Training with a power meter

 

TRAINING WITH A POWER METER

 

“You can’t get good by staying at home. If you want to get there quickly, you have to go where the fast guys are. ”

This is a quote from professional cyclist Steve Larsen that nicely sums up the changes to be made in cycling training and in endurance sports in general.

If you want to be fast, you have to train going fast. You can’t expect to always train light and then go and win the race. The logic is overwhelming.

The methods for controlling training intensity have evolved over time. In cycling we’ve gone from training through feelings, to heart rate monitors and now we have power metres.

Power training has been a revolution in cycling, because it allows us to accurately measure the loads we apply in our workouts.

In this post, I want to give you some guidelines for training with power, bettering your performance and maximising your training time.

 

HEART RATE TRAINING

 

 

 

 

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Being guided by your pulse in training is a good system, but you have to know how to interpret it. Also, when working at high intensity and in sets above your anaerobic threshold, the pulse will only usable for calculating recovery times and little else.

 

BENEFITS OF SPEED TRAINING

 

For those of us who run, it is well know that intervals are always expressed in times. For example: “I ran 21km in 4 hours or “I did 3 sets of 1000m in 3 hours 30 min.

Speed is completely objective. That day you’re fatigued, are you going to be able to run at that speed, yes or no? Nothing is subjective here. Either you can or you can’t.

Training by speed and not by pulse has one great advantage: we remove the subjectivity of sensations and the inaccuracy of pulse from the equation.

Training above your anaerobic threshold, is where you’ll get the most advantage with this measurement method. You’ll make a note of the speeds you need for your sets and will aim for that right from the start.

If you want to work with very short and explosive sets, cardiac decoupling will occur after completing the set, which means your pulse starts to rise, so the reference pulse is useless and you’ll need to go with speed 100%.

 

SPEED TRAINING APPLIED TO CYCLING: TRAINING WITH A POWER METER

 

Training with a power meter in cycling is equivalent to training for speed in running races.

We remove subjective factors from the equation, cardiac de-couplings, heart beats altered by fatigue, colds, dehydration, etc. Either you can acheive certain distances over certain times or you can’t.

 

THE POWER METER IN CYCLING

 

 

 

 

Cycling power metres are devices that can be placed on various parts of the bicycle (crank arm, hub, pedals, chain ring, etc.) and which have gauges consisting of small plates which are warped by the force of the pedals, allowing more or less current to pass through them. So, here we have a system that measures the force you apply to the pedals regardless of your pulse.

A few years ago the cycling power metre was not an accessible product for most, due to its price and the fact that it was only used by professionals. But time has passed and demand for it has increased while the price has dropped, making it a perfectly affordable item for any cyclist who wants to train with precise figures.

 

IS IT WORTH INVESTING IN A CYCLING POWER METER?

 

They have dropped in price, but it is still a pricey investment, which might raise a few doubts as to whether it’s really worth it. My answer is always the same: absolutely, yes! If you can afford it, buy it.

If you have been cycling for years and have reached a point where your performance has reached a plateau, with the power metre you can get yourself up a few notches in only one season.

These are all advantages, but if you want to add a negative point, the only thing I can think of is the price.

As I mentioned earlier, with the cycling power metre all the subjective factors of a pulse metre are eliminated from the equation and you can improve the adjustments you make in training loads a great deal more effectively, especially during intense moments, and even above your anaerobic threshold.

 

HOW DOES A POWER METRE AFFECT TRAINING

 

 

 

Training with a power

 

 

 

 

I’ll give you an example that illustrates very well the differences you will find between training by power or pulse.

Let’s say you go out training and you have a 120 min session planned where you are aiming for 75% (ftp) + 2 intervals of 20 min at 90% (ftp) on flat, with 4 mins at 75% (ftp) recovery between intervals. This is:

120 mins continuous at 75% with 2×20 min at 90% on flat/Rec. 4 mins at 75% + 10 mins going for it fully.

