By Zach Lail
Over the past 20 years training has been evolving so quickly it seems we spend more time digesting new information than we do riding. Since I have been riding and racing a bicycle, the new technologies that have been introduced claiming to make you faster, are overwhelming. From basic HR monitors to super tech-geek GPS and MP3 equipped cycling computers to electro stimulation machines that workout your muscles while you sit on the couch, to the ever popular altitude tents. Some of these gadgets cost as much as a small car! While it’s true they all have their benefits and will help you in some way or another, you must way the cost versus the gain with some of these training tools.
Years ago some of you may have heard me say that power meters are not worth the cost, that you can make huge gains with your basic HR monitor and allot of hard work. Well it’s true that a HR monitor is an extremely valuable piece of equipment and using it wisely will result in fitness gains. However, having made the switch myself in 2006 to power based training and now having 95% of my Athletes training with power my opinions of power based training are extremely different, to say the least. After several power based training seminars over the past few years and tons of research and reading, along with personal experience, I know and believe that there is no better way to spend your bike budget than on a power meter. If used properly in your training, the gains will be far greater than any set of aero wheels, lightweight frame or any other performance enhancing product, (this includes all of the supplements out there today that make wild claims of boosting your performance).
Let’s face it, we are all getting older and each year, especially over the age of 35, our fitness diminishes a little bit. Gaining in fitness becomes harder and harder as we age and our circumstances change, especially for more elite level athletes. A power meter is a tool that can help you dial in to your training and make those small gains that other wise may not be possible. So take advantage and make the most of your peak years, start training with power today. Here are my top 10 reasons for making the switch to training with power.
• Power is Speed. There is no better measure of performance than performance itself, and power or wattage is the best way to measure speed and performance. Heart rate is often mistaken for an indication of how hard or fast you are going, however HR is only an indication of the cost of how fast you are going. Think of power as the speedometer and heart rate as the fuel gauge. When used together, you can see, for example, how much a certain effort cost in terms of energy for a certain speed or output.
• Sprinter of Climber? Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Most of us may have an idea, but it’s doubtful we know for sure. We may think we are a poor sprinter, but it may just be we are always in the wrong spot at the end of a race. Training with power will allow us to define both your strengths and weaknesses. For example, your power to weight ratio will be defined for certain time periods, you may have a really high power/weight ratio for 60 seconds, an extremely low number for 5 minutes, but then do pretty well for an hour. Training with power will allow us to identify the areas you need work beyond a shadow of a doubt. It will also help us together to plan your race strategy around your strengths.
• I am getting faster! Are you really? How do you know? Remember a stand alone HR monitor is only an indication of the cost, not the speed. So how do you know you are improving? In a highly variable sport like cycling, it is very difficult to use your race results to measure your fitness. There are too many outside variables that need to be considered, like the field, weather, terrain, luck, strategy, tactics and more. The best way to really measure your performance and improvement is with a power meter.
• Adjust that training plan. You will find that needed adjustments to your training plan are easier to identify and make with the use of a power meter. You will also be able to tell, while doing a workout on your own, when its time to call it quits and head home, or put your head down and do another interval.
• Consistency. We have already discussed how the power meter is the best indication of speed and output. How does that help you in your training? Well, consider the number of variables that affect your HR, these include, recovery, sleep, diet, weather, stress to name a few. With power you are training at a certain intensity, period. While the cost may be a bit higher or lower from day to day, you will know without a doubt, that your output or power is in the appropriate zone.
• Measuring fitness. This one kind of goes along with “I am getting faster”. In a sport where aerobic fitness is so important, there is now better way to compare the speed versus the cost than with the use of a power meter. For example, we know that your HR based aerobic threshold is 135 and at that threshold you produce an average of 160 watts. An increase in aerobic function could immediately be identified by a shift of either more wattage (175) at threshold, or a lower heart rate (125) at the same wattage. These shifts can immediately be identified and changes to your zone made, without having to wait on your next V02 test, making the best of your valuable training days.
• Racing with your power meter. The data captured while racing is extremely valuable. It really paints a picture of your strengths and weaknesses as well as your racing style. It is also very helpful in setting up or adjusting your training plan. It can also be used as a valuable tool while racing. Consider the following scenario.
Joe is a strong cat 2 racing in a regional criterium with other 1’s and 2’s and a handful of domestic pros. Through testing and a spring of training with his power meter, Joe knows his precise FTP of 350 watts (functional threshold power, or the approximate amount of power he can sustain for a 30 minute TT). He also knows that if he goes above this FTP for a considerable amount of time, he will likely blow up and DNF. With 20 laps to go, the bell is rung for a prime. Joe, being a pretty good sprinter, leaps off the front and gains an instant gap of 15 seconds and takes the prime. The next time Joe looks over his shoulder he still has the gap and has been joined by 3 others, making the breakaway 4 strong. The attack caused Joe to go over his FTP so he knows he must sit in the back of the breakaway group and recover. After he recovers a little, he starts to take some pulls. Joe quickly realizes that the average speed of the break away is above his FTP, so he does what any respectable sprinter would do; he sits on the back and takes a free ride. Besides, Joe has a hunch from looking at the others in the breakaway that they may also be above threshold and will soon blow up, so he saves his energy and waits for the field to catch them. With 11 laps to go, the bell again rings for a prime, and once again Joe sprints from the breakaway and takes the prize. When he looks over his shoulder, his break away companions are no where to be seen. Now Joe is all alone, off the front, with 10 laps to go and a 20 second advantage, not a great place for a sprinter to be. Joe doesn’t’ want to blow up, but he doesn’t want to sit up either, so he uses his power meter to pin his wattage at 340-360 right around his FTP. This way he knows he will still have some gas left if the field catches him, but he will still be trying his best to stay away, it’s the best Joe can do with the situation. With one lap to go, Joe still has a 10 second advantage, he knows know that he can now let his wattage climb up to around 400, an output that, through testing, he knows he can hold for 1-2 minutes. Joe wins the race by a margin of 5 seconds over the field.
Do you see how a power meter can be so valuable while racing?
• Improving technique. Training with a power meter can also help you identify areas where changes in technique could enhance your riding and racing. For example, we may discover after a few months of training with a power meter that changes in your cadence may help you ride more efficiently. It could be that a higher cadence allows for the same power output with a lower heart rate, or cost, than a slightly lower cadence. For the TT specialist, your power meter can be used as a virtual wind tunnel! Simply do the same TT course at the same average power output with different positions. Eliminate outside influences as much as possible and the only other major variable is aerodynamics.
• Avoid overtraining. With the use of a power meter it is much easier to avoid overtraining. Your workouts can be rated and given a TSS (Training Stress Score) to carefully track your days/weeks and avoid an overly stressful workload. We can now perfectly balance intensity and volume for the appropriate time of year. On a daily basis you will be able to see real time, while on your rides, how your body is reacting to your training, you will know exactly when to say stop and avoid going to far with your workout. This is a very important part of successful training.
• Train smarter not harder. Lets face it, few of us have 30 hours a week to train like the pros. Most of us are very limited in our time, yet we still must go out and race at a very high level, some of us even at the Pro level. This time crunch makes the limited amount of training time we do have very valuable, and we must use this time wisely. Make the most of your training time by making the workouts extremely specific, always have a goal in mind for each workout. There is no better way to do this than with the use of a power meter, you can now train a very specific area of your fitness, without overdoing it and riding blindly. Almost every professional cyclist today is already training with power, it’s your turn. Stop guessing and start improving.
For more information on power based training or to begin your power based training program, contact me.