Paul Nixon's Blog |||

How to win a sportive…


… and how a power meter can help you!

First off I shall anticipate and deliberately ignore the amateur purists that will argue you can’t win a sportive because it is not technically a race. When a few hundred people line up in a timed event and you’re the fastest, you’ve won.

I might be a contrarian but I think there is something rather heroic about a 7-hour solo effort on the limit to no obvious end other than a small amount of pride and the sense of pay-off for the investment in time and money and the endurance of many hours of suffering that was required to produce a rather pointless result.

It’s worth bearing in mind the words of Zig Ziglar perhaps

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

1. Sportive Characteristics

Anyway, sportives have the following characteristics

They are generally long so you’ll need to ride for 5+ hours They are not a race, so steady and consistent output is the principal aim and short bursts of power to follow breaks, make attacks, etc that you would have in a race are not required They are often hilly so power-to-weight ratio is a factor So, to keep this nice and simple, to win a sportive you’re going to need to be able to sustain high aerobic power output for a long duration, whilst not carrying too much extra baggage.

2. Principles

So we should cover off some principles.

2.1 Overload

Sports science is rubbish. Or rather it is very complicated and it is a young science. There’s a lot of commercially inspired research which unsurprisingly supports the consumption of the sponsor’s products. And the manufacturers pay for adverts in magazines, which pay the editors’ wages.

However, one thing is clear — you need to learn to kick your own arse if you are going to get strong. Cycling is a sport of suffering — period. Which is wonderful.

Now is the right time to sneak in something from one of my favourite books (Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. When you first set out you get fitter and stronger by just riding your bike for longer distances. And you can get pretty fit like this but the law of diminishing returns will kick in way before you get to approach anything like your potential. Riding further and further will not produce much more capability.

So, what is understood in sports science? Supercompensation is what is known. You stress your body to an uncommon degree, and your body says Christ, I need to get stronger for next time’ and, providing you give yourself a chance to recover, you’ll be a little bit stronger next time. That’s it. That’s almost completely it. Simple, but not easy. Simple, painful, effective.

2.2 Specificity

There is one other fact known in sports science; specificity. Being a great runner will not make you a great cyclist for example. Most, if not all, of your training needs to be on a bike. Preferably with a degree of consistency of setup if you have multiple bikes.

2.3 Power to Weight

Please never buy a magazine that has 20 ways to climb like a pro’ on the front cover. There is only one way to climb like a pro — have their power output and body weight. So get stronger, lose body fat. That is all.

2.4 Live a good life

Cycling is no different to every other aspect of life — you need decent sleep, you need to eat real food and limit alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. This is even more important when you are training as it’s the recovery between sessions where you get stronger. Training makes you temporarily weak — recovery makes you strong.

2.5 Fat-burning

Endurance sport is a fat-burning exercise — which as just as well. You have around 2,000 kcals of carbs on you (stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles) and 30–40,000+ kcals of fat. The more fat you can use at higher intensities, the better an endurance rider you will be. There is some good evidence that you can manipulate this with diet and training.

One thing that I think should be obvious — to get your body better at using fat it needs to use fat to fuel exercise and adapt accordingly. Shovelling carbs into your system before, during and after exercise is probably not the best way of achieving this adaption.

3. The role of power

So, the job is to maximise your sustainable output over a long period of time. As cycling intensity increases there comes a point where you can not sustain this output for a long period of time. This point is variously called the lactate threshold’, aerobic threshold’, or some other threshold — which all roughly amount to the same thing for practical purposes.

What it signifies is that your body can no longer generate energy using oxygen (ie aerobically) and has to result to anaerobic means. This is great, except you start to accumulate a physiological debt, and depending on the level of over-spend you have a few minutes plus or minus before you need to back off. You can tell when this is happening because it really, really hurts.

In the language of power, this limit is reached when you exceed your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Technically your FTP is the power that you could sustain for an hour continuously. FTP correlates well with success in all cycling pursuits, but especially so for sportives. Power is measured in watts (W).

What the power meter gives you is precision in a way that the alternatives don’t — heart rate, speed, cadence, etc all have some correlation with the work your legs are doing, but all have confounders. Power tells the truth.

So the beauty of power is you have some facts to work with. Next steps; what is required, how do you measure, and how do you target training to increase it?

3.1 What will you need? Watts / kg

A useful guide to your condition is your FTP expressed in watts divided by your bodyweight in kgs. My rough guess, a 4.0 w/kg will get you in the top 5-10%, 4.5 w/kg before you are looking at good enough form to get in the top 1%.

3.2 How do you work out your threshold? FTP Test

So, this is where the fun starts. You need an indoor trainer set up, with a power meter and a spare 30 minutes or so. And the courage of a several lions.

Warm up for as long as you fancy, maybe do some high cadence knobbing around to warm the legs up.

Then ride the hardest you can for 20 minutes. Try not to overdo it at the start. Expect this to hurt. If you get to 12 minutes and you’re doubting that you can do another minute like this you’re doing it right. But ignore your coward brain and push on. Crying is permitted, tears or blood.

When you’re done, upload your data to whatever package you’re going to use to analyse your data (eg Strava, Training Peaks, Garmin, etc) and see what power you averaged for the 20 minute interval.

Now the depressing bit, multiply by 0.95 to arrive at your final FTP figure. For example, if you averaged 250W for 20 minutes, your FTP is 238W.

