Getting Started with Power Based Training

Training with power is increasingly common; half my athletes own power meters. As a coach the raw training data combined with an athlete’s impression can tell me a lot. They are not a cheap training aid. If you commit the money you want to get the most from the investment. The learning curve is steep, but make the effort and the results are worthwhile.

A variety of systems are available, most are interoperable through ANT+ communication; you can use the same Garmin head unit with a Powertap wheel or Quarq cranks. Consistency is the key feature we’re looking for and all the major models meet that requirement. Being able to reliably compare power data between sessions is vital. The choice comes down to budget. I’d put the emphasis on having power in training, but a setup that lets you use it in races is very useful.

Once you have a power meter getting started is simple.

Step one: ride. That’s it, get on with training. Watch the power as you ride, more importantly record every second. The numbers may seem meaningless, but you’ll appreciate them more in time. Experience of training with power will build context. Higher watts may be better, but it’s about training appropriately. It’s not always about doing the absolute hardest effort you can. A body of power data will help you understand how you ride.

Step two: analyse. Data collection is pointless without analysis. A number of software options exist; I’m a long term WKO user, but Golden Cheetah is freely available and does a good job. There are a plethora of terms to understand so you will need to do some background reading. You could start with a few of my blog posts on these topics, they certainly won’t hurt!

Training Peaks Power 411 is an excellent set of articles that will cover everything you can want to know about analysis and training with power. Training and Racing with a Power Meter is the standard reference though more focussed at cyclists than triathletes. Invest time early to understand the terms and how to make the most of the tool you’ve purchased. It’s more than an expensive bike computer.

And you can always ask. I can’t guarantee detailed answers, but I will reply.

Dig through the data, relate it to how you felt during the ride. What was the power like at your lowest point? Did performance drop off over time? How does that relate to nutrition? How do you ride climbs? Do you ease off as you crest a hill, dropping from high power to low? Every ride is different, but look for patterns. Over time you may identify areas of weakness or ways you can improve your riding. Experiment and find what helps you raise your performance.

Step three: test. I’ve discussed Functional Threshold Power (FTP) – the best average power for an all out hour effort – in previous blogs. A standardised means to measure performance and to track training. From a threshold power we can define training zones, not dissimilar to heart rate training in approach. But where heart rate is slow to respond and variable, power is simply what happens at the pedals.

Riding all out for an hour will identify your FTP, a local 25 mile TT would do the job. Finding the motivation to do this on your own can be a challenge so my athletes often use an ‘easier‘ test to approximate threshold. Ninety-five percent of the average power for two 20 minute efforts separated by 2 minutes of easier riding. It’s an estimation, but if we are consistent in testing it gives a basis for comparison.

Step four: ride more. With any tool you still have to ride to become a better cyclist. RPE remains my main guide to training, but I am always aware of and often motivated by my power. How I use it varies with the type of ride. An interval session is about hitting the numbers: power dictates performance. A workout of three 15 minute efforts at FTP will have me work my hardest to ride at that wattage.

Longer rides and tempo sessions are more flexible. I know my power, but feel predominates. I do not limit myself to particular zones if I feel stronger (or weaker); I ride the best I can for the duration. If I fade or struggle as a consequence that’s a separate matter. I need to analyse the ride, look for patterns and try to find potential causes. Power can be a motivator on longer rides, but it’s most useful in understanding performance.

Power won’t revolutionise you’re training. Work still has to be done. The ability to measure performance with precision and consistency allows close monitoring of progress. It takes time and effort to get the most from power, but the results are worthwhile. I follow patterns, see signs of improvements and understand how to get more from my cycle training. I still have to ride. Sometimes hard; sometimes long.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.