M2 on Training with Power
I have long been a pioneering advocate of using an indoor training device to execute measured training progressions that can be extremely effective in advancing fitness. The ability to precisely measure work output in a controlled environment, and thus study the effects of different training techniques is something that I have enjoyed for over 18 years now.
Indeed, it is precisely this ability to measure work output that has caused me to develop training methodologies distinct from the boilerplate garble that characterizes general training quarters. Long slow distance, more hours in the saddle, subtract your age from a random number like 220 or 180 and keep your HR below this arbitrary number, arghhh!
In recent years technology has been developed that allows riders to measure power/work output on the open roads. Talk about an limitless laboratory! It is fascinating to have a tool that allows you to clinically measure your work output on your standard routes, epic climbs, and competitive events.
The 3 basic devices for measuring power on the roads are a Powertap, an SRM, and an Ergomo.
There are relative pros and cons to each device, but I think the Powertap represents the best overall value – accuracy, ease of use and installation, price.
My pioneer training facility, M2 Revolution, is equipped with 35 state of the art Indoor Cycles that also use a Powertap device to measure power output. Riders can thus enjoy using the same technology indoors and outdoors to accurately and consistently measure training progress and organize workouts.
Making Power-based Training Productive
The Powertap is a great training tool that can really sharpen your road training. To make training with this tool effective, it is helpful if you do the following:
- Establish a benchmark.
- Structure rides/routes with wattage targets and times.
- Often times use a running average for designated intervals so you both tighten up your effort and sustain that same effort.
- Download the data to evaluate.
My experience is that just looking at the numbers provides limited insight and value.
Folks that take classes at M2 Revolution will always hear the instructor saying to “pedal smooth, not hard… cadence motion and form should be quiet and largely uniform… no oomph-oomphing or stabbing at the top of the pedal stroke.”
In short, one goes fast not by hammering, but focusing on a smooth and even pedal stroke. Where the CycleOps Indoor cycle measures power as does the CT or Tacx, it should be clear that more power is not comfortably generated by slamming away. What does not work indoors, will not work outdoors – remember this.
Case in point – Floyd Landis. Floyd’s pedal stroke looks the same at 200 watts (50% of his 1hr watts and thus a very easy spin) as it does at 450 watts. The coup of the evening was being able to display Floyd’s wattage on the plasma screen for all to see. Pretty interesting to see Floyd purring along at 500 watts, with the only change in form being his familiar grimace.
Floyd’s 30 second standing accelerations looked equally measured and calibrated. In fact, it looks so progressive that it was all the more shocking to see wattage progress 500 > 520 > 540 > 560.
Far too often the average rider dramatically spikes power when standing, and where the power is not sustainable, standing wattage dribbles off and the rider sits down to legs that are barking at having been abused. In my experience, an equal generation of power when standing should give one the sense of dancing lightly on the pedals.
Before the opening of my pioneering indoor cycling studio, M2 Revolution, the vast majority of the couple hundred people enrolled in the program would not have been able to distinguish a watt from a widget, and thus would have had no appreciation for the scary numbers that Floyd was able to make appear on his electronic console. The device that measures the power on these cycles is called a Powertap, and it is this same device that is built into wheels that you can use on your outdoor road rides.
Although I have trained with power for more than a dozen years now indoors, it has only been fairly recently that the technology has been available for riders to effectively measure power on the roads.
I use a Powertap for my road training, and I must say that observing one’s power (work output) over longer periods of time in the great outdoors provides very interesting and useful insight into one’s training and fitness.
Listed below are key areas of interest that will quickly become apparent when using a powermeter for your outdoor rides:
It is shocking to see how difficult it is to evenly pace a ride on the basis of perceived effort. When I first began riding my PT several years ago, I would do a 2hr20min modest tempo ride on flat to slightly rolling terrain. Despite having what most people would say is a good sense of sustainable effort, and despite beginning at a pace that I thought would be comfortably sustainable, I consistently saw watts drop by 10-15w over the second half of the ride.
Finally, I decided to abandon my RPE based gauge of appropriate wattage, and began instead with the average that I had produced in my heretofore uneven pacing efforts. Voila! I was able to even split the ride and finish with the same average as in previous positive split rides, but my overall RPE was decidedly more comfortable with the even pacing.