For the more depressing bit, divide by your bodyweight in kgs. So if you did 250W for 20 minutes, and you weigh 75kg then your watts/kg will be 250 x 0.95 / 75 = 3.2 watts/kg.

So time to increase power, and decrease weight.

3.3 How to train? Intervals and long rides

This is so exciting — getting stronger and having the data to prove it!

First though make no mistake, this is going to hurt. It needs to hurt. But doing the hard rather than the expedient thing gets you on the path to greatness.

This is not pure masochism nor machismo, nor any other arrangement of those letters. You’ve pretty much reached a level already where riding a bike at a medium pace for longer and longer distances has ceased to improve your fitness.

The most common amateur mistake — riding at a quite hard pace the whole time. Instead you must ride slow when you should ride slow, and hard when you should ride hard.

You need some disciplined endurance riding to improve your fat utilisation, and some intervals to build power.

So, two basic methodologies for interval training intended to build FTP. Either try and push up’ from underneath or pull up’ from above (your FTP). Both work, for a long time I did the former but having tried the latter this is now my preference.

Pushing up from below means longer intervals — roughly 15 minutes to an hour or beyond and just below FTP to slightly above. A good protocol would be a 2x20 (ie warm-up, 20 minutes at target power, easy for 5–10 minutes, 20 minutes at target power, cool down). You can get very strong doing this — but if you’re doing it hard enough you’ll be amazed how long 20 minutes can feel… and the feeling of dread in the gap between intervals trying to mentally prepare yourself for the second 20 minutes!

I have Paul Butler, my one-time coach, to thank for what I think is a better approach. Pulling up from above is about doing intervals harder than FTP which are necessarily shorter and manipulating interval quantity, intensity, duration and rest to stimulate adaption. I’ll cover the detail of my preferred protocol below.

4. Endurance Rides

Cycling is a fat burning sport. So you need to do something that is hard for a different reason. You need to ride slow — I would set a firm limit of no more than 75% of your FTP. For a relatively long period of time. Preferably without the support of carbs. Preferably fasted. My staple was a 5 hour, 150km ride, strict 220W limit even on hills, fasted. Enjoy the scenery and look forward to the scrambled eggs on toast and coffee when you get home. If not obvious this is not a fluid fast — you need water and probably electrolytes.

5. Intervals — the best bit

So here’s the protocol. It works on an iterative four week cycle as follows. The aim is to ride at, and above, your next target FTP manipulating the variables of interval (or work) and rest duration creating increasing workloads until you re-test at the end.

  1. Do an FTP Test
  2. Your target interval powers are 110% and 120% of your FTP. So, if your FTP was measured at 238W then you would calculate 261W and 286W.
  3. Calculate your time to failure at these powers. You won’t be able to do this straight after the FTP Test if you went hard enough! Warm up, then ride as long as you can as close at you can to 261W. Then rest (not completely obviously, but very light pedalling) for 5–10 minutes, then ride as long as you can at 286W or thereabouts. Note these times.
  4. Plan your intervals around the durations you calculated. You need to target 15-20 minutes total work time of the 110% intervals and between 10 and 16 minutes at 120%.
  5. For example, say you managed 3m20s at 110%, start a little easier and set your interval work length at 3 minutes. And, again to be generous, give yourself 3 minutes to rest. So your first session will be (after warm, and including a cool-down at the start and end) 6 intervals, 3 minutes @ 261W with 3 minute rest intervals. Do something similar with the 120% target power. Don’t overdo it, start a bit easier than you think — there’s plenty more time to build in more hurt as you progress.
  6. Then simply alternate your 110% and 120% every couple of days in-between your endurance rides (which will fall at the weekend for most folks).
  7. To create progression you have three variables; interval number, work duration and rest duration-broadly speaking you keep the overall work duration constant or increase slightly, decrease the number of intervals, increase the work durations and reduce the rest periods. In the calculation above, we started at 6 x 3 mins with 3 mins rest intervals. In the last week (of the 4 week cycle) you might aim for 5 x 4 mins with 1 min rest.
  8. Go back to number 1 above and repeat. You can not help but get stronger. The gains will come easier at the start, and get harder and harder. Don’t overdo it at the start, if every single session feels like it needs to be a personal best, and you’re always on the precipice of failure that can be mentally exhausting. So start the cycle a bit easy, and finish hard.

6. Riding the Sportive

I’m not going to go into detail about the mechanics of riding a sportive here — sign up, turn up, have an expensive bike, have cool gear, shave your legs, get your chip and numbers, ride hard, sometimes with others. The most decisive factor in your control will be your FTP followed by your weight.

However, you do need to fuel the ride — it’s hard and it’s long. Hard and short, no problem, long and (proper and disciplined) slow, no problem. Hard and long=problem.

If you’re winning’ a sportive you’re going to be riding not far off 300W for long periods, or somewhere between 800 kcals and 1,100 kcals per hour for up to 6 or 7 hours. Remember your body only has about 2,000 kcals of carbs in storage — max. So eat some carbs. No need to fill yourself with pasta the night before, but have a decent breakfast (my preference is rice and eggs), and eat every hour or so on the bike. Energy bars, perhaps bananas. Energy bars are more compact. See what works for you.

7. Resources

For power meters reviews you should go to

My preferred interval training software is