Power meters allow you to see and record exactly how much power you expend on the bike – and power is simply fundamental to cycling performance. The ability to see and record your power allows for unprecedented insight into your fitness. When used properly, power meters not only help you become faster and stronger, but can be used as a vital tool on race day, can serve as a motivational aid during hard training sessions and can help you know when it’s time to recover, just to name a few power meter training benefits.
This is why power meters have become essential tools for cyclists of all levels, their coaches as well as sports scientists – who all use power meters as a fundamental way to measure and improve cycling performance. Power meters can unlock more endurance and speed than any other training tool.
I emphasize cyclists of all levels. The notion that “only pros use power meters” is false. While professionals definitely take advantage of the numerous benefits afforded by power meter training, power meters are useful for anyone who is looking to take their riding to the next level. Since a power meter enables you to precisely measure your effort through watts, it leads to better training sessions and improved fitness, regardless of who’s using it.
Are you time crunched? Athletes with limited time to train can especially take advantage of power meter training benefits. Power meters help make the most of your training time by improving the quality of your training sessions and help to remove ‘junk’ training. Joe Friel, elite triathlon and cycling coach and author of numerous cycling books including The Cyclist’s Training Bible, calls the power meter the most effective tool for increasing speed on the bike.
Let’s discuss the specific ways you can use a power meter to improve your cycling performance.
Power Meter Training Benefits
1. Eliminates Guesswork
Perhaps the biggest advantage to a power meter is that it removes the guesswork that goes into training and racing. With a power meter, you can quantify exactly how hard you are working (as your effort is directly measured in watts). Many people use a heart rate monitor in their training. However, heart rate monitors only tell you how hard the effort is to your body. They don’t tell you the actual amount of work you are performing. Watts are a much more accurate way to measure your effort.
In addition, heart rate only training suffers from a number of shortcomings. Heart rates can vary day-to-day, they can ramp up slowly at the start of an interval and they can suffer from what is called cardiovascular drift (see Heart Rate vs. Power Meter for more detail). With power meters however, there is no guesswork. You can hit your exact intensity target at all times. This means no wasted time, precise intensity and better training.
2. Allows for Structured Training
When you just start out, you can improve your performance by following the ‘just ride lots’ technique. But soon, you will start to see your improvement slow. A structured training program where you focus on different intensities at varying durations is the ticket to continued improvements in power and performance. After you use your power meter to determine your functional threshold power, you can build a structured training plan with power-based training zones. This will allow you to precisely target the relevant zone and energy system – which leads to maximum performance gains.
|Level||Name||Average Power||Average HR||Perceived Exertion|
3. Determine Strengths and Weaknesses
Depending on what type of riding and racing you do (cross country, endurance, sprints, etc.), you will want to focus on different areas of your power curve. For example, a sprinter cares most about peak power over short periods of time – such as 30 or 60 second power. An endurance rider cares more about 60 minute power for example. A power meter allows to you accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your specific discipline. Then, using your training zones, you can look to maintain your strengths while improving any weaknesses.
4. Can Track Fitness More Accurately
Power meters provide highly accurate details about how your fitness is changing throughout the season. You can closely track your average power numbers at given distances, your maximum power numbers, your functional threshold power and more. Using software like Training Peaks and their Performance Management Chart for example, you can track of variety of important metrics such as your Training Stress Score (TSS), Acute Training Load (ATL), Chronic Training Load (CTL) and Training Stress Balance (TSB). The information gained from this type of software and analysis is invaluable.
Another example is Efficiency Factor (EF). EF is your average or normalized power for a workout divided by your average heart rate. As fitness increases, at a given heart rate, you will generate more power and therefore your Efficiency Factor will increase. It’s a great way to tell if your fitness is improving. However, you can’t compute important metrics like these without a power meter.
5. Race Pacing
We all know that in most long, steady-state races such as a triathlons and time trials, your best strategy is to pace yourself. You don’t want to start too hard and end up limping to the finish. Nor do you want to start too easy and finish with gas left in the tank. Well a power meter allows you to pace yourself almost perfectly. Once an athlete’s optimal power has been determined with a power meter, they can gauge exactly how hard to push during a race.
For example, if your race is two hours long, and you know you can average approximately 200 watts for two hours (you learned this through training with your power meter), you then ride at or close to 200 watts. If you look down and see 225 watts on your head unit, you know to back off and vice versa if you see 175 watts. While everyone else pushing too hard into a head wind or guessing how hard to ride down a hill, the athlete with a power meter is just rolling along at the prescribed power. In fact, using a power meter in a race situation is such an advantage, many have referred to it as legal cheating. Game on!
6. Race Planning
A power meter can also serve as a ‘cheat sheet’ in terms of pre-race preparation. If you have access to the course before the race, perform a simulation race as part of your training and then have a look at the data. You’ll have an exact rendering of what you need to do to prepare for the big day. Lots of short, punchy climbs? Then work on those. Lots of time spent right around your FTP? Then focus on that. With the data in your pre-race power file, you will line up on race day already a leg-up on your competition.
7. Data Allows for Experimentation
Since power meters provide instant data, athletes can experiment with different techniques such as riding position, bicycle set-up, cadence and aerodynamics in order to determine how these affect performance. For example, assuming external factors such as wind and grade are held constant, an athlete can ride for a mile, make a change in riding position, and then ride another mile and see how the change effects performance.
With a power meter, there’s no lying. You get immediate, accurate performance assessment. This can serve as a great motivational tool. There is nothing more satisfying then ending an interval or a ride and seeing an increase in your average or maximum power numbers. A power meter can really help you hit that 100% effort target. In fact, it can serve as a great training tool because of this alone.
9. Communication with Your Coach
If you have a coach or are thinking about getting one, a power meter greatly improves the value that they can provide. A power meter will provide a wealth of data for your coach. Not only power but things like speed and cadence are also informative. With this data, the coach can create a plan that is tailored to your needs and by continuing to view data from your rides, they can closely monitor your performance and make adjustments where necessary.
10. Better Determine When Recovery is Needed
When used with a heart rate monitor, a power meter allows you to detect the onset of fatigue and/or illness. If you see significantly lower power outputs for a given heart rate for example, it’s probably time for some recovery.
So you’re convinced that a power meter is the single most effective training tool a cyclist can use for improving performance, but you think they are too expensive? We would argue differently. Cyclists often spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars upgrading the components on their bike…and we can’t think of a single upgrade that can offer the potential gains that a power meter can. Power meters are simply an invaluable piece of technology when it comes to cycling performance.
In addition, power meter price wars are on! As power meter training benefits have become more well-known, they’ve increased in popularity. As they’ve increased in popularity, more manufacturers have introduced new power meter offerings. More power meters results in a more competitive environment which means lower prices. Practically all major manufacturers have lowered their prices. Whereas before, you might have had to spend several thousand dollars for a power meter, now there are a host of quality options for much less. So more options and lower prices – that’s a win-win for consumers. Time to get powered up and take advantage of all these power meter training benefits!