Jen finds out through a year of hard graft and mishaps and shares her tips…
Power meters are the must-have accessory nowadays for any serious amateur cyclist. Striving to improve, to succeed, to beat our opponents, we first started measuring our speed and heart-rate After that GPS became readily available to the mass market and we all started using it. So, now we are totally hooked on graphs, numbers, segments, and even sharing them with our friends! Now, we can even buy a power meter for an almost bank-breaking, but not quite, price tag. But knowing your power…is that really a good thing? It has been suggested that the power meter makes for boring racing at the highest level. Is it that ‘knowledge is power’? Or is the fact that ‘power is knowledge’ making racing all too predictable? It probably is, to a certain extent, but as a training tool, “bring it on” I say! This blog discusses the highs and lows of my first year training using a power meter, or ‘training’ with a plan at all in fact (there is more detail on how to train, for cyclocross in particular in The Cyclocross Bible).
Well, Alex has been doing it for years, to great effect, and I wanted to see if I could do it too. I was also sceptical of the benefits really, and maybe a little bit of me felt that it might just take the fun out of the ride. I had one main goal this year and that was to improve my performance in ‘cross races come winter, and to achieve this I needed two things: to be fitter/faster overall (which I felt could come from being coached using power as I might make more effective use of my existing ride slots), and to learn to get on and off of my bike properly (see “The Cyclocross Bible” for detailed instructions – I can now do that very well I think!).
I also wanted to have a go at racing on the road. After all, I’ve been racing my riding partners for years, hanging on to bunches of guys in club runs and trying to hold my own. But I knew I wasn’t competitive – I wanted more power!
The first outing…
The plan…go out on my typical training ride and just see what the power looked like afterwards. Simple. Nothing is ever that simple though is it?! My power meter was a hand-me-down and it was reading very low (incorrect calibration possibly). Still, the numbers were wrong, but the changes in power were correct, we think. What I did notice on my first go was that, if I was riding as I always have and trying to be consistent then my brain uses my perception of the force through my legs and cadence initially: hit an incline, change down to keep the cadence the same until I run out of gears. When that happens, my head is using heart-rate: slow down the pedalling to keep the heart-rate down, maybe even stand up. But it was clear very early on that my ‘consistent effort’ ride was a long way from a ‘consistent power’ ride. When you ride to power every little rise and tiny fall changes the power by a big margin: if you stand up on the pedals or pull away from a junction, if you sit in a wheel, if you change gear, the power changes are all much greater than you expect. It is so much easier to keep the power high going up – riding to power makes you love the ups (which can’t be a bad thing; I used to fear them, now I relish them).
…Oh, the power meter totally died after that ride…Alex bought me a new one (Quarq) for my birthday!
Of course, the first instruction from my coach (as we can’t work on anything without some benchmarks) were power tests. In my inexperienced position, these amounted to “how to make yourself feel like you’ve no idea how to ride a bike in one simple step” – warm up and go as hard as you can for a specified time interval. Here, my years of ‘just riding’ rather than training began to show immediately. Firstly, ‘warm-up’ – I just rode hard, as usual, for a while to a designated point and went for it. It told my coach something I guess; I didn’t know how to warm up (I expect I overdid it), and that I certainly needed to know a bit more about my own capabilities (I tired dramatically throughout all the tests, especially the short ones) – I went off too fast! But still, it was a starting point, and this should improve.
The second outing…
…this was supposed to be a long, consistent power ride. It would be fair to say that things didn’t quite go to plan. I was fitting this in on my way back from Sussex and chose the Surry Hills as a nice area. Unfortunately, this area is also, even in its flattest parts, somewhat hilly, and the quieter roads somewhat windy. I was obsessively looking at the power meter trying to switch between a screen with directions and one with Watts. (Oh, I should have sorted that out first….I know, I know.) Anyway, I managed to just about stay on the right route for the first half of the ride and wiggle around having to stop numerous times for the second. The hilly terrain didn’t work very well though: the descents were probably erring on dangerous and the ups were difficult to keep the power low enough on with my gearing. Needless to say, I overdid it (maybe the power level was set a little high for my first go, maybe the already tiring and emotional day I’d had added to it, but the upshot was – broke the bike, I put it on the roof of my car to drive home – I drove straight into the car-park barrier – I reversed – inspected the damage (the whole roof rack had moved about a foot backwards) – I parked the car – and broke down in tears. Lesson 1: ‘power is nothing without control’, and no use at all if you don’t have a bike; take other things (stress factors) into account too (not just training stress). Maybe I still need reminding of that, actually.
