A UK-based magazine - Cycling Plus - recently asked me some questions for a piece they are working on regarding getting started with power-based training. I thought they were good ones, especially for those who are new to power or considering buying a power meter. Below are their questions and my answers.
On a related topic, TrainingPeaks.com just released a free ebook called How to Start Training With Power. It can be downloaded here.
And on yet another related topic, I wrote a book for the power newby called The Power Meter Handbook. It may also prove helpful in getting started.
Question: What type of cyclist can benefit the most from using a power meter? Are they best for serious riders or can newer cyclists benefit too?
Answer: I tell first year cyclists that their primary concern is training frequency. Just get out on the road as often as possible. After the first year and with frequent training well established, they should start focusing on workout duration. By about the third year of training with solid training frequency and duration at moderate to high levels the emphasis shifts toward training intensity. This is when a power meter will begin to pay big dividends. Up until this point in their budding cycling career a standard handlebar computer is all they need. This may include a heart rate monitor.
Question: Are they really better than heart rate monitors and if so why?
Answer: It’s not that they are better or worse, but that power meters are different. They measure something that can’t be determined from heart rate – performance. A heart rate monitor only tells the rider how great the effort is. This is a measure of “input.” Heart rate doesn’t say anything at all about what one is accomplishing. That’s where the power meter comes in with an “output” measurement. By knowing both output and input we know the cyclist’s efficiency. Dividing the Normalized Power (a high-fangled version of average power) from a standard aerobic ride or interval by the average heart rate for that same standard aerobic ride or interval the rider determines his or her Efficiency Factor (EF). (EF is something that TrainingPeaks.com calculates for you.) As EF rises over time we know that the athlete’s fitness is also rising. So not only do we know effort and performance, we now also know how to quantify aerobic fitness.
Question: What are the most important power numbers – FTP, PowerMax etc – we should be looking at when we’re training and racing and what are they telling us?
Answer: The single most important power number for the serious rider is his or her Functional Threshold Power (FTP). All of the rider’s training zones are based on FTP and it also serves as an absolute measure of performance potential. Several research studies have shown that the velocity or power one can produce when at or near the lactate threshold is an excellent predictor of endurance performance.
Over the course of the annual season FTP will rise and fall with training changes. When it’s rising one can assume that the potential for high performance is also rising. And the opposite is also true when it’s declining. It should be tested every few weeks to gauge progress toward race goals and to update training zones.
Question: How do power zones work - what are the benefits of working out in different zones?
Answer: The zones (Coggan’s system) are simply ranges within the full spectrum of power outputs that the rider can produce. They are divided into zones in such a way that each zone represents a critical physiological intensity. For example, zone 2 is typically about where the rider’s aerobic threshold occurs while zone 4 encompasses the anaerobic/lactate threshold. Zone 5 is the aerobic capacity (VO2max) intensity. By training in zones such as these the rider can pinpoint what physiological outcome he or she wants from a given workout.
Question: Is there a danger that you can become over-reliant on ‘numbers’?
Answer: Yes, certainly. The bottom line is always that a rider should be able to race well without any numbers on the handlebars. Using a power meter in training allows the rider to gauge progress and also to establish a “feel” for what the appropriate race intensities feel like. Even if the power meter was never used during the race, afterwards the rider can analyze the power data to see where there is room for improvement. For example, burning too many matches early in the race is a common flaw that the rider may discover during post-race analysis even if he or she never even glanced at the power meter during the race. Without such hard data race analysis is based entirely on perceptions which may be clouded by imprecise memory, macho beliefs, or poor guesses as to what happened and when. So even though it may not be used during the race, a power meter helps the athlete to grow as a racer.
Question: In what situations does having access to your power numbers really make a difference? Essentially how can you use power numbers to make you a better climber, ride better for longer or go faster!
Answer: During training the value of a power meter is immense. All workouts can be based on developing precise physical abilities or on achieving an adequate level of recovery. This includes improving climbing by focusing on a specific power zone and maintaining it throughout the climb (such as zone 4 during a very long climb). By using power it removes the guesswork as to what the intensity should be and if it’s being achieved. Then over the course of time the EFs from several such climbs may be compared to measure climbing progress (power should be rising at the same heart rate).
Within a race the most valuable use is during time trials and triathlons. For example, if doing a 40-km time trial that will take about an hour, the rider knows that this is best accomplished at his or her FTP. So by riding steadily (assuming flat terrain) at that intensity the best possible pacing and outcome are assured.
Question: Do you have any favourite power-based sessions for boosting climbing, speed or endurance?
Answer: The workout I have riders do the most frequently is the aerobic threshold steady state ride. After warming up the athlete will ride for a given period of time (in the range of 1-4 hours depending on the duration of the race he/she is preparing for) in zone 2 heart rate. Power is not observed during the ride. But afterwards Normalized Power and heart rate are compared to determine EF (as described above). The athlete has no way to manipulate the two variables so it is a pure measure of aerobic fitness when compared with previous EFs for the same workout or climb.
This same training concept using zones can be applied to any type of workout from sprints to time trials to short, steep hills.
Question: Are there any tricks to boosting your power output? Is it all down to building strength and losing weight or is there more to it than that??
Answer: Nothing in the physiology of training has changed just because the rider begins using a power meter. He or she is now simply better able to design and execute well-defined workouts, precisely analyze training and racing, measure performance potential, and determine fitness changes. All of these were left largely to guesswork before. For more than a century riders and coaches guessed at the progress being made in training. There was practically no way of knowing until race day. Cycling was the least scientific of all the major endurance sports throughout the last century. All training was based on feel and guesswork. Since the invention of the power meter cycling has arguably become the most precise endurance sport. Without a power meter the rider is still training as if it was 1900.