How can I use a power meter to up my cycling fitness

Photography: Russ Ellis

Photography: Russ Ellis


Don’t have enough time to train? Want to be more effective when you do? Then a power meter can be revolutionary. Hannah Reynolds tells us how to use the tech to transform our training...

When cyclists first started training, they had few tools available to them and their sessions were usually measured in time, miles and suffering. The more you suffered, the better the training, right? Wrong.

Then came heart-rate monitors, which allowed cyclists to get a glimpse of what was happening inside their engine. This was great, but heart rates are susceptible to variables such as illness, the weather and the excitement of race conditions, so they weren’t totally reliable, either.

Enter engineer and cyclist, Ulrich Schoberer. Frustrated by his inability to measure his own training and improvements because of all those variables, he set to work looking for the Holy Grail of physical fitness measurement; a measure that doesn’t change with heat or fatigue, and is unaffected by the weather. His eureka moment came in 1986 when he realised the solution was to put strain guages in the spider of the cranks. From here, he developed the SRM (Schoberer Rad Messtechnik) power meter, which meant power monitoring could finally be taken out of the lab and into the real word.

This ended up having such a far-reaching impact on the quality and efficiency of training that the professionals have been playing with power meters ever since, with Nicole Cooke being one of the first.

That’s great, but what about the rest of us, we hear you say? Quite simply, if you don’t have enough time to train or ride your bike as much as you would like (that’s most of us, right?), then you want to know that every second of your training is contributing to you getting stronger – and that’s where measuring through watts is revolutionary.

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Guess watt!
To kick-start this revolution for your training, your first job after getting a power meter is to complete a fitness test to establish your training zones – see table above.

There are a few variations in tests, but a good way to find yours is to take a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test as part of a Wattbike class. There are a huge number of studios across the country, and it’s a training class that seems to be really catching on. Since July last year, female cyclists have ridden 1,053,000 kilometres on Wattbikes.

The test itself is tough work, and requires you to do a decent warm-up, then go as hard as you can for 20 minutes. Once you do, you’ll get a number for your FTP – the maximum power you can sustain for an hour. Plug this figure into your training software and it will tell you what your zones are as you ride. You can then complete training sessions that tell you to work to different zones – from easy spinning (zones 1 and 2) to eyeballs-out-on-sticks (zones 5 to 7).

This is where the clever part really comes in. If you want to improve your endurance, you are likely to spend more time in zones 2 and 3; and if you’re training for shorter events like a steep hill climb, then you will more than likely work in zones 5, 6, and 7.

Tailored training
What’s truly brilliant about understanding your own zones is that you can tweak your training regime to suit you and manipulate the finer details to ensure you are training towards your peak or cycling ambition – whether that’s improved hill climbing, endurance, general fitness, sprint ability or something else entirely.

As you can see from the table, the differences between the zones can be quite small and, without a power meter, it can be hard to know if you are in zone 3 or 4, for example. But the difference in terms of the effect on your fitness is huge.

Importantly, my zone 5 might be different to yours but, because you have tested and know your own zone, you’ll know you are working at the limit of your own capabilities.

Professional cyclist and coach Dani King MBE has an Olympic Gold and three world titles to her name. She tells us how the power meter has made a huge difference to the sport. “Racing with power enables riders to be a lot more measured with their efforts,” she explains. “Say you hit a climb at the end of the race that is about 12 minutes long, professionals will know what power they can sustain for 12 minutes, so will be able to get from the bottom to the top a lot more efficiently than without a power meter.”

Jasmijn Muller, 24-Hour World Time Trial Champion, has been using a power meter since 2013, and believes it has transformed her training. “Your heart rate data isn’t that reliable,” she says. “After a while, your heart rate will start to drop, or it will be influenced by temperature. Power is a constant, which makes it far easier to monitor what you’re actually doing, so you can fine-tune your training accordingly.”

No magic bullet
A word of warning: unlike splashing cash on wheels, buying a power meter will not immediately make you faster. You still have to put the work in. Crucially, to really benefit, you need to analyse your data with the help of software such as Training Peaks. With this, you can look for trends, review your overall power profile and see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Then you can target your training to address it.

Stat attack?
You might worry that training with power and fixating on ‘the numbers’ could destroy your joy of bike riding, but Jasmijn maintains that it makes her training more interesting. “Training in zones helps me think about a session in blocks,” she says. “I never think, ‘Oh, I have a four-hour training session,’ anymore. Instead, I can break it down mentally, so I’ll do 10 minutes at one power and then 10 minutes at another power. It’s much more fun that way.”

So, there you have it. Buying a power meter today won’t make you faster right away but, if used correctly with attention to a bit of data analysis, it can cut out all that time-wasting training and help you get where you want to go faster.

Get more from Hannah Reynolds here

Read about Traffic Light HIIT here

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