Why Train With Power?

I've said it before and I'll say it again; In my opinion in the next five years or so, power measuring devices will be as prevalent as heart rate monitors (HRM) are today.  In other words, everyone will have them.  And as with HRM's, not everyone will fully understand how to get the best from them, but that's a story for another day.

I'm sure it won't be long before the big groupset manufacturers start building power meters in to their standard crank sets or wheels.  With decent turbo trainers coming with power measurement as standard, it may be of help to gather an understanding of how power measuring can help you train more efficiently and effectively. 

Understanding power can help you make a more informed decision on how you spend your hard earned money in the future.  In fact I'd go as far to say, that if you're thinking of upgrading your bike this winter, forget the sexy frame or fancy wheels, buy a power meter.  You'll never regret it.

In other articles listed to the left, it's explained why power is important, what the options are, and why you could benefit from training with power.  Here we'll discuss how for your normal, family and full-time job athlete, power measuring can be used to create training sessions, interval intensities and determine thresholds. 

Using this approach it's possible to create a training schedule to produce a year on year improvement in your sustainable power at almost any level.  You can train smarter for shorter, rather than bash your brains out for longer and hope you'll improve.

Before we start, once again I must apologise for using my own data within this article.  As you know I never use client's data within my articles as that's a secret between them and me!  If they want to tell you that's fine but from me, you'll never find out who's a client (unless they say it's okay) and you'll never see their data used in an attributable way.

Setting a Benchmark
In the late summer of 2003 I started using an SRM on my road bike.  Before then (from 2000) I'd used power measurement only on my turbo work.  Once I started to use power on the road it opened up a whole new world of opportunities and challenges. 

It's one thing having a "high" power output on a turbo, but it's not until you get a power profile from a road race, time trial or sportive, that you get a true benchmark of what you have, what you need and how much of a gap you have to close.

The profile below was drawn up from my 2004 local race and training rides.  During 2004 I also rode the whole of the European UCI Golden Bike Series, the UCI even gave me a UCI jersey as a memento!  But, if I was on my bike in Jersey I was using my power meter.  Every single pedal stroke was recorded in Cycling Peaks software and used to produce the nice, clean, easily assimilated chart below.

Flamme Rouge 2003/4 Power Readings

You can see that the above chart has a logarithmic time scale along the bottom and a sequential power scale up the side. 

You get a profile like this from each ride which in itself isn't of earth shattering use.  However, put a few of these profiles together, then overlay them from your previous personal bests and you now have a tool that tells you exactly what you've done and what you need to do.  All you have to do is work out a way of closing the gap.

It's how you interpret the analysis and what you do with the information your given that improves your cycling.  Rather than dwell on individual rides, I'm just going to cover big picture stuff here to give you a conceptual idea of what we are trying to achieve.

What now?
Once you have the information, and a profile like that above, your whole reason for being out on the bike should now concentrate on moving the yellow line upwards and to the right.

You can see from the figures above that in 2004 I maxed out at a peak power of 871 watts, drifted to 833w at eight seconds and in a typical 20 second sprint I was ending up with 685 watts.  For the longer durations I had the following outputs

1 minute ~ 435 watts
2 minute ~ 365 watts
4 minute ~  261 watts
10 minute ~ 242 watts
20 minute ~ 213 watts

You can see the dips in the line as the power decays away with fatigue, lack of natural ability and general slackness around the 1 to 2:25 minute mark.  This profile tells me that I need to work on smoothing the big drop before the ledge at 55 seconds and filling the dip from 2:55 to 6:25. 

If I can smooth that three-to-six minute dip it would be a worthwhile power increase and of great benefit especially when climbing the 1k hills we have here in Jersey.  It would also help raise my efficiency at cruising speeds as working in this specific area would improve my VO2max. 

In respect of the peak power, as I was still winning sprints in vets races with this power output, I was happy with the top end but like any boy racer I wanted to see how hard I could go.  So a winter training plan was drawn up with the objective of targeting my very obvious weaknesses.

