How to get faster and more powerful on the flats

Question:  I am a good climber but I have a hard time holding people off on the flats and open road sections. How do I get faster and more powerful on the flats?

As we all know, being good at all parts of cycling is a challenge and involves many hours on the bike doing a multitude of different workouts.  A really good climber is typically not a great sprinter and vice versa.  But a good climber can be strong and powerful on the flats with some specific training. 

To improve your ability to ride on the flats, you have to improve your maximum sustainable power output.[1]  If two cyclists of the same height and weight ride from point A to point B, the rider that can generate more power over that distance will be the faster rider.  It isn’t just producing a lot of power that is important, it is being able to sustain that power that makes you faster. 

So how do you improve your maximum sustainable power output?  There are two good types of intervals that will accomplish just this.  First are maximal steady state or maximum sustainable power intervals.[2]  Maximal steady state is the highest workload a person can maintain while his or her lactate levels remain consistent, or in a steady state.[3]  On the bike this might be the highest power you could sustain for an hour long race-pace effort.  It isn’t the absolute highest amount of power you can generate at once, but the highest amount of power you can produce over an extended period of time without blowing up.  These intervals should be at least 10min to 30min in length, with the same or greater amount of recovery.  They are best done on a gradual climb, or a long flat stretch of road with no interruptions.  The intensity level is considered Zone 4 or your lactate threshold heart rate.  These intervals can be 2-3 times a week for 4-6 weeks.  Be sure to give yourself ample recovery after these workouts.  They are long and hard and take a lot out of you.

What if you don’t know what Zone 4 is or your lactate threshold heart rate or power?  Before doing any kind of training you’ll need to do a field test.  Find a long flat stretch of road without interruptions.  You’ll need to do a good warm up before performing a field test.  Have a heart rate monitor and/or power meter.  You will be doing a 30 minute time trial race pace effort.  The goal of the test isn’t to see the highest heart rate or power you can achieve in 30 minutes, but to instead determine the highest average heart rate or power you can sustain for the effort.  Start your timer at the beginning of the effort.  After the first 10 minutes start your heart rate monitor or power meter.  Make sure you are recording data for the next 20 minutes.  After your test is finished you can go back and look at the average heart rate and power for the 20 minute effort.  That number is your lactate threshold.  Zone 4 is a range of heart rates/power a little below and above your lactate threshold.  If your LT heart rate was 173bpm.  Then Zone 4 might be 169-175 for example.

The second type of interval you’ll need to do to improve your power on the flats is called a supermaximum sustainable power interval, or more simply a Vo2/Zone 5 interval.[4]  These are short and very intense and are the kind of intervals that make your arms go numb and your stomach feel like it might throw-up.  The goal of these intervals is to improve your ability to ride at nonsustainable work rates or at a power level you normally couldn’t tolerate for very long.[5] 

The efforts are 1-6 minutes in length with the same amount of recovery.  The intensity level is as hard as you can go.  It’s a super hard race pace effort.  If your lactate threshold heart rate was 173 you would do these efforts between a HR of 179-184.  If your lactate threshold power was 225 watts for example, your Zone 5/Vo2 efforts would be done between 250-350 watts.  If you’ve never trained with power or heart rate and don’t have any intention of doing so, then look at the lactate threshold or MSP intervals as a “fairly hard” effort or on a scale of 1-10, they would be an 8.  If you want to improve your strength on the flats, then do these efforts on a flat road.  If you’re looking to improve your hill climbing, then do these up a long gradual climb.  When doing these intervals you should not be able to talk and you will be uncomfortable the entire time.  It is an intensity level you could maintain for a long climb.  The Vo2 or SMSP intervals are considered “super hard I think I’m going to puke” efforts or on a scale of 1-10, they would be a 10.  Again, chose flatter terrain to improve strength on the flats.  Go as hard as you possibly can for 1-6 minutes and then recover.  Do a bunch of these during each workout and do the workout  maybe 2-3 times a week. 

As your training progresses, you will want to increase the difficulty of these two types of intervals.  To do that you can make each effort longer, shorten the recovery in between, or increase the HR or power you do each effort at.  The only way you get stronger is to force your body to make adaptations to a given stress.  If the stress never changes, your body will never get stronger.  Push yourself to make the intervals slightly harder each week you do them.  With plenty of recovery in between workouts your body will make the needed changes and come back stronger and faster than when you started. 

How do these fit into a training plan?  You will need to have a good solid aerobic base before starting these intervals.  Spend a few months doing long endurance rides with some intensity thrown in on the weekends when you ride with friends or do the local group ride.  When you have a decent level of fitness, do the MSP or lactate threshold/Zone 4 training first and it should last between 4-6 weeks.  Then do the SMSP or Vo2/Zone 5 training next and it should also last between 4-6 weeks. 

The ultimate goal of all of this is to improve your ability to ride hard on the flats.  To do that you must improve your power output.  Doing these two types of intervals will increase your power output making you stronger and faster on the bike.  It is a painful investment but the reward is well worth it!

Have fun!


[1] Dave Morris, Performance Cycling; Training for Power, Endurance, and Speed (Maine:  Ragged Mountain Press, 2003) 19.

2 Morris 33

3 Morris 33

4 Morris 62

5 Morris 62

[1] Dave Morris, Performance Cycling; Training for Power, Endurance, and Speed (Maine:  Ragged Mountain Press, 2003) 19.

[2] Morris 33

[3] Morris 33

[4] Morris 62

[5] Morris 62