What's Cool In Road Cycling

Power Training IV: Using Your Power Meter

In this fourth and final installment of “The Concept of Power” series, we will apply all the elements discussed so far towards using an actual power meter to improve your riding. Regardless of whether you use or ever will use a power monitor, the same concepts can come in handy with your training…

By now, you are equipped with the appreciation and the understanding of why power based training can encourage smart, efficient cycling. Whether or not you currently use a power meter, plan on buying one in the future, or never intend to own one, you can use these concepts on a day to day basis to get more out of every pedal stroke you take. If you do buy a power meter down the road, learning the techniques and concepts outlined in the previous 3 articles will help you get the most out of your device and shorten the learning curve as you make the switch from bpm’s to Watts.

If you are considering purchasing a power meter, there are several options. For those with a spending limit, PowerTap is an excellent choice while SRM is the top choice for those with deeper pockets. For a comprehensive buying guide (along with some great power based training tips), check out Hunter Allen’s new book Training and Racing With a Power Meter.

If you do purchase a power meter, before restructuring all your workouts and throwing away your heart rate zones, I suggest riding around with it for a few weeks to get used to it and to make some basic observations. Give yourself plenty of time to become accustomed to the device and as you ride, notice how your power changes from moment to moment and varies over different terrain. After a few weeks, you can start testing your critical power (CP) for various time periods. This can be done in the same way that you tested your critical distance (CD) as laid out in the last article, but instead of measuring distance you will be measuring average watts. Your best critical power or average watts for a 15, 3 and 1 minute interval (or whatever lengths you use) will then become your benchmarks for those lengths and just like critical distance, these will improve with training.

There are a few things you will notice right away as you begin experimenting with the power meter. First, you will see how dramatically power fluctuates from moment to moment. In the last article I talked about how important it is to make a smooth even acceleration when you do your intervals, but with the power meter you will have indisputable data to tell you just how even your effort is throughout the effort. You may be surprised at how dramatically your power decreases from the beginning of the interval to the end, but this can be remedied easily by simply holding yourself to your CP over the length of the effort. You may also notice that by having the information in front of you to allow you to maintain a perfectly even tempo, you will increase your CP without increasing your effort level. In addition, with the increased accuracy of CP over CD, you can more precisely schedule your recovery between workouts to avoid overtraining and to ensure that you are steadily progressing.

Just like with heart rate based training, there are a few possible pitfalls that should be avoided when you start training with power. First, be careful not to place too much importance on the numbers themselves. Remember that they are only useful when you compare them to your own previous workouts. Try not to measure yourself against other riders and the power numbers they “claim” to put out. The only number that truly carries any importance is your power to weight ratio, so while bigger riders may put out more power, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are stronger than a smaller rider who puts out less power.

You will also quickly notice that you will be able to put out higher wattage on climbs and while using a big gear. This is because there is more resistance to overcome. However, just because you are able to put out more power initially pushing at a slower cadence does not mean that it is the most efficient style of riding. Vary your cadence and the terrain you train on to match the varying terrain you will race on. Initially you might not be able to put out as many watts on a flat stretch of road, so you will be tempted to do all your intervals in the hills. But since ideally, you want to be able to put out just as much power in a flat criterium as you would on a steep climb, you need to train your body to do this by practicing it in training.

Finally, there is the warning that I give my riders any time they try to quantify their cycling ability whether it is with wattage, speed, road tests or lab tests. Cycling is not all about numbers and a cyclist’s ability can’t be summed up with an equation or a graph. With wattage, more than anything else, I see riders getting caught up in the numbers and getting bogged down with infinite amounts of data. If you are the type of person who is inclined to go this way, resist the urge. A simple spread sheet tracking your CP over time can be the easiest and most convenient way to chart your progress. Also, it is rarely useful to place any weight on comparisons between yourself and other riders in training as they can often lead to intimidation and self implemented limitations when it comes to race day. Remember, it’s not about how many watts you can put out, but how effectively you use them in a race. It’s not always the strongest guy who wins but the one who conserves the most energy for the parts of the race that really count.

About Josh:
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services check out contact [email protected] or check out his website at

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