Once you start getting serious about training it’s hard to ignore the fact that everyone is talking about power meters. Most training books you buy will start with something like “here’s some heart rate training information, but you really should use a power meter!” They make it seem like having a power meter is some magical key to unlocking your faster self. I think it goes without saying that if you are shooting for a Pro contract then you should definitely buy a power meter (and carbon race wheels, and an aero bike, and…). But what about for those of us whose goal is simply Cat 3 at best, or winning in our age group? What do we actually get out of having a power meter?
After training by feel and heart rate for two years, I finally broke down and bought a power meter. I used it for one full racing season, and am just about to start training with it for next season. Here is what I have learned:
You’re still the same person
Do you love reading about training? Do you follow a structured training program? Do you like playing with numbers? If you answered yes to any of these, then you will benefit from a power meter. Conversely, if you’re the type that “just rides” and don’t follow any structured training, then a power meter is most likely a waste of money. After all, the advantage in having a power meter is not in seeing the power numbers, it’s in using the power numbers to adjust your training.
Racing through the lens of power
When we train for races, we tend to focus on the most difficult parts of the course. If there’s a big hill we do hill work. If the race is known to always end in a bunch sprint then we work on our sprinting. But it’s easy to forget that those big features only account for an extremely small part of the race. Having a power meter really drive this point home. Leading up to my last race of the season I was thinking about how to prepare for it. The course is mostly flat, so I knew that a sprint finish was the most likely. The logical thing to do might have been to devote lots of time to sprint training. And yet by looking at my power numbers from similar races, I saw that almost the entire race would be spent in zone 2. This was a long race (for me) at 64 miles. I realized that if I couldn’t comfortably ride on zone 2 for that kind of distance, then having the biggest sprint in the world wouldn’t help. So instead I started adding on 25-30 zone 2 miles before my weekly group rides. Looking at these power files later I saw that this mirrored much more closely what I could expect the race to be like. In the end this training paid off greatly, as I easily won the bunch sprint to second overall. I was one of the few people who had trained to the demands of the course, rather than just the demands of the last 200 meters.
This one is simple: interval training is simply better with a power meter. You can see how your sessions compare and whether you’re making progress. You can see when you’re actually tired, and when you still have energy but your brain is just tricking you. You can accurately pace long intervals. If you regularly do interval training, then you will immediately see the benefit from having a power meter.
I love thinking about racing. I love planning. I love the fact that winning bike races isn’t just about who is the strongest. That’s why I absolutely love having a power meter. With one you can objectively look at your overall power profile and see where your strengths and weaknesses are. You can know for a fact that your sprint is weak, but that your 5 min w/kg are excellent, and use that accordingly in your next race to smash everyone. This self-awareness is invaluable for the “thinking racer.” Knowing what you can and can’t do well is paramount to success in racing. A power meter lays that out for you.
Charting your progress
Lastly, the part I enjoy most about having a power meter is the ability to chart your progress. The critical power chart in Golden Cheetah (or the associated chart in Training Peaks) give you a long-term view of how you’re doing. When you decide to devote time and effort to some specific aspect of training (say, one minute intervals) you want to know that that training is actually making a difference. By accurately tracking your performance over time, you can see the results of your hard work. I find this to be extremely motivating. It’s much easier to get out and do a hard training ride when you’ve know that it will make you faster. It’s like dieting. If you don’t own a scale, then it might not be evident that cutting out sodas for a month did anything, and you may just quit. But if you weigh yourself daily you can see the progress, and it makes it that much easier to endure for another day.