It shouldn’t be too hard to raise your pulse to 75% after warming up (depending on your anaerobic threshold) and even less so keep it there. Even more so if it is a very hot day where dehydration can be important.

With 90% intervals on flats, it will be somewhat hard to get your pulse to this level, but once you have done so, it won’t be so difficult to keep it there, if your legs are fresh.

 

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR POWER WHEN YOU MAINTAIN A CONSTANT PULSE?

 

Take a look at the chart:

 

 

 

 

As you can see on the graph, if you do exercise where you have to work with a constant pulse, for example: 180 mins at 75%, 20 mins at 90%, 50 mins at 85%, your pulse will let you know that you are indeed working at the desired intensity, but really the longer and more intense the interval is, the greater will be the power generated. This happens because the fatigue of exercise and dehydration will increase your pulse which in turn will decrease your power.

This drop in power may not be conscious. You won’t get the feeling that you are applying less force to the pedals, but that’s what will happen.

 

WHAT HAPPENS TRAINING WITH A POWER METER?

 

Take a look at the chart:

 

 

 

 

The effect will be just the opposite. When you do exercise with a constant power, for example: 180 mins at 75% (ftp), 20 mins at 90% (ftp), 50 mins at 85% (ftp), you’ll notice that your pulse increases as a result of fatigue and dehydration.

But the most interesting thing is that by eliminating the pulse from the equation, you’ll know for sure how intense the exercise you did really was.

As I said before, this drift or difference between pulse and power will be much more accentuated the longer and more intense the interval.

Also, depending on the heat you generate, dehydration (inevitable on hot days no matter how much fluid we drink) will cause your pulse to raise.

In the case of power, this cardiac drift will give us very important information when doing your set, because depending on the percentage of cardiac drift you have, you’ll know if you are doing a big set or not.

More advantages of training with a power meter

Continuing with some more of the advantages that training with a power metre can offer us, there is another that I see as very important. If you have little time to train or it’s winter and there isn’t much light, the way to get the most out of your cycling training will be with a power metre. You can get plenty of work done in just one hour of cycling if you train with power. After getting on your bike, doing 10 mins warm up you can then train exactly as you planned.

 

CARDIAC DRIFT

 

 

 

Training with a power

 

 

 

 

You should keep in mind that the pulse always follows behind effort with a delay of at least 20 or 30 seconds. If we are moving at a constant intensity of 75% of our anaerobic threshold and do a short sprint for 10 seconds, for sure we will have finished it before our pulse moves, or it will begin to raise slightly right after finishing it, as result of the change in speed.

If we do the opposite, this effect is more accentuated. If you are moving along with a constant rate of 80% of your anaerobic threshold and you stop pedalling, you’ll see that your pulse metre continues to indicate the same figure for around 20 or 30 seconds, when really you haven’t actually been applying any effort during that time.

This disconnect between your applied effort and your pulse, gives you little breaks without you noticing. If you’re performing at a constant rate of 80% of your anaerobic threshold for example, you can afford to stop pedalling for 1 second, or reduce the intensity of your pedalling a bit for a few seconds if your legs are hurting a lot, which won’t affect your pulse. That’s how it works, and we do it without realising. Our perception is that we are applying the same effort all the time, but this is not the case.

With power there is no mistaking it. You stop pedalling or relax a little bit for a fraction of a second to take a gel from your jersey, and the power drops steeply. You push again and the power goes up automatically.

That’s why power is said to be very responsive. The screen shows the effort you apply instantly.

This makes these unconscious micro-breaks impossible. You have to squeeze out every bit of intensity the whole time, which you will notice in your muscles a lot.

This is exactly the first change you’ll notice in your muscles if you start training with power and you’ll see that it is an improvement. You will be much stronger than before with the same training time and intensity.

To decide on a power or pulse workout keep the following in mind. In training by pulse is harder to reach the desired intensity but not so hard to maintain. If you train with power you won’t find it hard to reach the desired intensity but it will be harder to maintain it.

 

WHERE DO I START?

