Pros have known the benefits of training with power for a long time, but the prohibitive price tag of mechanical power meters has also meant that it was mostly the pros who could train with power. But what can power training do for the average athlete or one working toward crit races and age group placements, or for those of us who like cycling and would like to get in better shape through biking?
Intensity is everything
There is an adage in cycling that goes “long, slow cycling makes a long slow cyclist”. In other words, if on every ride you ever do, you are putting in the same conversational pace and similar distances, your body learns to do that and just that. The only way to avoid stagnation and to coax your body into getting fitter and faster is to workout at different intensity levels on different days. This means short intervals, long intervals, hills, and yes, some slow rides.
But even when we understand that conceptually, how do we actually put it into practice? That is where a power meter is an invaluable friend. Power output has a direct, one-to-one correspondence with effort level, in a way that no other metric does. That means that if you are averaging 140 Watts on that long conversational ride, and hitting 270 Watts on your 3 minute intervals, you are training smart, you are challenging your body, and you are putting the old wisdom into practice. Watching the power displayed on your dashboard or watch is the best guidance you’ll ever have.
Why speed or heart rate won’t do
You may be tempted to think that the speed you achieve on a ride, or heart rate monitors that were once popular, may give you the same kind of information as a power meter. Not so. The cycling speed is affected by many factors, such as terrain, wind, or the type of bike you ride. Every cyclist experiences how easy it is to reach 30 mph on a long slight downhill without even pedaling or to barely crank out 8 mph on a major climb. Does that mean you worked harder at 30 mph? Of course not. Most likely, you reached Level 5 (your aerobic threshold) during the climb but were at a comfortable Level 2 on the downhill. Tail vs head wind have similar effects on cycling speed, which a cyclist has no way of factoring in without a power reading.
Heart rate monitors do a little better than speed when it comes to measuring effort, but also have a lot of shortcomings. First, heart rate typically has a delay from the start or end of effort, which makes keeping track of intervals very difficult. Second, heart rate can be affected by many external and internal factors, such as the ambient temperature, hydration level, or even the amount of sleep a cyclist has, making it subjective and inconsistent. A higher heart rate on a given day compared to another can’t be taken to mean higher effort.
In contrast, power is simple and objective and will display only the energy that the cyclist produces. Power numbers account for that uphill, or that tail wind, and tell you exactly how hard you worked. Watts, like good friends, don’t lie.
Power is an excellent way to make and keep track of progress
When you start power training, do one of the simple tests for measuring your threshold power. This is a power level you can keep for about 30 mins by putting in an effort that feels hard, but not so hard that you can’t keep it up for more than a minute or two. This will help you determine ranges of power for your effort levels. The PowerEdge power meter app will automatically do this for you and adjust your power zones when you enter your threshold power.
In your training, start paying attention to the wattage you obtain on your rides. Insert hard efforts into some rides where you maintain bursts in zones 4 and 5. This is a guaranteed way to improve your fitness and performance, and an easy way to keep track of your gains. Repeat the threshold test in 6 weeks and see what the pros have known for years.