By Chris Newport
Power is a way of quantifying work done on the bike. Whether you’re a cyclist or triathlete, using power is an important way to measure progress, improve fitness efficiently, and pace appropriately. In scientific terms, it’s torque multiplied by cadence. It eliminates the need to rely on speed (miles per hour), which is truly an arbitrary measure. There are so many factors that affect speed like aerodynamics, bike weight, road quality, wind, drafting, and more.
Power tells it like it is.
For example, when an athlete tells me that she “felt great today, but only did x mph,” then I look at her power file and can make an objective analysis on their effort based on their average power, normalized power, percentage of FTP/Max, intensity factor, variability index, and more.
Power is a real time measure of work performed while heart rate is a reaction and has a lag time.
That’s not to say that heart rate isn’t a valuable indicator (assuming you have context for the numbers), but it’s a physiologic response. In fact, it’s practically useless when doing high intensity, short burst intervals under 2 minutes. But since we’re working with endurance athletes, being able to perform at a high level for a long duration is paramount and should be appropriately trained.
Power also gives athletes parameters. For triathletes, it’s a great method of ensuring you have a great run off the bike. Or it can be a way to push yourself enough during interval workouts.
And remember the power equation (torque x cadence = power)?
To increase power, you need to work on increasing torque or cadence (or both) using proper overload, or the external training stimuli necessary to elicit a physiological internal response.
As a coach, proper exercise programming using power is the fun part. Using the science of power (and other measures like cardiorespiratory fitness, or VO2Max, strength, flexibility, nutrition, blood labs, and more) combined with the “art of you,” we create a plan to help you improve.
So here’s my quick advice on what you need to know if you want to start training with power:
Just jump in. Get your hands on whatever you can. If you have multiple bikes, then you can play with different power meters. Most of them are easy to install (or cheap to have someone do it for you) and waterproof, with decent battery life (some rechargeable and some with replaceable batteries) and are Bluetooth and ANT+ enabled.
They come on (or in) your crankarm, pedals, hub or spider and are priced anywhere from $400 to $2500+. Talk to your local mechanic as to which ones they sell and which brands tend to work well or have issues. Keep in mind that you’ll have to have something that it communicates with like a watch, head unit or tablet/phone with an app. You can save money on right/left pedal balance, in my opinion, which is only (maybe) relevant to someone who might have specific imbalances in their lower limbs like feet, ankle, knee or hip injuries or surgeries.
Once you’re all set up, go ride! Conducting a testing protocol gives you a great benchmark to measure improvement, but it’s not necessary (although it is for us!). The important thing is that you ride often (indoors and outdoors, if possible). The more you ride, the more data you’ll collect, in turn, the more you’ll learn about your cycling habits and fitness. If it’s too confusing or you want to take your training to the next level, get a coach to help you decipher the way to make it work best for you.
Chris Newport is the head coach, dietitian and exercise physiologist at The Endurance Edge in Cary, NC. Learn more about their coaching programs and how you can train with power at TheEnduranceEdge.com or their meal service for athletes at TheFuelingEdge.com. Follow @theenduranceedge on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.