So you shell out a grand or two on a power meter and what comes next? Just wait for the wins to start rolling in because you are using the same tools the Pros and National teams use! Not really, you have started on a process of discovery that will help you to learn more about your goal events, your current level and how well the preparation process is reducing the gap between where you are now and where you want to be on race day!
The first step with any power meter is to make sure it is well fitted, is recording data, and that you zero it before each ride. Some power meters allow you to calibrate, or at least check calibration to see if the data you are recording is accurate. Zeroing is not calibration and is bit like checking your scales are set to zero before you step on them. This is based around temperature and the strain gauges most power meters use to determine how hard you are pedalling.
The beauty of the power meter is that how hard and how fast you push on the pedals is the only thing that makes the watts go up on your computer which makes it a very objective measure of performance. This can be viewed in many ways like over time, over a distance, in various conditions, relative to weight or frontal area which gives you a wide range of options to learn more about the performance demands of your event, your current abilities and tracking the improvements you are making relative to your goal event.
So once strapped in and recording power from a well calibrated and zeroed meter you are ready to start learning! A simple way to look at racing and training with a power meter is to look at the amount of power you can generate for a time or distance relative to your goal event and aim to increase this on a weekly or monthly basis. On a very basic level this is all it really takes to improve in a time trial, triathlon bike leg or pursuit on the track. But within road racing there is variability with hills, attacks, crosswinds, downhills, different road surfaces, corners, riding at the front, sitting in and so forth. But relative to any event and the conditions of that event, the more power you can generate, the more likely you are to perform well. Note I say perform, not win, as a large part of cycling, even in the individual events, is riding tactically, where you try and conserve power or pace yourself well. Winning requires a mix of superior performance, excellent technique, being efficient on the bike and racing well tactically.
Efficiency, technique and tactics are where a good coach is worth their weight in gold. To increase physical performance requires a lot of well planned effort and time on the bike. The biggest factor in performance is consistent training and the longer you can devote to preparing for events and consistently build towards those events the more likely you are to succeed. Then comes the decision of how you spend your time riding to prepare for performance in cycle racing. One of the key proponents of power meter training Dr Andy Coggan often reminds us “It’s an aerobic sport damn it” and for the majority of cyclists time spent developing ones endurance base is never time wasted.
Because the competition environment changes, even on the track where within sessions temperatures and air pressure change, it is hard to develop a target a specific power for a given day or time, or event. This is where concepts like power at VO2max, or lactate threshold, or power for a given duration like 5s, 1min, 5min or 20min give us a yard stick to work to. A sprinter would look at 5s power, a Kilo rider 1min, Pursuiter 5min and Roadie 20min and a Criterium rider or Omnium Rider on the track would look at a mix of all to be fully prepared for whatever race day throws at them.
Coming up: explaining FTP
Hamish Ferguson is Canterbury Based Cycling Coach who prepares riders here and overseas for Road, Mountain Bike and Track Cycling events. In 2015 he was awarded a Master of Philosophy Degree for research on long term training metrics and their relationship with performance in road cycling events.