitting in (the 'smart').
Don't be a group ride hero sitting in all the time attacking your teammates - take longer pulls and ride out in the wind. You'll be a much faster and better teammate when it comes time to race.
Group Ride Sweet Spot Metrics: TSS, CTL & Normalized Power and Time Spent in the Sweet Spot:
Back in front of ye 'ol computer post ride, you'll want to confirm that you were riding in the sweet spot first and 2nd, measure how much. Confirming is easy: normalized power and heart rates between 84 - 97% of your FTP.
To quantify and measure the total 'sweet spot load" (as described above) I mark up the data file manually and add up the time in minutes. This will give you a single number (64 minutes) to try and achieve or eclipse the next week and the next. For this athlete's training (data above), I'll recommend the same group ride with a goal of 75 minutes of sweet spot this coming weekend and then 90 the next.
Upon opening up a power file, Training Stress Score (TSS) is my goto metric when answering the question "how much sweet spot did the athlete achieve?" When I introduced sweet spot training in 2005, it was a training technique I was using to generate large TSS's day after day. Because remember, we were using our own data to develop the Performance Manager Chart (aka TSTWKT). Thus we learned and showed (with power data) that sweet spot training is wonderful for generating large TSS's that raises an athlete's CTL ,that leads to higher power output (we measured that too).
And circling back to the topic of sweet spot training on a group ride, I was doing that too. I just haven't thought to write the training tip until now!
From the data above, this athlete achieved a TSS of 240 in 4 hours ands was able to back that up with a 260 TSS ride the next day. In doing so he raised his CTL from 78 to 86 over the weekend.
Sweet spot training during a group ride is a terrific training technique for building a huge aerobic engine. Winter/Spring for the roadies and mountain bikers and Spring/Summer for the cyclocrossers.
The bigger the base you build (as measure by your CTL) , the faster (more powerful) you can be. In summary there are three primary ways to ride in the sweet spot during a group ride:
- Join a group ride with stronger riders that push you up into the sweet spot
- Take longer "Sweet Spot Pulls"
- Ride out in the wind for less draft and more watts (sweet spot)
As a side note one of my favorite sweet spot training rides is one where I ride with the younger guns and train dumb to race smart, using all three techniques above. I regularly achieve TSS's of ~150 in less than 2 hours of riding. For all three use your powermeter and heart rate to verify during the ride that you are in fact in the sweet spot and post ride when you analyze your data.
Lastly, I have designed a "Six Weeks to the Sweet Spot" Training Plan for $49 with the Sweet Spot Group Rides described above. Choose between a basic, intermediate or advanced plan depending on your ability level, age and how much time you have to train to raise your threshold power as much as 5-20% (depending on several factors).
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Frank Overton is the owner, founder and head coach at FasCat Coaching, a cycling coaching company in Boulder, CO. To talk with Frank or a FasCat Coach about sweet spottin' on your group rides, please call 720.406.7444, or fill out a New Athlete Questionnaire to set up a Coaching Consultation.