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Training with Power
Given the technology available for us to splurge our money on, sorry, to invest in, it’s understandable that some of us might approach new technologies and theories of training, diet and nutrition with a degree of suspicion.
On one hand keen to find something that will help, but on the other hand, wise enough to see through hype.
It’s hard to trust a salesman, a sponsored pro or, indeed, someone who has just forked out £2,000 on a piece of equipment for an unbiased opinion. Frankly, if I had just spent a four-figure sum on a chainset (or bike, or wheels) I’m not sure I’d put my hand up and say ‘it’s utter bobbins, it makes no difference to me at all.’ After all, who wants to look like a sucker who has just spent a packet on a flashy but pointless purchase?
Nevertheless, the temptation to buy something that will help us be ‘better’ (a camera that will take nicer pictures, a phone that’ll increase our popularity, a computer that will help us be more ‘creative’) is massive. In the realm of cycling, my god, where do you start – or stop – buying stuff? Super-efficient gels, special recipe recovery drinks, compression socks, lighter inner tubes, bars with a more aerodynamic profile, pedal spindles that are 20g lighter…
And one of the greatest temptations with the biggest price tag are power meters. If you are really ‘into’ cycling then you can’t possibly have escaped these devices and the claims made for their efficacy when it comes to improving your fitness and strength.
And the older you get, the more desperate you get – although hopefully your bullshit detector is still functioning – particularly as your VO2max starts to slide. Power measuring might be all the rage for pro riders, but can that stuff help ordinary riders, or even older riders, riders that any physiology textbook will tell you are on the decline, in terms of physical performance? Is ‘training with power’ really the revolution it’s cracked up to be?
To the test
To find out more about the benefits of power I visited the TrainSharp test Centre near Tunbridge Wells run by
Jon Sharples and Sean Yates (yes, that Sean Yates). I was loaned the aluminium-cased SRM Power Control 7, the latest incarnation of the German company’s wireless computer, to start my odyssey into power training.
It can display various parameters being measured – speed, cadence, calories burned, height climbed, heart rate, distance, temperature, time and, of course, power in watts measured by strain gauges in your right-side crank.
At a stroke, instead of riding within a certain heart rate zone, you find yourself working in defined power zones. The ‘joy’ of power is that, unlike your heart rate, it doesn’t drift or fluctuate as much, from one day to the next or even on longer rides.
The effort you produce to see a heart rate of 170bpm might vary from day to day. The real effort required – irrespective of heart rate – to press on the pedals and generate 230 watts is the same no matter where or when.
Additionally, short interval training efforts of anything from six seconds up to two minutes per effort, become targeted and tailored. As any of us who have tried to carry out short-duration but high-intensity intervals based on heart rate knows, your heart rate takes time to rise, long after the minute when your legs have started squealing in complaint.
That’s no longer an issue when training with power – the reading on your screen tells you within a few pedal revs whether or not you are ‘hitting the numbers.’
Basically, you can either generate a certain amount of power – or you can’t. Whether you are slightly dehydrated, or a bit tired or running close to empty on a hot day, you will know whether your power output is still where it needs to be or whether you are well and truly done for the day.
Whereas in the past a depressed heart rate was read as a sign of significant fatigue, the power registering on your screen might tell you a different story.
Those days when you struggled to get your heart rate up to a particular training zone are gone; now you work on a power reading, almost irrespective of your heart rate. (Note though that this is almost irrespective because if your heart rate is really low and you feel knackered, well, take the day off.) Training with a power meter doesn’t mean heart rate monitoring is ignored, it’s just no longer the key metric.
Training with power is irrelevant if you don’t know what the numbers mean, the first stage of which is getting tested to set the parameters of your training zones. I went along to the TrainSharp test centre to be tested on an SRM bike under the eyes of Jon Sharples to gather some data for Jon to develop a coaching plan from.
