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Q&A with Hal Higdon

Each week, coach and author, Hal Higdon answers your questions about running. Here's the latest:

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Gear's Thoughts: Critical Power or Mean Max? Lets Just Call it "Peak"

At TrainingPeaks, we work every day thinking about how data can help you become a better athlete.  One of the most powerful, yet least understood terms that we throw around is called "mean max".  It's a term we use to describe a "best effort for a given amount of time".  Part of the problem, is that there are several names for the same thing.  Joe Friel popularized the term "Critical Power", Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan speak about it as "Mean Max".  Others call it a "best" or "peak" effort.  Even within TrainingPeaks and WKO+ we mix the terms.  I've asked Hunter, Joe and others about consolidating everyone's terminology to a single term, and from here on out, we're going with "peak".

In the near future, you'll see changes within our software that refer to "peak" outputs, "peak power curve" and "peak heart rate", "peak cadence", "peak pace", always coupled with a time unit from five seconds to several hours.

If you've made it this far and have no idea what I'm talking about, read on and I'll explain...  

The concept of peak outputs stems from running, and the changing notion of training your inputs (hr) vs. training your workloads (pace/power).  Historically, time in a particular heart rate zone was as fancy as you could get.  But heart rate is simply a measure of how hard your body is working, not a measure of how much work your body is doing.

Runners have always trained their output: pace (or for simplistic purposes of this article, lets just say speed).  They run a specific distance in a given amount of time, and they frequently measure to see if they are getting faster over that particular distance.  This is often referred to as their "10k pace" or "marathon pace",( translation: the fastest speed they can hold for the amount of time it takes to run a 10k or marathon or whatever the given distance).  That particular time differs for everyone, of course, but as an example, lets just convert that to "peak 1 hour speed" (10k) or "peak 4 hour speed" (marathon).  Essentially, what is the fastest average speed can you maintain for a particular time period.

With the advent of power meters like SRM for the bike, we take this concept into cycling. Because bike racing doesn't have fixed distances like running, we simply use the measure of time.  As it turns out, different durations correspond to different physiological energy sources, and the event you are training for usually corresponds well to a particular time interval or intervals. Marathoners don't care about sprinting, but crit racers sure do. Thus a marathoner might focus on building their longer duration peak speed, whereas a crit racer focuses on short efforts in the 10-20 second range.  This is the basis for what's known as the "power profile", but that's a whole 'nuther topic.

Let me get back to the essence of "peak" outputs.  As a specific measure of fitness, the more power/speed you can produce for a given amount of time, the fitter you are becoming.  For example, maybe in February (early season), you can maintain an average output of 200 watts for 10 minutes.  Come July, you can maintain 240 watts for the same 10 minute duration.  Ultimately, improving the output of your efforts is what we are all after. Using "peak time" values provides a straight-forward, easily measurable way to gauge your fitness across many disciplines.  

So if you hear "mean max", or "critical power", think "highest output for a specific duration", and know that it means the highest amount of output for a given duration.  

This concept is one of the most powerful, easy to measure, and least understood tools that we have at our disposal. That's why I want to make sure everyone knows just what it is, how it works, and why you should care.  The first step of course, is simply defining it, so from here on out, you'll see us transition all mentions of "mean max" or critical power or even "bests" to "peak".

TrainingPeaks provides several charts and reports to help you visualize these improvements, and you can easily track when you set a new best peak output. All you have to do is upload your data, and we'll do the rest!



Reader Comments (1)

Gear, Thank you for the information, but how does one understand the graph?

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Burke

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