The Art of the Time Trial: An Interview with Alison Powers


By TrainingPeaks

Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), 2008 Elite National Time Trial Champion and recent NRC points leader, placed third in the Elite Women’s Time Trial at the USA Cycling Elite, U23 & Juniors Road National Championships in Augusta, GA in June. Alison had a stellar first half of the season and was looking to regain her title for 2012. She faced serious competition from about 40 of the top U.S. female pros, and by any measure raced exceptionally, finishing only 19 seconds behind the winner, 2012 to-be Olympian Amber Neben (Specialized-Lululemon). Powers was gracious enough to provide TrainingPeaks and USA Cycling with her power data from the race, as well as discuss her time trial preparation and strategy. Her advice and her race data offer valuable takeaways for all cyclists vying for time trial success.
Powers arrived in Augusta about a week prior to the championships to acclimate and pre-ride all of the courses.  She would be competing in all of the championship events (TT, Criterium, and RR); however her main target was the time Trial. The main training goal for the week was to rest and recover from the previous races in Tulsa (and earlier in the season), where the NOW and Novartis for MS Team dominated the series and took home the lion’s share of the prize money. There were several easy days of spinning and a few rides with some short, hard efforts to “keep the motor running”. However, Powers was always careful not to do anything that would require serious recovery. She has been racing consistently all season, and the week before the national championship is not a week to attempt to make any gains other than complete recovery. Powers was confident that she was fit and well-prepared, and just needed to keep the legs fresh and supple, ready for the beatings to come. When speaking with her about the upcoming race, her preparation, and her goals, her calm confidence was evident.
TT Strategy and Preparation
Let’s lay the foundation: can we get your height and weight, threshold power, TT gearing, and target TT cadence?
Height and weight: 5’10”, 150 lbs.
Threshold power: 280 W, 4.1 w/kg
TT Gearing: 55/42 on the front and 11-23 rear cassette on my Specialized Shiv TT bike
Goal TT cadence: About 100-105, on average
Do you have a specific warm-up routine and if so what is it?
Yes.  The goal is to arrive at the start warmed up, preferably with a slight sweat going but not fatigued, and as close to your start time as possible without being late and allowing adequate time for the final bike check (so about 10 min prior to start time).
My typical warm-up is early morning, before breakfast. I’ll hop on the road bike for a quick 20-minute spin just to loosen up the legs. Then, about 45 min to 1 hour before the start, I’ll do the following on the trainer on the road bike:
Start in Zone 2 for about 10 min, then start increasing to tempo watts (high Zone 2 to low Zone 3) and continue to ramp up to threshold and hold for about 5 minutes. Spin easy, then throw in a few high cadence intervals to make sure the legs are loose and supple, and to get the heart rate up. Break a sweat and feel some intensity (workload) without loading up the legs or fatiguing them in any way. Spin easy for a few more minutes. Then, take the TT bike out for a short ride just to check the gears and equipment, and make sure everything s completely dialed and ready to go.
What will be your strategy for the TT?
I’ll arrive at the start about 10 min prior to official start time with ice packs, having completed a good warm-up and thorough bike/equipment check so that I am cool, collected, and ready to go. Because the course is slightly heavier on the front half, it will be okay to go out a little hard knowing that I don’t have to “save” anything for the way back. I like to keep my rpms around 100-105, and will aim to keep the average watts around 300. I’ll also be focused on staying efficient and smooth, keeping my head/helmet in the right position, not wasting any energy. The second half of the TT I’ll be looking at my power to remind myself to dig deeper and push harder.
How do you know when you’re on top form or peaked for an event?
That’s a tough one to qualify as no race or training conditions are identical when you’re in the middle of racing season, so there isn’t one magic number I can get to or look for and say “I’m there”. Variables include altitude, time of day, course, temperature, my general fatigue level, etc. But you can learn to get an overall picture after years of collecting historical data in training and racing, and to be able to see the patterns and consistencies through the numbers. That’s the importance of collecting data year after year – it’s taught me to read my body. I look to the numbers for guidance and have recently started using Training Stress Score (TSS) and the Performance Management Chart (PMC) in TrainingPeaks to give me some additional insight into my current state of fitness.
What advice would you give to other cyclists who want to succeed in the TT?
It’s really important not to overthink it. So much of time trialing is between the ears. You have to be confident in your training, preparation and equipment; and you have to race knowing and believing that you can win. You have to be able to suffer more than anyone else out there.  As I get older, I notice that I don’t like to hurt as much as I used to - so I use my SRM to remind me to dig deeper, to hurt more. Early in the race I watch my power numbers to make sure I don’t go out too hard and blow up. Later in the TT, I am looking down at those numbers as a reminder that I can still push harder, dig deeper.
Race Results
So, what happened?
Powers turned in an exceptional performance, finishing third. The only two riders who beat her (Amber Neben and Evelyn Stevens both of  Specialized-Lululemon) have been selected for the Olympic Team and have been racing in Europe all season preparing for the Games. She finished just 19 seconds behind the winner, the closest she’s ever finished to the top two before.
Check out Alison Powersfull race data in her interactive TrainingPeaks Activity Viewer. Below is a summary of her key numbers.
Total Time: 0:39:45
Distance: 18.28 mi
Energy: 656 kJ
TSS: 64 (0.99)
Normalized Power: 278
Gain: 177 ft
Loss: -180 ft
Variability Index: 1.01

  Min. Avg. Max.
Power (Watts): n/a 276 593
Speed (mph): 4.2 27.7 39.8
Cadence (rpm): 0 103 118
Temp (F): 84 89 91

Powers completed the 30 km (18 mile) rolling course in 39:38 with an average speed of 27.7 mph. She described the course as “a little harder on the way out and slightly easier on the way back in - a good, fast course for a power rider”.  She executed her goal cadence of 100-105 rpm perfectly, averaging 103 rpm while generating an average of 276W. Although she originally hoped to average around 300 watts, during the race she quickly realized that wasn't going to happen and adjusted her goal to approximately 280 watts.
While Powers herself demurred that “the data is nothing special, no special numbers”, TrainingPeaks would disagree. All too often, we get focused on looking for the record highs or incredible wattage. However, Powers’ breakthrough day of finishing within 19 seconds of two future Olympians was a result of an incredibly efficient Time Trial. It was her form and technique that got her on the podium, not sky-high power output. She executed her strategy with laser-like precision. She ended up with an average power slightly lower than her threshold, and yet had her best TT of the year.
Powers knew that she needed to keep her cadence between 100-105 rpms, and she also knew the importance of setting a target wattage goal. However, she was able to quickly adjust this as needed during the race to maintain a maximum yet sustainable effort.  Her Variability Index (VI) was 1.01, confirming her excellent pacing strategy. VI essentially analyzes how smooth or consistent an athlete’s ride was as measured by variability of power output. A more variable effort is more fatiguing to the body than an an even, steady effort. The best time trialers in the world are very good at sustaining a steady cadence and power output, even over varied terrain. A steady output will generate a VI close to 1.0.  Smooth and consistent power delivery will reduce fatigue and allow the rider to maintain an overall higher average power output over time.
In conclusion, while the numbers are always important, they don’t necessarily need to be the highest to achieve the best results. Alison Powers’ race teaches us that it’s important to have historical data to refer to and use to set pacing goals for Time Trial success.