A new year needs a new challenge: Introducing project 4W/kg

My challenge to become a better endurance athlete by running 2000 miles in a year is now complete. I want to take what I have learned and apply it to road cycling. I am not a beginner on a bike and based on my two Ironman 70.3 performances, I am more suited to cycling than I am running, but running has taken over this year, and I have never been a great cyclist. My choice of an arbitrary annual distance as a performance goal was to produce consistency in my training; I want to take this consistency and use it to achieve an outcome goal and get fast.

So, I have an incomplete problem: I want to get fast on the bike. But what is fast, and how can I measure it to create a plan to get there? 

In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.


An effective way of addressing an incomplete problem is to use the principles of Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a team-based teaching practice, so I will create a team using friends who ride bikes or have useful knowledge for collaborative research. Inspired by the Change through challenge course, I will time-bound this project to a common university module’s size of 200 hours (20 credits) and give myself five months. Problem-Based Learning begins with trigger material, such as a case study or journal article and has four steps:

  • Step 1: Define the problem
  • Step 2: Draw up the plan
  • Step 3: Implement the plan
  • Step 4: Evaluate the plan

Trigger material

The following is an article by Dr Andrew Coggan, the co-author and scientist behind the book Training and Racing with a Power Meter. The post defines fast based on a scientific approach to an average joe’s natural potential.

If the average Joe works their ass off how far can they get?: 3.9 W/kg 

The average healthy but sedentary, college-aged male has a VO2max of approximately 45 mL/min/kg. However, I have seen it argued based on studies of, e.g., aboriginal tribes (and there are population data from Europe as well as military inductees here in the US to support the conclusion) that the “default” VO2max of the average human male is closer to 50 mL/min/kg, and the only way to get below this is to assume a couch-potato lifestyle, gain excess weight, etc. (and/or grow old, of course). So, I’ll go with that latter number. 

With short-term training, VO2max increases by 15-25% on average, with another perhaps 5-10% possible (on average, anyway) with more prolonged and/or intense training. That gives a total increase of 20-35%, so I’ll go with 30% just for argument’s sake. 

So, if VO2max is, on average, 50 mL/min/kg and increases by, on average, 30%, that means that the average Joe ought to be able to raise their VO2max to about 65 mL/min/kg with training. Indeed, there are many, many, many, MANY amateur endurance athletes with VO2max values of around that number (not to mention the fact that athletes in team sports with an endurance component – e.g., soccer – often have a VO2max of around 60 mL/min/kg, something that is also true in other sports that you don’t normally consider to be of an endurance nature, e.g., downhill skiing or motocross – i.e., motorcycle – racing). 

The question then becomes, how high might functional threshold power fall as a percentage of VO2max (again, on average), and what does this translate to in terms of a power output? The answer to the former is about 80% (LT, on average, being about 75% of VO2max in trained cyclists), which means that in terms of O2 consumption, a functional threshold power corresponding to a VO2 of 65 mL/min/kg * 0.80 = 52 mL/min/kg could be considered average. If you then assume an average cycling economy of 0.075 W/min/kg per mL/min/kg, this equates to… 3.9 W/kg.

Dr Andrew Coggan

Defining terms

V02Max or maximum oxygen uptake is the oxygen uptake attained during maximal exercise intensity that could not be increased despite further increases in exercise workload, thereby defining the limits of the cardiorespiratory system

Hill and Lupton (1923)

Functional Threshold Power (FTP) represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 45 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you’re a trained athlete or not. As a result 95% of the 20 minute average power is used to determine FTP.


The cycling economy (CE, W·LO2 –1·min–1) was defined as the ratio of the power output (W) to the oxygen consumption (LO2·min–1)

Faria et al. (2005)

Simply put, your watts per kilo (w/kg) is your power to weight ratio. Watts per Kilo is your max power output, in watts, divided by your weight in kilos. For example, someone with a weight or mass of 80kg with a sustainable power output of 280 watts will have a power to weight ratio of 3.5 watts per kilo (3.5W/kg).


Based on the trigger material, to achieve ‘fast’ as considered possible by an average person, I need to maximise my V02Max, maximise the percentage of my V02Max I can hold for 40-60 minutes, maximise the percentage of that power I can translate to moving a bike forward, all while minimise my bodyweight.

The Challenge

Over the next five months, I will spend 200 hours getting to a cycling Functional Threshold Power (FTP) of 4 W/kg.

This is an ambitious goal, and even with my endurance and cycling background, it is likely to be a far stretch within the timeframe I have set myself. But the idea is to create a mark that requires more than just following a training plan but a lifestyle shift and total commitment. Plus, if it were easy, it would not be fun. If you have ideas on achieving this challenge or want to join in, get in touch on Twitter.

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