Targeting specifics
To cut a three year long story very short; I would analyse the data, undertake a performance test, then from that information I would constantly draw up, modify and reset interval training plans to increase my power output in the specific areas where I realized I was lacking.  After a suitable period of time I'd take another performance test, monitor the difference and repeat the cycle.

In 2005 I made a conscious effort to move away from competing in local races to take on the classic European sportives.  We've now gone from a max of 4 minute hills to 2 hour monster climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees.  I knew my main aim was to increase my power to weight ratio but I also wanted to see where I could take my peak and sprint power outputs.  This is what I ended up with in 2007:

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

I'm now three years older (47) and have the following profiles and increases from 2004:

1 minute ~ 435w to 454w - 4% increase
2 minute ~ 365w to 403w - 10% increase
4 minute ~  261w to 310w - 19% increase
10 minute ~ 242w to 267w - 10% increase
20 minute ~ 213 watts - 244w - 13% increase

The stats above suggest my endurance power is enhanced at a greater rate than my short burst power.  But as you can see from the graph above, my sprinting power has exploded and my mid-range power has got better but not by such a great amount.

My top end stats have moved from:

Peak Power ~ 871w to 1008w - 16% increase
8 second ~ 833w to 934w - 12% increase
20 second ~  685w to 828w - 21% increase

These are healthy increases in anyone's book!  What's more remarkable is the time I can now hold my power for.  What was my peak, 1 second max power three years ago, I can now sustain for 11 seconds; a time increase of 1000%!  The 685w I could hold for 20 seconds has now increased to 30 seconds giving a 50% improvement. 

If a talent-less, 47 year old slacker like myself can do this, imagine how it could help you? 

Obviously the figures will be different for everyone.  The less effective and structured your current training, the more progress you can make and the higher potential you can realise from undertaking a critical analysis of what you do and applying a structure to your future training. 

Recording your work rate
Using the reporting features within the analysis software you can track your current training against preset benchmarks.  Cycling Peaks can tell you how your last 28 days training compares against the whole of your previous years efforts, or more importantly the same 28 day period at this time last year. 

This is good because it ensures you don't waste a single session of your valuable training time by riding junk miles.  Every session now counts towards something.  If it doesn't, your solid line drops below your dotted line and you can physically see that you haven't made progress in a specific area.  It can tell you before you've even got out the post-ride shower!

In the graph below you can see my dotted line training profile for the whole of 2006.

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

The solid yellow line represents the training period of the previous 28 days (from when the snapshot was taken).  Each day it moves forward to allow you to monitor and plot your "rolling progress" in the specific areas you have targeted. 

In this specific 28 day period (April) I concentrated on 10 second intervals, 90 second intervals and 8 minute intervals.  In all other areas the yellow line is below or marginally above the previous years maximums.  Using this feature I can make sure I don't let myself train below a standard I've already achieved.  It lets me know when I've been slacking and is a fantastic motivator to get out there and do some hard work!  It also tells me when I've hit a plateau and should change to something else.  Why keep doing something you can already do and are now not progressing in?

How you trained
Another fantastic feature of the software is a pictorial cumulative record of how much time, and percentage of effort, spent in each power zone.

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

The chart above shows my whole riding year from a chilly first weekend in November 2006, the first session of my training programme, and a 3 hour endurance ride; to the 2nd September 2007, La Lapabie sportive and an 8 hour 18 minute, 5 col grueller, in 30 degree heat.

The graph above translates to riding within the following power zones:

Active Recovery ~ 73 hours 35%
Endurance ~ 52hours - 25%
Tempo ~  28 hours - 13.5%
Threshold ~ 22 hours - 10%
VO2max ~ 13 hours 6%
Anaerobic Capacity ~ 21 hours 9.9%

Not all of my rides, especially my mid week turbo work, are recorded in these figures.  But it does build up a picture of how I've trained and competed throughout the year.  I know I've trained at or above my Anaerobic Threshold for a minimum of 21 hours in 2007.