 

Okay, so you’ve got a power metre. Now, what are you doing with it? First, a power test to find out your FTP.

FTP or functional threshold, is a value used as a reference to work on the different aspects of cycling you want to improve.

There is a standard way of doing a test, or at least one where we know we are not making a mistake. From here on is where each coach’s nuances and experience enter in. As in everything, everyone has his/her own way of doing things.

 

DOING A CYCLING POWER TEST

 

 

 

 

 

 

An FTP test is defined as the maximum average power that an athlete can generate for 60 minutes, but as you’ll notice, 60 minutes to the limit makes you feel lazy even thinking about it. It is difficult to maintain concentration for so long and requires more rest before starting.

For this reason the test is done for 20 minutes during which you will push yourself to the limit to produce the maximum power that you can. By taking less time, the athlete will use his anaerobic capacity more and thereby generate more power.

To correct this higher power, you remove a percentage equivalent to a 20 minutes average from the average that you could do in a theoretical 60 minutes.

 

ON WHAT TYPE OF TERRAIN SHOULD IT BE DONE?

 

The test has to be done on flat by default and we will remove 5% from the result. If you do it climbing a mountain pass and you only remove 5%, this certainly won’t be enough, so when you then do it on flat roads you would thereby over-calculate. Therefore, if you do the test climbing such a pass it would be avisable to knock off 10%.

If you do your quality training sessions on a roller, it is vital that you also do the test on a roller. Watts produced on a roller have nothing to do with those produced on the road. Only the trainer knows. In this case we would subtract 5%

I propose the following standard test protocol:

Warm-up phase:

  • 20 min continuous pedalling at 65% (FTP) or 70% (UA) CAD. 90rpm
  • 3×1 min continuous pedalling with a cad. +100rpm/Rec.1 min
  • 5 minutes continuous cycling at 65% (FTP) or 70% (UA)

Main phase:

  • 4 full sprint for 20 sec with CAD. + 100rpm/REC. 3 min continuous cycling at 80% CAD. 90rpm
  • 5 min continuous cycling at 65% (FTP) or 70% (UA) CAD. 90rpm
  • Start Test 20 min to the limit

Cooling-off period:

  • 15-20 min smooth continuous cycling.

Once we know our FTP, we can calculate the percentages for the different intensities, depending on the aspects we want to work on.

The following is a table for an athlete who has done a 330w test (on flat)

 

FTP= 330w*0.95= 313w

 

Level. Zones based on FTP (313w) Minimum Maximum
1 Active Rest < 55% 172w
2 Resistance (55-75%) 172w 235w
3 Rhythm (75-90%) 235w 282w
3 + Sweet Spot (88-94%) 275w 294w
4 Threshold (90-105%) 282w 329w
5 VO2 (105-120%) 329w 376w
6 Anaerobic capacity (120-150%) 376w 470w
7 Neuromuscular power (Max – Max.)

 

I suggest you do a test at the beginning of the season so you know what point you are starting from, another at the beginning of serious training, another in the middle of this period and finally one more at the end of the season so you know how far you got.

 

POWER TRAINING WITH NO POWER METRE

 

If you are one of those who trains on a roller during the week due to lack of time, but you don’t have a power metre, you can emulate it. However these days rollers have evolved a lot and they indicate how many watts you are expending, which is the ideal scenario.

If you only have a regular roller, you should train based on speed, emulating what would you do on the road. It’s about doing a test on a roller to find out your average speed over 20 minutes, pushing it to the limit.

Once you have that average speed you subtract 5%, and you get the percentages for each attribute, as I showed in the above table. In this case the minimum and maximum are refered to as speeds and not watts.

