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Power meters have been around for years, but it is still an unknown piece of technology for a lot of roadies and triathletes. They used to be exclusive to the elites, but advanced production techniques and increased demand have lowered the prices significantly. But what is a power meter and what does it actually do? Power meters are (usually) made of strain gauges that measure torque and combines this with velocity to calculate power in watts. This gives an exact measurement of how hard you are working in the saddle. It’s a very useful training tool, here is our guide how to use it to train smarter.
Short links if it’s TL;DR for you 🙂
We are a power meter company and we can definitely say that training with a power meter is not for everyone. If you are a casual Sunday rider who just loves the simplicity of getting out on the roads and enjoy the sun – then you’re probably not gonna find a power meter useful. If you don’t like to look at your cycling computer and do not feel the need for structured training, then a power meter is simply not worthwhile for you.
But, if you like to train a lot and pursue fitness gains then a power meter is absolutely for you. As you start doing more structured training and races, the accurate data that a power meter provides can guide you to reach your goals. A power meter can take the guesswork out of racing. You will know your exact power zones and can thus do some serious race day preparation.
As more and more people get a hold of a power meter, we thought it would be nice with a little training guide on how to get started with power-based training.
Power meters can be quite confusing when you don’t have any experience with using one. But no worry – you don’t have to know all that much about the technology on your first couple of rides. In fact, don’t do anything different from what you normally do on your training rides. If you’re doing intervals, simply use heart rate and perceived effort as you usually do. You don’t even have to look at the power data while riding, but if you do, here are a few suggestions.
When you are out on your first ride simply test how 100w feels. How about 200w or 300w? How is your heart rate compared to the watts? If you ride in a group, try and ride at the front and compare the power numbers to riding in the back. Notice the huge difference that staying on your friend’s wheel makes.
Ride in the headwind with the same watts as riding with a tailwind. Notice the difference in speed, cadence and your gears. If you ride at a more consistent power level, you will save energy and reduce muscle fatigue.
Shift into your biggest gear and go for the breakaway with an all-out sprint (high gear high cadence). See how hard you can go for 5-10 seconds. The best sprinters in the world can probably go above 1500w.
After a couple of rides, it’s time to look at the power data. Take a closer look at the various interval efforts you did. Perhaps you did a couple of steady-state 10-minute efforts. Take the average power from those intervals and you might have a target power for your first fitness test.
“Training is testing, testing is training” – Dr. Andrew Coggan
Training with a power meter is based on a set of power numbers. Numbers that needs to be validated through continuous training. Ask any serious cycling coach – there is simply no way around it. In order for you to get the most out of your training, you will have to establish your power zones (training levels) by performing a fitness test. The most popular is the Functional Threshold Power test.
Most useful power training is based on one thing – threshold. The threshold is the maximum power that you can sustain before your body is no longer able to remove the lactic acid produced by your muscles. Working for a longer period of time above your threshold gives you that feeling of the ‘burn’. The Functional Threshold Power is the maximum power you can currently produce for an hour. Even though it’s the highest power you can sustain for an hour, it’s generally not a good idea to waste a training session or two on a one-hour test. Doing a full all-out hour is just not motivating and most athletes would simply fail. It would also be too draining. The most common way to find your FTP is the 20-minute test at max effort, steadily.
Nailing your FTP test at the first try is really hard – most riders don’t. It takes a lot of practice to complete a test that gives you an accurate assessment of your fitness level. Be sure to watch your surroundings as they may affect your test. If you decide to do the test outdoors, make sure it’s as close to indoor-conditions as possible. Things like traffic and variations in terrain will affect your test. You should always stick to the same setup. Most people prefer to do the test on the hometrainer, but make sure that things like tire pressure and ventilation stay the same on every test.
The more times you perform the test, the closer you will get to your true fitness assessment. The most common mistake is going too hard at the beginning and then simply fade for the last 10-15 minutes. Try and focus on these few tips during your ride:
It’s important that the way you structure the test is the same every time. Here is an example of a popular FTP testing protocol:
Once the test is done you multiply your average watts of those 20 minutes by 0.95 to give you the estimated number of what you can currently sustain for an hour. Yes, this is only an approximation. But as long as you do the test every 4-6 weeks it’s still a valuable number that you can base your training on.
It’s now time to set your training levels.
Training zones (or levels) are used to give an athlete a set intensity at which they should be riding at. They may, for example, be completing intervals at ‘zone 3’ or ‘zone 4’.
They are important guidelines for making sure that you are pushing just enough on the hard intervals, not blowing up during a race and pedaling gently enough during recovery and endurance rides.
You can establish your training zones once you have your FTP number. Most training apps and computers set the zones automatically when you update the FTP value, but here follows a more thorough explanation of Andy Coggan’s seven power training zones that are widely regarded as the golden standard:
Zone 1 is really easy training. It’s a very important training zone that a lot of riders neglect. This is for the easy days after hard training rides or races and the zone between intervals. Do not raise the intensity on your recovery rides. Spending more time in zone 1 will improve the quality of your high-intensity workouts.
This is the all-day intensity important for building and maintaining endurance. Being able to ride for 2-6 hours is one of the first steps for athletes who want to do races. This is the zone for training your ability to burn fat over carbs, which is key for endurance racing. Most triathletes would complete the Ironman bike course in this zone.
