In my experience as an endurance coach, some of the clients that I work with seem to be under the impression that power meters are only for hardcore racers. But because cycling is unique in that we have a direct way of measuring our power output - taking advantage of this can take a lot of the frustration and headache out of building bicycle-specific fitness... especially so now that power meters are being more widely used and have become more affordable.
What Do We Mean by Power?
Before getting into the details, let’s talk about what power is, exactly.
Power is measured in watts and is a snapshot of the work you are doing at any given point in a workout or ride. When using a power meter, if you suddenly mash down really hard on your pedals, the computer will display a number (in watts) that is directly relative to how hard you pushed your legs. For some perspective: One horsepower is equal to 746 watts.
The coolest part: coaches can use that measurement to tailor your bike workout to your specific ability!
"Truly, when we get back to the basics of fitness, no matter what the discipline, focusing on improving ourselves should always be our baseline focus, and using a power meter is an excellent and direct way to accomplish that."
Excuse me, but what's a Power Meter?
A power meter is a device that is integrated into your bike or bike trainer, that can directly measure the work you are doing while you are spinning or pedaling. It connects to another device, like your smartphone, bike computer, or laptop (or all 3) to give you an instant reading of how much effort you are using to spin the pedals.
In practical application, where power meters really shine: they give you the ability to more accurately gauge your effort for your planned workout or ride.
Smart Trainers Have Power Meters Built Into Them
Smart trainers such as those manufactured by Wahoo, Kinetic, CycleOps and Tacx have truly “changed the game” when it comes to indoor training because they come with power meters integrated into them. Smart trainers also provide resistance variance controlled by the trainer itself (i.e.: feels more difficult or easy according to the workout you program into it, or the terrain you are cruising on in a virtual world like Zwift's Watopia) and originates inside the trainer, not necessarily from you shifting your gears.
Using a smart trainer along with video-game-like computer programs such as Zwift, Sufferfest and TrainerRoad make indoor training more enjoyable and engaging than ever before. You'll find that those long hours inside during the winter simply fly by when you're riding virtually with thousands of other people all around the world, including your friends, if you send them an invite!
In addition, training with power doesn’t have to stop indoors, as each year gear companies continue to develop better and more affordable power measuring products that can be used on any of your bikes for outdoors training and riding as well, for your data gathering pleasure.
Smart trainers with power meters are best for: those who want to do productive workouts indoors, but have no intention of taking those structured workouts outdoors on their actual bicycle.
Bicycle power meters are best for: those who want to do productive workouts indoors and want to have the option of doing them outside as well. You can always use your bicycle on your trainer, whether smart or non-smart.
Although this article addresses power specifically, it should be known that training with heart rate and perceived effort (PE) are still viable and useful ways to measure exercise output. All three are still considered good methods for producing improvements in your fitness.
So Why Choose Power Then?
1. It’s more precise.
Most people are familiar with weight lifting strategies. You start out with lower weights, and do repetitive exercise with increasingly higher loads to increase your muscle strength. Training with power is not really that much different, because the end goal is the same and we use a direct measure (watts) to achieve that goal.
2. It makes your workouts more productive.
When we used to train strictly with heart rate or perceived exertion (PE), we were looking at mostly the effect of the exercise. How high you see your heart rate go up is a reaction to the power output, and PE is a subjective assessment of the effort you put out. All are useful, but when you focus on a specific power output for a certain amount of time, for instance, when doing hill repeats, we are able to train our muscles to output more for that given time. Instead of watching our heart rate maintain over the exercise, our heart rate goes up for the duration, as your watts stay the same. This would be similar to doing repetitive weight exercises. By the end of a 20-rep set, your heart rate gets higher and higher.
3. It’s easier to see your direct fitness and strength improvements.
Ahhh, the end result… the ever-coveted strength and fitness gains that directly result in climbing hills faster, out-sprinting that riding buddy who never seems to lose fitness, or keeping up with your friends on those long summer rides. We all know that what you can do outside on rides varies due to heat, weather, and other factors. We also know that we are never in control over what someone else can do in the way of performance on the bike. Having something to bring you back to center, like seeing your personal sustained power output improve over time, can bring you back to home base in regards to your own abilities.
Truly, when we get back to the basics of fitness, no matter what the discipline, focusing on improving ourselves should always be our baseline focus, and using a power meter is an excellent and direct way to accomplish that.
If you want to maximize your trainer time this winter, have a coach who is experienced in training with power write you a plan based on your specific power output. It really is the best way to go for your fitness goals. Take the guesswork out of it by having a professional do that part for you. All you have to do is show up and do your workouts.
Talitha Vogt is a certified endurance and behavior change coach with an elite racing background. She has 22 years of experience as a mountain biker, including 13 total years of racing and other endurance events including Xterra triathlons, uncountable cyclocross races, a little dabbling in road racing, and even some trail running events. She provides custom-tailored, accommodating coaching locally in the front range of Colorado and online internationally.