 

This is as follows for a cyclist who has an average speed of 25 km/h on his roller:

 

Average Speed = 25km/h – 5% = 23.75 km/h

 

Level. Zones according to corrected speed Minimum Maximum
1 Active Rest 55% 13.1 km/h
2 Resistance (55-75%) 13.1 km/h 17.8 km/h
3 Rhythm (75-90%) 17.8 km/h 21.4 km/h
3 + Sweet Spot (88-94%) 20.9 km/h 22.3 km/h
4 Threshold (90-105%) 21.4 km/h 24.9 km/h
5 VO2 (105-120%) 24.9 km/h 28.5 km/h
6 Anaerobic capacity (120-150%) 28.5 km/h 35.6 km/h
7 Neuromuscular power (Max – Max.)

 

Of course, to do that you must put your speed sensor on the rear wheel, as the front wheel doesn’t move on a roller. But don’t use this system when road cycling as the conditions have to be the same for it to work (absence of wind). It won’t be the same when cycling at 40km/h against the wind as would be with the wind behind you.

Another important point is that you mustn’t touch the roller intensity. Imagine you have a roller with 5 ‘speeds’. I recommend that you do the threshold test in the hardest 4th speed and don’t touch it again.

All your workouts will be done in fourth speed and the intensity is increased or decreased by pushing your bike pedals accordingly.

I advise you to do it in fourth speed because if you do the test in an easier one, it’s certain that you would need to put the bike in the smallest gear to go as fast as you can.

If your already at this level for your threshold speed, you won’t be able to do it if you have to do sprints or 1 minute sets at 145%.

 

TRAINING ZONES IN CYCLING

 

Cycling at 100% of your ftp is not the same as doing it at 75%. That’s pretty clear.

You should know that each range of intensities improves a physical property, although it is important to clarify that the qualities are not completely segmented. In other words when you work with your threshold, that’s not all you are working with. You are also improving other properties, but we will call it the threshold zone because this is what is going to improve the most.

 

Take a look at this table:

 

Zone 1

Recovery

Zone 2

Strength

Zone 3

Time

Zone 4 Threshold Zone 5

VO2 Max.

Zone 6 Anaerobic Zone 7

Strength

Plasma volume increase No Low Medium High Maximum Low No
Increased mitochondrial muscle enzymes No Medium High Maximum Medium Low No
Increased lactate threshold No Medium High Maximum Medium Low No
Increased glycogen storage capacity in the muscles No Medium Maximum High Medium Low No
Hypertrophy of slow fibres No Low Half Half High Low No
Increased muscular capillarisation No Low Medium Medium High Low No
Fast fibre interconversion IIb > IIa No Half High High Half Low No
Max Increase Cardiac output No Low Medium High Maximum Low No
Vo2 max. increase No Low Medium High Maximum Low No
ATP/PCr storage increase No No No No No Low Medium
Lactate tolerance increase No No No No Low High Low
Hypertrophy of fast fibres No No No No No Low Half
Strength increase No No No No No Low High

 

As you can see, most of the interesting adjustments for a cyclist are found in Zone 3, Zone 4 and Zone 5.

From this one can deduce that what will train you the best is high intensity, but it is also well known that in cycling we spent many hours rolling along at low intensity.

This doesn’t violate common sense, it’s just that in a cycling posture your glutes, neck muscles and so on are working for hours, and however well you train your legs, if your body isn’t used to sitting in the seat for five or six hours, you are likely to have problems in a race of this duration.

Also, low intensity sessions are needed to break up those with more intensity as part of your ‘recovery’.

 

TYPICAL CYCLIST TRAINING IN EACH ZONE

 

 

 

 

 

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Training zone 1. Active recovery

 

You’ll be riding for less than an hour on flat terrain and avoiding pace changes. The power will be less than 55% of your FTP.

This will be typical training after a very demanding session or as a substitute for a full rest.

As regards your muscles it will always be better to do an active recovery than to stop completely, because when activating the musculature the water in the blood increases, which helps to eliminate the toxins generated by effort.

Another thing is that psychologically you need a complete rest and to forget about the bike for a day. That depends on each person.

 

Training zone 2. Strength

 

You’ll be riding for a minimum of 3 hours at between 56 and 75% of your FTP. Less than 3 hours will not be practically effective.

With training of this intensity you can do it on consecutive days without having to take a break.