Zone 3 is usually where does continuously uncomfortable club rides preside. You do a lot of tempo riding in road racing, so honing this skill can be very useful. Tempo training is great for athletes short on time, since it delivers a greater amount of training load in a short time.
Zone 4 is riding right around your FTP. Let’s be clear; you shouldn’t be training continuously in zone 4. Lactate threshold training is based on intervals of 8-30 minutes at a time. Threshold benefits all cyclists but especially time trialists, triathletes, climbers and mountain bikers. Zone 4 intervals are about maintaining a fairly high power output, so pacing is key.
Zone 5 is a very intense training zone that goes above your FTP consisting of intervals ranging from 3-8 minutes. These intervals will make you generate a lot lactic acid, but are also very good for improving that “punch” you need for accelerations and for making it over the hill. It is only by working above your FTP that you are able to improve it, so be sure to incorporate some zone 5 intervals if you want to improve your threshold level.
Anaerobic capacity training consists of short but very high-intensity intervals that are less than 3 minutes in duration. This is where the heart rate monitor will stop being useful as it simply can’t keep up. Zone 6 is mainly for athletes doing road races with small steep climbs and criterium-racing where small bursts of power are necessary.
Zone 7 is also known as the sprinting zone. This is where you train your neuromuscular system to fire off those muscle fibres at a faster rate. To put it simply; this is where you go as hard as you can for a just a few seconds at a time like jumps or standing starts. You will most likely not do a lot of neuromuscular training, as it’s generally reserved for track sprinters who need to put out insane amounts of watts for 10 seconds or less.
Riding with a power meter gives you a load of new data metrics that you can analyze to improve your training. Analysing your workouts will give you valuable insight, but first, you need to know what the power training metrics actually mean.
Average power (AP) is simply the average power of your entire ride. This seems like a fair measurement, but it doesn’t account for the highs and lows of the ride and the physiological cost. Many cycling computers have non-zero averaging turned on, meaning that it doesn’t account for coasting. We recommend that you turn non-zero averaging off, as it leaves a false impression of your effort.
Normalized power (NP) is an advanced metric that accounts for changes in the effort during the workout, which gives you a more realistic representation of the physiological cost of the ride. NP gives you an estimate of the power you could’ve sustained for the same physiological cost if your power output had been absolutely smooth rather than jumpy.
Weight to power ratio is a key metric in racing. Two riders of different sizes can have the same power output but would go at different speeds because one rider is heavier than the other. The more power you produce and the less you weigh, the faster you go! If you want to win the yellow jersey in Tour de France, you should probably shoot for an FTP of 6.5 w/kg or more. We wish you good luck with that!
Wanna see how you stack up with the rest of the cycling world? Simply take your FTP number and divide it by your weight in kilograms.
Based on research by Dr. Andy Coggan and Hunter Allen
How steady is your power output? The more spikes of power you have during your ride, the harder and more fatiguing it will feel. VI is simply NP divided by AP. A Variability Index of 1.0 is a very smooth ride. This is a very important metric for time trialists and triathletes where pacing is key.
Intensity factor (IF) is simply a measure of how hard a particular ride or interval is, relative to your threshold power. Normalized power divided by your current FTP. IF is especially useful to check if your last ride was within the desired spirit of the workout. An IF of 0.75 or below is a recovery ride. 1.0 or above is very hard.
TSS measures the workload of a ride based on duration and intensity (IF). It’s about how much training stress you accumulate and how much rest you will need to fully recover. It’s a simple scoring system that coaches and athletes uses to quantify fitness and fatigue over time. For every hour of a workout, you score points relative to your IF. An all-out hour would score you 100 TSS. You can score more than 100, as long as your workout duration is longer. A total TSS of less than 150 doesn’t require much rest, whereas +400 TSS indicates several days of rest before you’re fully recovered.
Left / right balance measurement is fairly new in power meters. How much power do you generate from your left leg compared to your right leg? This is a pretty cool feature, especially if you can figure out how to use this data to improve your efficiency as a cyclist. But it’s not as simple as just looking at your average L/R balance after a ride. Your left/right power distribution changes throughout your ride based on various circumstances like standing efforts as well as high & low cadence. It’s about finding any weaknesses so that you can work on them.
Pedal smoothness is a measurement of how evenly power was applied throughout your entire pedal stroke. A value of 100%, however unlikely, equals to a perfectly smooth pedal stroke. The pedal smoothness of 20-50% is common. Try to focus on improving your smoothness by doing isolated pedaling drills. Improving your pedaling technique will lead to a better and smoother power output.
The fitness gains you experience through structured training can be endless. You’re actually more than 2 times as likely to achieve your fitness/race goals with a structured training plan. So go out there and get a proper training plan and/or get in contact with a coach to make your performance soar into the sky!
That’s it for now. We hope that you’ve found this little training guide somewhat useful and are now more motivated than ever to do some power-based training.
Allen, H. and Dr. Coggan, A. (2015). Training and Racing with a Power Meter. 2nd ed. Velopress.
Friel, J. (2009). The cyclist’s training bible. 4th ed. VeloPress.
Dr. Skibba, P. (2008). The Triathlete’s Guide to Training with Power: Evidence-based Training Techniques and Concepts. 1st ed. PhysFarm Press.