A power meter is surely one of the most popular wish-list upgrades for cyclists wanting to perform at their best – but why train with power at all?
Once you’re looking beyond performance increases gained from training by feel, there are two avenues available to take things to the next level: heart rate and power. Both are beneficial, but it’s power that offers the most if you want to reach your cycling potential.
While heart rate is useful to see how your aerobic system is working on any one day, it isn’t an expression of your effort – it’s your body’s response to that effort. What's more, it’s affected by a multitude of factors including temperature, cumulative fatigue, hydration, lack of sleep, stress and even how many coffees you’ve drunk that day.
All that dilutes the benefit of relying on heart rate as your day-to-day training tool. By contrast, when using power, the wattage figure shown on your head unit is the result, or output, of that effort. This means that a figure of 200 watts is the same regardless of whether you’re four hours into a ride or suffering the after-effects of a late night out the day before. Getting to 200 watts might feel different, but it takes the same physical force to do it, helping you to track progress with great accuracy.
As training with heart rate often requires you to get your BPM up or keep it low – and that can be a tall order as all those outside influences come into play – with power, the numbers don’t lie. You can see instantly if you’re going hard enough. And if you can’t hit the same power you did the day before, you probably need a rest!
Speaking of taking it easy, training with power also allows you to keep your effort levels in check on recovery rides, helping to avoid competition – either against yourself or riding buddies.
Using a power meter for structured training
Power comes into its own during structured training. Whether tackling a tough indoor session or doing intervals on the open road, heart rate takes time to warm up to the intensity you might need to attain and even more time to settle back to a baseline afterwards. This compromises both the intervals themselves and the recovery between them.
Because power is instant, you don’t have to worry about any of that. Within a couple of pedal revolutions, you’ll see the figure on your head unit jump, then it’s up to your legs to hold it where it needs to be! In this way, power is extremely beneficial for interval training, and especially those shorter, harder efforts that heart rate lag corrupts.
This ability to get the most out of sessions is one of the biggest benefits for power users and is especially important for athletes seeking the best quality workouts in a time-crunched world.
Using a power meter for endurance cycling
For more general endurance training, just having that wattage displayed on your bars is a big motivator, keeping you working at that intensity sweet spot for maximum gains. It can also help with morale too. Once you’re riding with power, there’s no more despair as you battle into a headwind on the flat and see your speed take a knock – your power will reflect the conditions and the work needed to maintain speed. No more false-flat fever!
By extension, power is a great way to curb being over enthusiastic at the start of a long ride. Even without any power testing, you’ll get an idea of what you can hold and if you’re way above this as an event gets underway, things probably won’t end well.
Making the most of power meter training – data analysis
Of course, the beauty of training with power is that it’s quantitative. This gives you a complete readout of what you’ve done and what your body is capable of, which, all being well, improves over time.
If you’ve not got an eye for numbers now, you will have after a few weeks of training with power. It’s almost alarming how satisfying it is to pore over your data, make changes and see improvements.
Because of the importance of these figures, you’ll only get the best out of yourself if you test your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) every so often with a 20-minute full-gas time trial. With this number in hand, you can set accurate training zones and unlock a host of meaningful data that can be used to inform pacing strategy and track performance increases. Heart rate data is a useful adjunct to this, giving a deeper view of how your body is responding over time.
In short, a power meter is becoming ever more essential for riders seeking to make the most out of your training when time is short and get the best out of your body when riding longer. It’s for all these reasons that power is the gold standard for cycle training and why it’s relied on by professional riders and coaches around the world.