The same graph is also presented for each individual ride.  Here's one for the 4 hour 16 minute, 156k, Bernard Borreau Sportive.  As you can see it was a leg stinger with 19% at anaerobic capacity or above!

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

This one is from that first 3 hour ride of the season.  You'll see how the boxes on the right are very small!

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

These graphs are here to show you how you can check you are training within the correct power training zones (measured against your individual threshold power).  As the season gets nearer you need to make sure you start targeting the two boxes (VM: VO2max & AC: Anaerobic Threshold) on the right. 

Race Information
Power meters also record information from competitions.  In each event I undertake, I can now see when I dipped, why I dipped and what power I was sustaining for what period of time when I dipped! 

With this information I now trot off to the lab and create some power-and time specific interval sessions to increase the thresholds that caused me the problem.  Absolutely 100% targeted training.  Training that directly addresses identified weaknesses. 

Each event now gives me a total breakdown of what I was good at and where I am lacking.  So once it's identified I train my weakness and for now, ignore my strengths.  How good is that?  Now I don't go out and do what I like doing because I'm good at it.  I'm now forced to confront my weaknesses and have become a better rider for it.

Quality Intervals
Doing high intensity interval training with a HRM is, to be blunt, a bit hit and miss.  One you've used a power meter you'll never even look at your heart rate ever again; it doesn't matter.

If you were to carry out six, two minute intervals at 80% max heart rate in November, and again the following September what have you measured?  Not a lot, because the figures will probably be the same; it's 80% of max heart rate!  Sure, there'll be improvement, but how much?

For super high intensity intervals it doesn't matter what your heart rate says, you get in the right power zone and hammer it.  You recover then hammer it again.  When you get to a point where you can't hit the figures you stop.  Training by heart rate alone will not give you the same results.  It's a fact!

The graph below shows my maximum two minute power outputs, mainly from my "secret" St Saviour two minute interval test hill.  If you come out on our weekend training rides you'll know where it is and you'll know that we always attack it with gusto. 

Flamme Rouge Cycling Peaks Chart

You can see that the first ride of the season brings in a lung-busting 278 watts which quickly rises (with the gears) to 298w at the end of the month.  For the rest of the winter we mix big gear climbs with high cadence climbs of the same hill and hit 380w in February.

We then go off and do other stuff, because we don't do 2 minute intervals on every ride, then come back in May to hit 403w as we do in July and August.  This is probably as good as it will get for myself.

Personally, I don't think I would get the same results by training with a heart rate monitor.  When I do a 300 watt interval, I know from the very first pedal rev that I'm doing 300 watts.  When I can't hold 300 watts I stop my intervals.  It really is that simple.

If I only had a heart rate monitor to guide me through my interval sessions, my power would be dropping for the same heart rate and the quality of my intervals would be slowly deteriorating.  

Heart rate doesn't allow you to measure intensity and effort.  Let me explain with a diagram; here's an output chart from a session I use that's based on rapid intervals.

Flamme Rouge Interval Training Session

Stripped of data, you'll see that the green power line and pink cadence lines are constantly moving up or down.  The brown heart rate line hardly moves!  This session, along with the benefits it brings, would be impossible to achieve using heart rate as a measuring parameter.

The Message
In  my opinion power meters will come down in price and availability over the next few years to make their training potential available to all riders. 

If you are thinking of spending a few bob over the winter on a bike upgrade you could, and probably will, do a lot worse than spend it on a power measuring device.  I know Merckx and Hinault never had these contraptions, but they never had heart monitors either!  I can guarantee they will, if used correctly, make you a faster, more efficient and more effective rider.

If you're unsure about the benefits they can bring why not take a half-way house and upgrade your turbo to a power measuring type.  Set yourself some indoor workouts for a month just to see how much you improve.  It takes very little time to measure a substantial increase if you structure your training around power thresholds.  Once you have you'll never look back.

In the immortal words of Wolfie Smith, "Power to the people!"