Lesson > even pacing can produce the same time but with considerably less effort. Although even pacing being a better approach is obvious in swimming and running, absent a powermeter it is not so easy to gauge work output on the bike. Swim effort is easy to gauge given the confines of a pool, a pace clock, and no variables such as wind, road surface, gearing. Ditto for the run where terrain is more regular than what one encounters on a bike, and wind/etc. do not affect nearly as much as on the bike.
Globs of it everywhere on a ride. Jamming out of the saddle, dramatic spikes on uphills, pedaling irregularities – all of which may have provided short term gain, but in the big scheme of things contributed only to mashing your legs and compromising your overall ability to ride a given wattage for an extended period of time.
I find it useful to use my PT where I set it to a running average, and where I will ride on an uninterrupted road at a prescribed intensity (tempo intervals 90% of Benchmark # 3, Endurance with an edge at 80%). My average will vary only slightly as the PT helps me to smooth out my overall effort. It can be quite the body buzz to see oneself so dialed into a rhythm and measured effort based on a relevant benchmark.
The PT also helps you to tighten up your ride effort. Observing your average, you pretty much lock onto a particular intensity – gone are the many time-outs that one takes along the way. I have always felt that a general shortcoming in most people’s outdoor training, be it for Olympic, ½ IM, or IM distance, is that race day is the first day that riders actually pedal constantly, with little abatement.
Observing one’s power with the PT has the effect of significantly tightening up one’s overall ride effort.
Decreased Relevance of HR
For many years folks have used heart rate as a means to monitor and organize training, particularly for cycling where there was no means to measure work output. Speed and distance are not good measurements for cycling because of the wide degree of variables that affect both – wind, road surface, elevation changes, etc.
Heart rate based training thus provided a way to monitor your body’s response to training. The limitation here however is that HR is an indirect measurement of your work effort – it is not measuring your work output, but rather your response to an unknown effort.
Furthermore, there are many variables beyond your work effort that affect HR. Temperature, hydration, stress, and the duration of exercise all can significantly affect HR and thus limit the effectiveness of HR as a means to evaluate work effort.
Cycling is an activity that allows people to train for extended periods of time. Yet as training duration increases, the use of HR to monitor work effort/output grows much less relevant in so much as it measures your work output.
In using a Powertap to measure your work output, you will observe how HR will increase considerably over time for the same work effort. If you were guiding your training effort by maintaining the same or a steady HR, you would see that you would be steadily losing power for the same HR.
It is your goal in training/racing to maintain a certain pace. HR will not be an effective tool to do this. A Powertap, on the other hand, will allow you to precisely measure your work output and effort, and thus be a critical tool for determining optimal pacing.
Pacing over varying terrain and climbing
Many of my coached athletes have computrainers and will have practiced various rides where you are to ride at a steady power output over varying terrain. This is a good exercise to develop a sense of applying even pressure on the pedals, and even power output – generally the most efficient way to be able to carry a given speed over a particular distance.
The Powertap allows you to practice the same exercise in the great outdoors. When riding with folks who do not have a PT and where I am riding steady, the experience is one where they zoom by me on the uphills, and where I catch them on the downhills or ensuing flats.
This scenario will repeat itself although each time with a shorter cycle, where their inefficient riding zaps them of energy they would otherwise have. Later in the ride these same riders will have difficulty maintaining pace even on the climbs where they first appeared so strong.
For steady-state rides, I like to choose routes where the terrain is gently rolling and where I can get into a steady rhythm, pedaling the downhills as I do the flats. Although some variance in wattage with uphill versus downhill will be better for racing (uphill speed is less and less energy is spent overcoming wind resistance for the same watts), it is a good exercise to develop the sense and ability to ride even pace as measured by work output – watts.
Sustained climbs are another area where the PT is a great asset. Here in the Bay Area there are countless climbs ranging anywhere from 10-50min. I would bet any money that a rider who has never used a PT would be unable to even pace such a climb without a powermeter. It really is quite illuminating to see how RPE changes for a comfortable beginning wattage as the time and the climb continue. In my experience, in order to even pace a longer climb on a RPE basis, RPE will be slightly beyond medium to begin with, but those same watts 20 or 30min later are going to be a lot more than medium.
Athletes should review my article under Coach’s Corner on my website on compact cranks for more perspective on wattage, gearing, and pacing.
