How a Power Meter Can Improve Your Cycling

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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How a Power Meter Can Improve Your Cycling

Whether you’re training for a century or looking to PR at your next time trial, a power meter is one way you can take your training and race-day pacing to the next level.

Use this guide as a starting point to learn the basics of training with a power meter.

Why Train with Power?

By measuring the amount of watts you produce during each pedal stroke, a power meter is an efficient way to determine energy expenditure.

Unlike training with a heart-rate monitor, a power meter isn’t affected by variables such as wind, terrain, fatigue levels and cadence. This allows you to obtain feedback that can help you more accurately gauge your efforts for:

  • High-intensity training
  • Pacing during a race
  • Recovery rides

It will also allow you to effectively measure the progress of your training. By keeping track of your power-output metrics, it will be much easier to determine what is and isn’t working in your training plan. This will not only help you adapt your current training regimen if you aren’t seeing progress, but it can also be extremely useful to fine-tune training plans in the future.

Functional Threshold Power

Baseline fitness numbers are the starting point for training with power, allowing you to determine which training zone you should ride in during a particular workout. This will vary according to your goals for the season and the type of race you’re targeting.

To measure your baseline fitness, you’ll need to determine your functional threshold power. This is the number of watts you’re able to sustain for one hour of cycling.

To determine your FTP, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Complete the test either on an indoor trainer or at a location that will allow you to ride for 20 minutes without having to stop. Be sure to warm up as if you were preparing for a race or other high-intensity workout.
  2. Ride for 20 minutes as hard as you can. Remember: Just because the effort is all-out doesn’t mean pacing isn’t required. The goal is to cover as much distance as possible during the 20 minutes.
  3. Once the ride is over, multiply your average watts produced for the full 20 minutes by 0.95. This will provide your FTP. For example, if you achieved an average of 350 watts for the 20-minute test, your FTP would be 333 watts (350 x 0.95 = 333).

A good way to determine whether you’re progressing is to redo this test every few months and compare. If the number of watts you’re producing is more during the second test, you are progressing. If your numbers are stagnant or slightly lower, you may need to switch up your training plan.

Also keep in mind that when you retest your FTP, you’ll need to keep the conditions of the test exactly the same for accuracy. If you completed the first test on an indoor trainer, your second, third and fourth tests should be done on an indoor trainer, too. The time of day, fatigue levels, hydration, etc. should also be kept as consistent as possible.

Training Zones

To determine your training zones, you’ll use a percentage of your FTP. Which training zone you choose for any given workout will depend on your goals for the season, your training plan and the type of race you’re targeting.

The benchmark for power-based training zones was developed by Andrew Coggan, PhD, of Training Peaks, a popular power metrics analytics website. The training zones below reflect Coggan’s basic principles:

Zone 1: Active Recovery

  • At or below 55% of your FTP
  • This is an easy effort, ideally following hard efforts in zones 5, 6 and 7.

Zone 2: Endurance

  • Should be done at 56%–75% of your FTP
  • The pace for this zone should be one that you can easily sustain for several hours. Conversation while riding should be doable.
  • Consecutive training days in this zone should be possible for a fit cyclist.
  • This zone is good for cyclists looking to build endurance for long-distance races.

Zone 3: Tempo

  • Done between 76%– 90% of your FTP
  • Ride times will typically last 20 minutes–3 hours.
  • Conversation will be more difficult to maintain at times.
  • If the duration of your training session is short, consecutive training days should be possible depending on your level of fitness
  • Group rides and fartlek training are common zone 3 workouts.

Zone 4: Lactate Threshold

  • Aim for 91%–105% of your FTP
  • Effort will be similar to that of a 40K time trial.
  • Conversation will not be possible for most of the effort
  • Interval workouts in this zone are common, lasting 15–30 minutes per set.
  • Sufficient rest is recommended prior to and after workouts in this zone.

Zone 5: VO2 Max

  • Effort should be between 106%–120% of your FTP
  • Intervals should last between 3–8 minutes and total no more than 30–40 minutes.
  • Workouts will require recovery rides in the days before and after.

Zone 6: Anaerobic Capacity

  • Efforts above 121% of your FTP
  • Duration of intervals should typically last between 30 seconds–3 minutes.
  • Consecutive training days in zone 6 are not recommended

Zone 7: Neuromuscular

  • Effort is all-out.
  • Short sprints and standing starts that are very short and explosive are common in this zone.
  • Greater stress on musculoskeletal system and not ideal to build cardiovascular system.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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