09 Jan, 2015

Harnessing the power of POWER

How the face of cycling has changed in the last two to three years, with power meters not just for the elite pro riders anymore, but now more accessible than ever before to the average rider wanting to improve on personal bests.

There has been an explosion of power training tools on the market recently, many of which are sold at highly competitive prices which makes power-based training more and more attractive to those not wanting to spend huge amounts of money on a tool they don’t know too much about.

The thing is ... regardless of what tool one is purchasing … understanding the fundamentals of training with power is key to unlocking your hidden potential.

So how does one go about that?

Power is a very objective method of testing the actual workload of a training session and hence the overall training stress being incurred by the cyclist, while heart rate becomes quite blurred because of varying external factors such as temperature, dehydration, stress, nutrition etc.

It is precisely this trait of power in cycling that has led to the huge shift in data measurement from heart rate to power, and one that is allowing training sessions to become far more targeted and goal specific, creating more ‘bang for your buck’ than heart rate training ever has.

There are a number of books that have been written on how to understand power in cycling and what to do with it, two of which I highly recommend reading if you are starting on this path: Training & Racing with a Power Meter (Hunter Allen) & The Power Meter Handbook (Joe Friel).

What this article aims to do is give you some basic principles of training with power.

Establish correct Power Training Zones
Working to the correct training zone is of primary importance when it comes to specific workouts and achieving certain goals within a training session. In order to establish these zones, testing for Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is step one. FTP is the maximum sustained power you can hold for 60 minutes and there are a number of tests you can do for this other than a 60-minute time trial (TT), but the main point is that once you have tested for this, you can then work out training zones that are specific to you.

Power to Weight Ratio
Once you have an FTP, it is no use doing a direct comparison to your mate who is 10 kilograms lighter than you as you’re not comparing apples with apples. The benchmark for doing any comparisons between athletes is Power to Weight ratio. Once you know this it is quite easy to make the mathematical calculations as to what improvements need to be made in order to climb the power to weight ladder and stay ahead of your mates.

Testing for Strengths & Weaknesses
This goes hand-in-hand with FTP and is about further identifying the strengths and weaknesses of different physiological systems which will enable you to formulate a training plan appropriate to you. Most cyclists have a good general idea of the areas in which they are stronger and in most cases it is these areas that they generally tend to focus on and spend more time doing, as it’s uncomfortable and hard to work on areas that don’t come naturally to us and that hurt quite a bit. But in order to become better and stronger athletes it is exactly those points of weakness that are going to need the most dedication. This is where power data gives us very clear information of where one stands in maximum test efforts of five second, one minute and five minutes - benchmarking peak neuromuscular, anaerobic and VO2 max power. Once this data is converted to a Power to Weight ratio, one can compare personal data to that of other athletes giving insight into what type of efforts you should focus on in your training.

Understand the demands of the event you are training for
When developing a training plan & specific power-based workouts, it is not only important to work on your weak areas, but it is also critical to understand how the body is going to be stressed in the event you are preparing for, say, a three-day MTB stage race, is very different to a one-day road race. This then allows one to incorporate sessions into the training that mimic these demands and in so doing, prime the body for performance. So if your goal event includes being able to sit in a bunch at a high pace, but also to follow surges on climbs and perhaps some attacks, then your training needs to centre around doing intervals that will hone these aspects such as longer sub-threshold and threshold efforts, VO2max power intervals and short repeated anaerobic speed sessions. The length of training rides and training blocks will also be dictated by the nature of your goal event.

Collect data
The more power-based data one can collect the better the picture one can start creating off the data. This picture becomes a visual reference point as to where you are going with your training and where you have come from. It also means that you can start understanding the concepts of periodization, peaking and tapering for an event and making sure that you get them right. This is where the analysis of power data can become quite intricate and involved, but it makes the training so much more tangible and enables one to measure improvements that translate into huge motivation. And this leads me to the next point....

The point of training with power means you can very accurately pin-point your effort according to your aim of the workout, however, this starts becoming null & void if you don’t keep a regular check on how your power is improving. So although it is human nature to avoid testing, it is hugely important to re-test your FTP regularly (every eight to 12 weeks approx.) It not only means that you can see your improvement in numbers but it also means that you continue stressing each physiological system to the correct level to cause a training adaptation - and this is the whole goal of structured, power-based training!

Power is just as important in the easy rides as in the intervals
In the same way that we can target specific zones to hit in intervals and in pacing strategies for racing, power also helps one ensure that recovery rides and easy endurance days remain exactly as that. It is often the case that we push ourselves harder than we should on recovery or easy days and in the process negate the purpose of them. Power helps us set the borders to make sure that when we need to be going easy, we do exactly that. It is only when we give our bodies the appropriate rest and recovery do we allow it to make the training adaptation and take that step forward.

You may now be inclined towards thinking about purchasing a power meter - so what are your options? Here is a list of the most popular & locally available tools that I would recommend as worth considering:

Crank Spider-based systems:
• SRAM Quarq
• Power2Max

• PowerTap

• Garmin Vectors

Crank Arm-based:
• Stages
• Rotor Power LT

Top tips:
• There is no, one perfect power meter - it depends on the type of athlete, use of the tool, bike placement limitations & budget.
• Learn how to calibrate your tool and do this before every ride to ensure accurate power data.
• Download your data frequently and learn what it means.
• Use the data to make informed decisions about your training, racing & recovery.
• When you have limited time to train, make your training sessions shorter but more quality based by doing targeted intervals.
• It important to give yourself a break from the numbers at regular points in the training. Too much structure can create mental fatigue and getting back to ‘just riding’ renews enjoyment and motivation.
• Tune into your body and understand how the numbers are related to your perceived exertion.
• Enlist the help of a coach to help you get the most out of your power meter.
• Most of all, don’t become a slave to the numbers and make sure you continue to enjoy your sport rather than it becoming a chore!