LLining up to one of the first races of the season I was fresh, enthusiastic and ready to put my winter training to the test. Just before we entered a technical section through a small town, about 30km into the race, the serious attacks began. After 3 people made a move off the front, I jumped on the wheel of the next rider to try his luck in this early escape. Soon, the 5 of us were working together, taking big turns to increase our advantage. I felt strong, powerful, confident that I could keep this brutal pace going all day. But then it started: I couldn’t turn over the gear quite as easily. The recoveries between turns felt shorter. Breathing became more laboured. I took my place at the front and was tempted to change to a slightly bigger sprocket. It was inevitable, I’d over-extended myself. 15 minutes later, the group blew itself apart and we slunk back to the peloton with ours tails between our legs. I had drastically over-estimated my current capability.

The Rise Of The Powermeter

As PowerTap drop their prices and Stages’ crank based system becomes available in the UK, power meters are rapidly penetrating the market. In years to come, power meters may become as common as a speedometer on a bike is today. Many of us are keen to jump on the band wagon of power measurement. Road cycling has got a reputation for attracting data junkies and power meters provide yet another metric to supplement our heart rate, speed, distance, cadence and GPS tracking. However, if I could only have one piece of information whilst riding my bike, it would be ‘watts’.

Why? Watts describe my strengths and weaknesses in objective terms. They’ve helped me to understand what I’m capable of, at a given point in the season. Watts have allowed me to construct a Power Profile (more on that in a moment). This information and live feedback in training and racing continues to facilitate me as I construct and follow my new training programme. Ultimately I’ve been able train more precisely and effectively, with very limited time.

My Power Profile

Dr. Andrew Coggan, of Training Peaks fame, developed the Power Profile approach as a means for riders to benchmark their performance in training and racing, against themselves and others. Personally, my days of pursuing World Class performance are over, so the relevance of my ’20 minute power’ compared to that of a Tour de France pro merely highlights the chasm between our respective physiologies, rather than representing a realistic aspiration. However, analysing my power profile over the course of individual session, or a complete training programme, provides a powerful means to figure out if the protocol is working and if my performance is improving. Incidentally, you can see a video of a recent fitness test I undertook, here.

In my opinion, the ability to construct an individual power profile, an update this regularly through everyday training and racing in addition to formal testing, is a bike based power meter’s most compelling sales pitch. In this article, I’ve proposed a number of reasons to purchase a cycling power meter. This single piece of technology could be the best investment you make in improving your cycling performance.

Powermeters As Bio-feedback

Powermeters are a very effective bio-feedback mechanism. They give an objective measure of the physical work being carried out by the rider. Experienced athletes are often able to gauge this effort intrinsically, through highly training proprioceptive skills. For example, many pro riders still race in TTs without even a heart rate monitor. They can do this because most pros have a finely tuned sense of their effort intensity and the duration they can maintain that intensity for. For the beginner athlete however, a power-meter provides the means to gain access to this information before they have developed the skills to ‘tune in’ to their body’s feedback. The real-time feedback from the power meter helps us to ‘calibrate’ our proprioception. It becomes much easier to try different pacing strategies, to find which works best and also understand what optimal pacing and effort feels like, for a range of time durations. And even for experienced athletes, fatigue and environmental conditions means that perceived exertion and heart rate are highly variable and subjective. In addition, a power meter is a useful ‘backup’ feedback mechanism for everyone, particularly when venturing into the unknown, such as when you start a new training programme or challenging event.

Better Pacing For Training & Racing

Heart rate takes a long time to respond to increases in effort intensity, such as in short interval training and time trial/triathlon efforts. For example, in high intensity efforts up to 1 minute in duration, heart rate will barely have time to respond. Consequently, athletes often over-reach in the initial phases of the effort in an attempt to raise their heart rate quickly, which results in the overall ‘training dose’ of the effort being compromised; the rider fades in the final few seconds, rather than finishing strongly. Power provides an objective measure of effort, so that the athlete can ride at precise intensities required to develop the energy system they are targeting. For example, if 110% of your FTP power corresponds to a VO2 max effort, your start the first interval at 110% and hold it for the duration, regardless of what your heart rate does or doesn’t do.