We live, and learn, and move on, a few weeks later I start again (new bike frame, small repair to car roof)…
I can’t do this, really – it’s just so hard, hard, hard! FTP (functional threshold power) intervals are where the training started (2 x 20 minutes with a rest in between)…it really is surprising how far you can get in 20 minutes – my rides have taken me further from home than before this year.
I think the reason I could make these was that I trusted the numbers. I trusted that I could do it. If I stuck to the power I would make it, and I did. And again, and again. Plan. Do. Post on Strava with a photo and recover. Repeat. I was eating up the miles. But not all the intervals were like this. There were the short ones – these were not my strong point. The shorter the interval, the higher the power, the quicker the signal from brain to legs to stop, to give up. Then, then, you wish you hadn’t, feel like you’ve failed, and wonder if any of this is worth it. After the first few I started to get better at it though, to learn how to convince myself to push that little bit more and make it to the end. I don’t know if this is true for everyone but it’s all about belief – for me, I have to think “if I do this I’ll be better”, “it’s precisely the right thing to do”, and “I am capable of these numbers”. I also find it easier to give up if someone else is with me – riding to numbers is a battle with yourself, and for me, those short intervals are best done alone, at least the first time. Lesson 2: Know what motivates you, be prepared to push yourself, and you’ll be stronger than you ever thought you could be.
Dedication or obsession?
To train for anything you need dedication and a mild bit of obsession. For us it has been about always working out how to fit in the riding, sneaking it in on the rollers once the kids are in bed, taking the bikes everywhere (one of us riding out, one riding back), taking the dog for a walk where you can ride and he can keep up, etc. If you are looking at power, undoubtedly you are recording it and tracking your improvement. The training peaks software tracks measures of ‘fitness’ and ‘fatigue’ as you train. The blue line is the fitness (other software will have similar measures).
Watching the blue line is great for motivation while you are going well. It can help make you go out so it doesn’t drop too far. But this line can become a shackle; the obsession with its incremental increase leading to all sorts of disappointment if you really can’t make it out. The measuring of your effort does help though to make sure that the miles are quality miles, not just free-wheeling ones. Lesson 3: The ‘blue line’ has its limitations, don’t obsess over it (easier said than done!)
Balance and motivation
I love riding fast, in a bunch, hanging on in there and making it to the end. I love beating people (I admit it), but I also love having a good battle and trying my best, even if I don’t win in the end! And I really like achieving the difficult: getting over a steep hill, or through the mud. And power (combined with good technique), helps me to do more of what I love. Now I struggle to cope without the numbers…I need to strike a balance, but training to power certainly provides me with motivation, not of the long-term goal kind, but the ‘in-the-moment’, push hard now, today, kind. I feel I need the numbers to believe I can do it. That, as I try to mix in more off-road shorter cyclocross specific efforts, makes things more difficult – if it’s hard and I can’t see the numbers then I don’t believe I can do it. And worse, I wonder if I could be over-doing it, so I have set myself up to fail – the power is ruling my head. Like anything I guess, you can overdo it!
Will I keep going with it?
Yes! Was it the power meter, or just having a plan that led to such huge improvements? Probably just the plan, but the power meter undoubtedly helped me stick to the plan much more than I would have otherwise. I would definitely recommend it, and there are loads out there on the market now.
My top tips for training to power:
- Plan well (particularly to stay safe) – check previous segment times on Strava
- Pick a point, not a time, to get to the end of each interval (time the first one and see where you end up)
- Belief is key, knowing that you can push yourself harder than you ever thought was possible!
- It’s nice to look at the power but don’t ride to it all the time – sometimes tea and cake or a beer with friends is way more important