In this zone we’ll improve stamina but above all to get some time in the saddle, since rides of 4, 5 or more hours are where we find the real intensity.

It is highly recommended that you hydrate properly, eat while you are on the bike and wear quality clothing that you feel comfortable in. A pad that offers excellent protection and a comfortable jersey, with no annoying seams and that is made of very breathable fabrics.

 

Training zone 3. Time

 

Do a good warm up for 20 to 30 minutes and then ride for around 90 minutes at between 76-90%.

It’s important that you do your fartleks in this zone, in other words, try to change speed and vary the terrain (climbs, flats).

If you don’t have much training time you shouldn’t drop out of this zone unless it’s to recover.

 

Training zone 4. Threshold

 

Do a good warm up for 20 to 30 min in zone 1 or 2 and then do 2 intervals of 20 mins at between 91-105%.

If you are going to work on flat terrain it is advisable to work in the lower range and lengthen the interval time to 60 or 90 minutes at 90%.

A decrease in the average power of more than 10% in a set means that you have done too much.

If you do not accomplish your objective, quit the session and be more conservative the next day.

You are entering intense training zones in which you could unleash two days at that intensity one after another, but you’ll want to do so with fresh legs. In any case if you attempt this without adequate rest you’ll build up a great deal of fatigue week after week which can result in overtraining.

 

Training zone 5. VO2 Max.

 

Warm up conscientiously, including an interval at 90-95% and a short sprint to finish getting your legs ready.

Typical training in this zone will consist of doing 5 sets of 3 minutes at between 106-120% with a rest equal to the rep time. This is:

 

30 minutes warm up + 5×3 minutes at 120%/Recovery 3 minutes at 55%

 

As in the threshold zone, depending on the intensity in the range you go to work, you can lengthen the time of the rep. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

 

30 minutes warming up + 5×6 minutes at 106%/Recovery 4 minutes at 55%

30 minutes warming up + 5×4 mins 30 sex at 110%/Recovery 3 minutes at 55%

 

As with the previous zone, you will not be doing training in this zone. This is a really demanding training that requires a good rest.

 

Training Zone 1. Anaerobic

 

Warm up conscientiously, including an interval at 90-95% and a short sprint to finish getting your legs ready.

Typical training in this area will be to do 10 repetitions of 1 minute above 120%, and recovering for 3 minutes below 55%.

Be conservative at the beginning so that there is a decrease of no more than 10% of the power with the last repetitions. If this is not the case it will mean you have overdone it with your training.

Here we apply the same point I mentioned earlier: the time of the repetition will lengthen depending on the intensity you are working with.

For example:

 

30 min warming up + 10×1 min at 145%/Recovery 3 mi at 55%

30 min warming up + 10×2 min to 130%/Recovery 4 min at 55%

 

Here the rest between sessions is vital. If you don’t really have fresh legs, you won’t be able to do this training since it is very, very demanding

 

Zone 7. Strength

 

Warm up conscientiously, including an interval at 90-95% and a short sprint to finish getting your legs ready.

Do sprints or fast bursts for 10 seconds to the max, sitting and applying loads of force. Start the fast bursts from a low speed on terrain with light slopes.

A typical training session would be:

 

30 minutes warm up. + 50 minutes continuous riding at 80% with a 10 second fast burst every 3 minutes + 10 minutes cooling off

  

TRAINING FOR POWER: THE REVOLUTION IN CYCLING

 

 

 

 

Training with a power

 

 

 

You can get such control over your workouts, and an intensity which you can apply to your competitions, that it has been said the spectacle is being lost in professional cycling due to power metres.

Chris Froome is a clear example of this that I have mentioned. We see it in mountain stages in which his competitors get away and in most cases he is able to continue at a constant pace until he decides to chase after them.

If you want to take a leap in quality in your performance and in control of your workouts, the power metre is undoubtedly your best bet and with the guidelines I have given you in this post, you have everything you need to get started and start taking advantage of this wonderful tool.

 

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About the Author : Diego González

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