“How can you find your limit and push yourself over that limit if you are always working within known power ranges? Get out of your comfort zone man. You will never improve if you are not ready to test yourself. So take that power meter and put it in the back pocket of your jersey.”
That is the clean version of what an irritated Chris Carmichael told me after the ride to Jalama Beach, one of the classic rides of the CTS Buellton, California training camp which I attended last week.
I have been training with a power meter for the last five years. A power meter is a great training tool and also a great racing tool for the time trials and long hill climb races that I do. In those type of races a power meter allows me to better pace myself.
A cycling power meter is a device that allows the measuring of the power output of a rider. Most cycling power meters use strain gauges to measure torque applied, and, combined with angular velocity, calculate power.
Training using a power meter is increasingly popular. Power meters generally come with a handlebar mounted computer that displays information about the power output generated by the rider such as instantaneous, max, and average power. Most of these computers also serve as all-around cycling computers and can measure and display heart rate as well as riding speed, distance and time. Power meters provide an objective measurement of real output that allows training progress to be tracked very simply—something that is more difficult when using, for example, a heart rate monitor alone. Cyclists will often train at different intensities depending on the adaptations they are seeking. A common practice is to use different intensity zones. When training with power, these zones are usually calculated from the power output corresponding to the so called lactate threshold or MAP (maximal aerobic power).
Power meters provide instant feedback to the rider about their performance and measure their actual output; heart rate monitors measure the physiological effect of effort and therefore ramp up more slowly. Thus, an athlete performing “interval” training while using a power meter can instantly see that they are producing 300 watts, for example, instead of waiting for their heart rate to climb to a certain point.
In addition, power meters measure the force that moves the bike forward multiplied by the velocity, which is the desired goal. This has two significant advantages over heart rate monitors. Firstly, an athlete’s heart rate may remain constant over the training period, yet their power output is declining, which they cannot detect with a heart rate monitor. Secondly, while an athlete who is not rested or not feeling entirely well may train at their normal heart rate, they are unlikely to be producing their normal power—a heart rate monitor will not reveal this, but a power meter will. Finally, power meters enable riders to experiment with cadence and evaluate its effect relative to speed and heart rate.
Riders also use a power meter for optimization of physical performance. The reason for this is that it is possible to control the workload very precisely, ensuring that they train exactly at the desired level.
There are a lot of riders who start out too fast in intervals training and then slow down in the last part of the interval. The problem about this is that the first part of the interval requires such a great amount of anaerobic work that they get exhausted too early. They reduce the pace and can’t maintain the power output required to stimulate the aerobic system sufficiently. The result is that the interval subjectively is a very hard experience, but objectively a poor controlled aerobic interval. If they just know how many watts they can maintain over a given period it is much easier for them to control the pace during the interval. The same is true in time trials and hill climb races.
Having used a power meter for a long time I know exactly the type of effort I can sustain and for how long. And as Chris explained to me: that is a problem when you are trying to improve. I had never thought about it this way. Let’s say that I can sustain 300 watts for 20 mins – which I can, actually – and I realize during a ride that I have averaged 310 watts for the last 15 minutes. I might look at my power meter and think that my power in the next five minutes will come down and hence artificially set myself a lower limit than I could otherwise achieve.
So after the Jalama Beach ride, Chris forced me to ride with my power meter in my jersey’s back pocket. While riding the first 9.27 km of the Michael Jackson side – from the road where his Neverland ranch is – of Mount Figueroa on Saturday (we couldn’t go to the summit because of the snow) I was able to achieve Normalized Power of 274 watts and made it to the turnaround point 40:41 minutes. I did the exact same climb the previous Sunday and averaged 258 watts and did the climb in 43:50 minutes.
Yesterday I went up by feel only and with my breathing as the only reference point. I felt actually liberated. When Chris went hard on the steep bottom part of the climb I had no limiting factor. The only thing on my mind was:” Stay with him and let’s see what happens next”. Had I had my power meter, I would most likely have thought: “Holy smokes, that was a Power Interval of over three minutes with 441 max power and there is still over forty minutes of climbing, I can’t sustain that.” I would probably have backed off the power and Chris would have beaten me. Instead, I recovered for less than a minute and put the power back on. My next effort was a 9:31 minutes Steady States effort. Keep in mind that in training I do eight minutes Steady States intervals after four minutes of recovery, not after a three minutes Power Interval and a one minute recovery.
I love going back to Buellton and Tucson and train with the CTS coaches as I learn something new and meaningful every time. I must admit though that – in a way – I am glad to be back home as if Chris read this post while I was in Buellton he would give me serious hell for over analyzing the data again. Old habits don’t die quickly but given the fact that the student beat the teacher by over three minutes yesterday, I might very well keep that power meter in my back pocket in the future.