When I first heard about power meters for cycling I was very skeptical. My thinking at the time was that if I just went out and rode as hard as I could for as long as I could, then that was good enough for me. And hey, I was saving myself a lot of money by not getting one.
But after riding with a power meter for a season, my thinking has changed dramatically. I have seen remarkable progress in my cycling in just one season and I didn’t even get to use it for the whole year. I can’t imagine doing serious training without one ever again.
But, how exactly does a power meter help you? Whole books have been written on the subject, but I thought I would give you 5 quick reasons right here.
Have you ever done an out-and-back road ride and on the way out you felt amazing? You were way faster than you expected but you didn’t put two and two together. When you turned around to go home the wind smacked you in the face and you had a 20 mile sufferfest on the way back. Because of the strong wind you weren’t pushing hard enough on the way out and were working too hard on the way back.
This doesn’t happen with a power meter. If you decide that you are going to do an aerobic endurance workout with an average of 175 watts, then the focus is no longer on your speed, it’s on putting the proper amount of force on the pedals. You can pace yourself based on the exact amount of effort you need to stress your aerobic fitness.
I find that this takes a lot of the stress out of training. If I ride into a headwind or I tackle a long climb then I’m not worried about whether I am going fast enough. I can look down and see how many watts I’m producing. This gives me permission to slow down and not burn my legs out unnecessarily.
2. Targeted Training
There are several different energy systems that work together to power you on your bike. When you are training it’s important to stress each of the different systems enough to prepare you for the demands of your particular race. A power meter helps you figure out how hard you need to push yourself to stress these systems.
First you use the power meter to test the limits of your abilities. Most importantly, you figure out what your functional threshold power (FTP) is and use that number to set up training zones. If you need to work on your anaerobic capacity, then you don’t just sprint as hard as you can, you can actually dial in the wattage that you need and know exactly how long you need to hold it for. Without the power meter, you are just guessing.
You could use a heart rate monitor to do something similar, but because your heart takes time to react to a hard effort, it becomes extremely inaccurate at higher intensities. Frankly, after I trained with power for a month I wanted to throw my heart rate monitor in the trash. However, that would have been stupid because a heart rate monitor is still a valuable tool that can by used to gauge fitness in conjunction with a power meter.
Side note: Functional Threshold Power is defined by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, PhD in their book Training and Racing with a Power Meter as “The highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour.”
3. Race Analysis
Power meter data is very valuable. One of the most eye-opening moments of my whole season was when I finally got a chance to examine my first mountain bike race file. I realized that I was spending a lot more time than I realized in my neuromuscular and anaerobic capacity zones. Furthermore, I wasn’t spending much time at all actually training in these areas.
I was able to change my training to include more anaerobic and neuromuscular intervals into my workout regimen. It was amazing to see how this change in my training affected my racing. I was able to sprint and attack much more aggressively than I ever had before. Not only that I was riding comfortably with the leaders of the race, rather than struggling in the middle of pack.
Depending on the type of racing you do, your needs will be different than other riders. An ultra-endurance race is going to take different skills than a cyclocross race and a power meter can help you define those parameters.
4. Managing Your Training Load
As a competitive athlete, sometimes you probably feel like more is always better – more miles, more days of the week. But, even though your mind is telling you to ride more, your body has limits to how quickly you can improve. If you don’t push yourself hard enough then you won’t reach your peak performance. If you try to do too much it will lead to burnout.
Each workout you perform creates training stress and a power meter keeps track of your training stress score (TSS). TSS is a measure that includes both duration and intensity. A short intense workout might get the same score as a long endurance workout. When you add up these scores, they start to give you an idea about your levels of fitness and fatigue.
Simply put, you can use these scores to slowly increase your fitness and then taper your workouts properly to be fresh for a big race.
5. You Will Get Faster
Just buying a power meter and installing it on your bike will not make you faster, in the same way that buying Photoshop will not make you a great graphic designer. A power meter is a tool, and like Photoshop, you need to learn how to use it. Knowing your wattage is only useful if you understand what the numbers mean and how to use those numbers to guide your training.
But, if you do your homework, you can use a power meter to increase your performance dramatically. I am living proof of this. I thought that I had peaked – that I was at the limits of my genetic potential. I actually rode fewer miles this year compared to other seasons, but I rode faster. My training was more targeted towards the needs of my races. I was training in zones that I didn’t even know existed – like lactate threshold and VO2max. The power meter makes it easy to calculate how hard to push yourself.
Here is a list of equipment and resources that I use for my power meter training:
– Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, PhD
– The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible by Joe Friel
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