Having taken a lab test to establish a rider’s power output (as well as correlating them with heart rate values), a coach develops power zones which stimulate different training effects and sets up a training programme accordingly.
If you like numbers, graphs and data then you would love training with a power meter. They should come with a health warning, because they can turn you into a geek – and a believer in the benefits of their proper application – overnight. Your training and appreciation of what your body is doing and capable of doing, changes.
Since training with a power meter I’ve felt a little bit lost when I ride without it – what am I supposed to do on my ride without that little box supplying me with numbers? Without them I don’t feel like I am training any more.
In much the same way that software like Strava has turned some riders into segment hounds (checking the wind strength and direction? Taking it easy till you hit that segment? Sprinting flat out when you cross the segment start point are we?) a power meter can do the same, turning every ride into a numbers-chasing session, uphill, on the flat and downhill too.
However, one other benefit of power-based training is to make sure that recovery rides really are that and don’t develop into something more intense. Even when you want to make sure you are generating less power, a power meter can help!
You can’t buy fitness
Sharples and Yates coach a number of veteran cyclists and have a few general pointers for the over-40 rider who is out to improve their power on the flat and on climbs, whether or not they are training with a power meter. Here are some of Jon’s basic suggestions. Be warned though, the TrainSharp mantra is: You can’t buy easy or quick fitness!
Invest in a turbo trainer. And use it
“I know that a lot of people get on a turbo trainer and have no real clue what they are going to do. So they sit on it and after 20 minutes they’re bored and jump off. But it’s important to get the best out of your training if you don’t have a lot of time and a turbo is probably the best way of doing this. 60-90 minutes might sound like a long time if you don’t have something to concentrate on. It’s important to have a plan on a turbo session.
I use sessions to work on very specific training zones aimed at producing different improvements. Obviously sessions vary depending on the rider and the training effect you’re hoping to see, but there, the 30-minute sessions in power zone two are designed to give a cardio workout and improve cadence. With a 20-minute session in a slightly higher power zone at a lower cadence – between 50-65rpm – that’s designed to improve muscular strength.”
No more than three hours on the road
“Again, for a lot of riders with families and full-time jobs, I don’t ask them to do more than three hours on the road, no matter what level they are riding at. Of course some riders want to do more, just because they like riding, which is fine if they have the time. But in terms of any structured training ride, I don’t think you need to do more than three hours.
In terms of building base endurance – in zone two – I think that’s enough. And when it comes to someone who is road racing or riding stage races, endurance almost looks after itself, assuming you monitor your fatigue levels and don’t overdo it.”
“I can’t keep count of the number of riders who come to me and don’t do any proper recovery rides. It’s understandable that someone who works full-time and doesn’t have unlimited time to ride will want to get as much out of their riding time as possible.
But I can’t stress enough the importance of low-level, low-intensity rides – there’s still a training effect here, in terms of training your body to be more efficient at burning fat and at a neural level when you are spinning a low gear. Plus, a properly executed recovery ride, at low power, should leave you feeling fresh and ready for the next session of hard work.
Panic training is not the answer – having a plan with quantifiable and measurable intermediate goals along the way will help you will become happy in your training.”
Two days off a week
“Depending on the rider, on what they are training for and on how much time they have, there are normally a couple of days off a week. For people who work Monday to Friday, the weekends are usually when they ride most, so Monday is a day off, which moves us into Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday when the training is generally ramped up.
But there are no rules, you have to listen to your body. If you are working on specific power zones and you can’t generate or sustain the power output, it’s time to rest and try again the next day.”
Power measuring methods
The SRM crank-based power meter is still regarded by most as the gold standard. SRM makes its power meter for all the major crank and groupset manufacturers.
Current models transmit data on ANT+ and are therefore compatible with Garmin and other cycling computers, besides its own sophisticated PC-7 head unit.
SRM UK lists the latest Dura-Ace 9000 series-compatible cranks at £2,549.