The short version here is that viewing my riding data made the case for compact cranks (cranksets that accommodate easier gearing) very compelling. Many people are under the mistaken assumption that compact cranks are for weaker cyclists or poor climbers.
Here in the Bay Area I routinely do climbs of 30-60min duration at 300+ watts (160 pounds)where my average cadence is 80 and my primary gearing is 34/23 and 34/25. If I were to use standard gearing for these same watts, my cadence would be a leg-grinding 60s.
Riders whose ability is less than this wattage/weight (300w/160lbs for 1hr) would see themselves grinding with cadences in the 50s – hardly optimal.
Is it worth the investment?
In my case, I find riding to be much more interesting as you can structure rides with much greater purpose. You gain tremendous insight into your fitness and ability to work at a given intensity over a particular length of time. Post-ride I find myself scurrying down to my computer to download the data and study.
The software is very user friendly, and gives you reams of interesting references at a glance.
- Max/Average Power
- Max/Average HR
- Max/Average Cadence
- Amount of time for:
- Default or custom HR Ranges
- Default or custom Wattage Ranges
- Default or custom Cadence Ranges
…..all the above for the entire ride, and any interval that you mark, or any part of the ride which you look to view. Though I would not describe myself as a data geek, the above info is quite interesting, and extremely relevant to evaluating your training and fitness for endurance cycling or tri-events.
Beginning Riding with a Powermeter
You will likely be surprised at how much the wattage fluctuates when you first set out to ride. It will be helpful to set your PM so that it displays wattage on a 2-3 second reading – this will help smooth out the wattage display somewhat.
The smoother you pedal and the more uniform your mechanics, the less the fluctuation bandwidth will be. For those of you with computrainers and who have practiced constant wattage rides in PC mode, the same drills where you focus on even pressure on the pedals will be helpful in smoothing and evening out your effort.
Smooth roads with fairly steady grades and terrain lend themselves more easily to riding at an even power output. Try and have a sense of even pressure on the pedals – adjust cadence to adapt to slight changes in wind, minor grade changes, road surface changes.
If terrain changes more dramatically, shift gears of course. Often, it can be easier to generate higher watts on climbs, but experiment with riding the same watts on the climbs as you do on the flats, and ditto for modest downhills where you can pedal.
It is more difficult to maintain similar wattage on downhills because you are having to overcome greater air resistance with the higher speeds. However, slight downhills can see you achieve similar wattage and it can be a good exercise to practice generating a constant power output.
Do not chase watts – seek out smooth pedaling sensations
It is very tempting when you first set out to ride with a PM to see how many watts you can blast away at and for how long. Pre-conceived notions often accompany this desire.
Focus instead on a smooth pedal stroke, optimal gearing, even pressure on the pedals, and let the watts be what they might be. You will find that the watts you seek will come more easily as a by-product of good pedaling mechanics, than by a determination to grind out big numbers.
If you have a nice stretch of uninterrupted road and gently rolling terrain, you might mark an interval and run average for this stretch. Again, focus on your pedal stroke and observe wattage. In this way you will quickly gain insight as to both appropriate wattage, and how relaxing and focusing on form is the best way to achieve these watts.
Powertap users can run an average for the interval (as opposed to the entire ride) by marking an interval (pressing both buttons touch and go) and then holding down the Mode button until “Int’ remains visible. When ‘Int’ is visible, the average will be for that interval, and not the entire ride. You can easily change watts to maximum, average, or real-time simply by hitting the select button and cycling through.
I set up my console so I have watts on the top display, Heart Rate on the middle, and cadence on the bottom. For most intervals and climbs I find it useful to have watts be on average, and heart rate and cadence to be real-time.
Once again, in order to have average watts be for a particular interval, you need ‘Int’ to be showing. You accomplish this by first marking an interval, and then holding down the Mode button until ‘Int’ shows up and remains displayed.
Have your console all set up as described above before you actually do your first interval or climb. When you begin an interval, settle into your effort and then mark the interval on your PT. This way your average is in the right ballpark from the very get-go and you can more easily begin gauging your effort right from the beginning.
Seeing average for the interval is more useful because the entire ride includes warm-up, coasting down steep hills, busy traffic areas, etc. In any case, you will still be able to see the average for the entire ride when you are finished.
There you have it!