Quantify Training Load & Decide How Many Intervals Are Enough

Training with a power meter also provides a very objective measure of training load, both acute (looking at one session) and chronic (over the course of a training programme). In the acute context, a power meter accurately measures effort during intervals or individual training sessions. Within interval sessions, it is possible to measure how much power drops off between intervals. Using this information, it’s possible to determine the optimal number of intervals, achieving the maximum adaptation for the minimum effort. This may sound counter-intuitive. Generally, cyclists are inclined to batter themselves in training until they can’t take any more. However, this new understanding of ‘optimal training dose’ means that you only do intervals whilst they are intense enough to stress the energy system you are targeting. This avoids unnecessary fatigue for future sessions. For example, I was doing a VO2 max interval session, trying to average 350 watts for 3 minutes. In my third interval in the session, I held 354 watts. I continued doing the 3 minute intervals, but when the average power for an interval dropped below 90% of my 3rd effort in the set (319 watts) I terminated the session and did not do any more intervals that day. Further intervals would not create an effective stimulus for adaptation and improvement. They would simply make me more tired for the next session. In a ‘chronic’ context, quantifying training load means that I can plan sessions from week to week and month to month, creating periods of rest, building, tapering and racing with more accuracy, as the power meter helps me to measure and add up the intensities of all the sessions I do, using a score called TSS (Training Stress Score). TSS can also help me to understand if I am fit, or fresh and also go back and unpick why I may have become over-trained, for example.

Understand When To Rest, When To Race & Learn How To Taper For Events

Practically, TSS also helps athletes and coaches to guide riders towards peaks in performance which coincide with target events. During the course of a training programme, the coach and athlete can begin to understand what balance of training, ‘tapering’ and rest elicits the best performance. They can then use this objective knowledge to plan the timing of various training blocks for optimum performance. For example, some riders may work better with 2 blocks of ‘build’ periods, followed by one week of tapering. Other riders may require more or less rest to arrive at the start-line ready for peak performance. The answer to which works best for you depends on the demands of the event, but also on individual differences that can best be understood through measurement with a power meter (and some trial and error)!

Measure improvements in performance

Regular recording and testing with a power meter helps athletes and coaches to objectively track performance changes over time, with reference to specific goals and objectives. A bike based power meter brings the lab into the field. If the rider trains and races with a power meter, it’s possible to gather and process a great body of data to understand a rider’s progress towards their goals. For example, I track all my training data and record it in TrainingPeaks. Consequently, if I go out on a hard group ride and end up recording my best ever 5 minute power, I can record when and how it happened, rather than having to wait until a formal test, which gives me a better understanding of which parts of my training programme are effective.

Benchmark your performance

Data from training and racing with a power meter can also be used in reference to established benchmarks. These benchmarks are often individual, helping athletes and coaches to establish personal goals and assess changes (hopefully improvements!) in performance. On the other hand, if the rider is aiming for peak competitive performance against others, benchmark data is available to illustrate performance standards against others, ranging from Cat. 4 up to World Class, so the coach or athlete can reference their performance in relation to the level which they are striving to achieve. For example, my current FTP corresponds to a relative power of 4.5 watt/kg. According to power profile benchmarks ranging from untrained levels, Cat. 5 to Cat. 1, up to World Class, my FTP puts me at the top of Cat. 2. Let’s see how much I can improve with 8 hours training a week…

Improve your racing strategy
“If you can’t deliver a certain level of power or performance in training then the chances are you’re not going to be able to do it in competition.” Chris Boardman 

The objective feedback, greater understanding and proprioceptive calibration (tuning in to your sense of effort intensity and pacing) that training and racing with a power meter offers can help riders to adopt more effective training and racing strategies. For example, I know that my best current 20 minute power is 310 watts. If I make a solo breakaway in a race, once I’ve established a gap, if I’m riding at 350 watts, I’m probably going to blow-up, unless someone bridges and starts working with me to share the load. I may want to keep on going, to see whether I can set a new record for 20 minute power as an experiment. Regardless of the strategy I choose, the objective knowledge of my previous best performance in relation to the demands of the event gives me the opportunity to make an informed decision: play it safe and avoid blowing completely or risk it all for the prestige of crossing the line alone! What would you do?

10 Tips To Improve Cycling Performance