How To

How to train with a power meter – part one: why you should train with a power meter

Why using a power meter could transform your training

Power meters are becoming and more common – what once was the preserve of the pro peloton can now be seen on the local chaingang and riders are training more intelligently than ever.

Riders also now have a wide range of options when it comes to buying a power meter, with crank, wheel, pedal-based units for a variety of budgets, from manufacturers including Verve, SRM, Garmin, Rotor, Power2Max, Powertap, Stages, Quarq and more.

A power meter has the potential to transform your training, offering an unparalleled level of accuracy and analysis which will allow you to achieve your goals faster. In fact, a power meter is, quite simply, the most effective training tool if you want to improve on the bike.

If you intrigued by training with a power meters, here’s what you need to know…

However, a power meter isn’t a quick-fix solution and training with power effectively takes time and commitment. Indeed, riding with a power meter isn’t simply a case of trying to hit biggest number of watts possible, but using it to plan and guide your training. Buying a power meter is the first step, but if you want to use it to its maximum potential, you need to be clued up on how to use it.

In this series of weekly articles, we will demystify how to train effectively with a power meter, covering everything from setting and using your training zones, to analysing a power file, and from using a power meter to pace a sportive or race, to analysing long-term trends in your training.

First, however, we’re going to take a closer look at why you should consider training with a power meter. Training with power isn’t for everyone, but this will help you determine whether you’re ready to take the plunge.

Power meters were once the preserve of elite-level athletes – but any committed rider with a goal can benefit from training with power (Pic: Alex Whitehead/

Anyone can benefit

Any level of rider can benefit from having power data to work with – from a sportive rider training for an event like the Etape du Tour or first-time race, to a WorldTour pro or Olympic  track rider.

A power meter will highlight areas for improvement and allow you to work on those areas with greater precision. As long as you have a goal to work towards, training with power ensures you are getting the most out of the work you put in, helping you to complete the Etape or make that race-winning breakaway.

However, one key point to note is that a power meter is only a tool – the data provided is only useful if you put in the hard work yourself. It takes commitment and won’t do the hard work for you.

A power meter takes away the guesswork

The single greatest benefit to training with a power meter is that it takes all the guesswork out of the equation.

Riding with a power meter gives you a quantifiable measure of how hard you are going. It removes any external factors such as wind, road surface, drafting, gradient etc and simply gives you a measure of how hard you are pushing the pedals.

A lot of riders use heart rate to track their fitness and it’s certainly a good (and affordable) starting point – but, unlike power, heart rate doesn’t change a great deal over the course of a season and, most significantly, the winner of a race isn’t the rider that hit the highest heart rate.

Simply put, that’s because a heart rate monitor tells you how hard you are finding the effort – the physiological effort. A power meter tells you how well you are going – how much power you are putting out for that effort. The goal for any rider is to increase the amount of power for a given heart rate.

As a result, a power meter won’t replace your heart rate monitor, but the two are used in tandem to provide an overall picture of your form and fitness.

If you use a website like Strava to compare your efforts over time, and to see how you’re faring against your friends, then, once again, a power meter will remove any of the external factors which will affect your time on a segment, other than how hard you pushed on the pedals.

For example, were you riding with a headwind or tailwind, were your tyres pumped up, were you on your best bike of heavy winter bike? A power meter eliminates the guesswork and you can compare efforts like-for-like.

A power meter will help take the guess work out of your training (Pic: Scott Connor)

You can track improvements

Which bring us onto our second reason to use a power meter – you can track improvement in your riding.

As we’ve already covered, your heart rate may not vary much from when you are in great form compared to when you are going terribly. Heart rate is influenced by a large number of factors – sleep, fatigue, hydration, nerves and heat to name but a few – and therefore isn’t a reliable gauge of form of fitness.

Your threshold heart rate is a great example of this – your heart rate when riding a time trial may only vary by a few beats over the course of a season. However, your power could fluctuate by as much as 10-20 per cent. You might even find that at the start of the season your heart rate will go higher – this doesn’t necessarily mean you were going better than later in the season. The problem is, we just don’t know.

Having a power meter means you can measure exactly how much power you are putting out and what the physiological cost (i.e. heart rate)  is if of that power output. If in January you can ride for 20 mins at 250 watts with a heart rate of 175 bpm but that improves in April to 265 watts with an average heart rate of 172 bpm, then there is an obvious improvement and you know your training is working.

A power meter allows your to identify your strengths and weaknesses – and to work on them (Pic: Threshold Sports)

You can identify strengths and weaknesses

If with a power meter you are able to track improvements, then it also follows that you can see where you can make improvements.

For example, if on the local club run you always get dropped on a particular climb, you can look at the power data and identify what sort of improvements you need to make in order to get over the top with the group.

This forms the starting point of a training plan – identifying what you need to improve. Having a power meter takes this goal away from ‘I need to be able to ride a bit quicker uphill’ to ‘I need another 0.2 watt per kilogramme for five minutes.’

This is very important as it frames the improvements you are trying to make. Ultimately, it’s hard to set a realistic goal if you are unable to measure your progress and put the building blocks in place to achieve your target.

You can set accurate training sessions  

Once you have identified what you need to work on, it’s time to go out and work on that in training. But without a power meter you can’t really prescribe the training session to any accuracy other than – try and ride harder uphill.

With a power meter it’s possible to prescribe and undertake accurate training sessions designed to work on the specific aspects of fitness you have identified for improvement.

This has two key advantages:

1) Your training sessions are specific to the improvements you want to make and you can make sure you’re hitting the numbers required to efficiently work on that area of fitness. For example, if you are a time trialist training without a power meter but are setting off too hard in all your intervals when training, then you might not actually be working on the aspect of fitness you’re looking to improve.

2) Because the sessions are targeted, you have far less ‘junk’ in your training plan. Junk training is riding which is making you tired but isn’t working on what you want to improve. It’s important to cut out the junk if you want to improve efficiently as a rider and a power meter allows you to get the most from every ride. You can also make sure you’re fresher in the sessions that really matter, meaning you can really commit to those sessions and get more out of them.

A power meter will help cut junk miles out of your training (Pic: Chapeau)

You can pace your rides

Once you have identified what you need to improve, created training sessions to work on those aspects of your fitness and tracked your improvement, it’s now time to put those gains into practice out on the road.

Because a power meter gives you a second-by-second account of how hard you are going, it’s the perfect tool to help you pace your effort. Nine times of ten, the fastest way from A to B is an evenly paced effort from start to finish. It’s very easy to get a little carried away at the start and go off too hard, or to let the power drop as you start to suffer..

With a power meter you can determine your pacing and stick to it, as you can see exactly how much power you are putting out at that exact time. That brings us onto another drawback of heart rate – lag. Heart rate is relatively slow to respond to effort, so the number you’re seeing on your computer, may not accurately represent how hard you’re working.

With a power meter there are no more excuses for blowing up halfway up a climb. Correct pacing can be the difference between a new PB, a gold or silver time in a sportive, staying in touch with the front group in a race, hitting your season goals or just missing them.

Pacing, pacing, pacing – a power meter will allow you accurately judge the pace of your rides

It’s the gift that keeps on giving

The ultimate goal of using a power meter is to make you a faster bike rider.

We all have a budget to stick to when it comes to spending money on bikes and bike parts, so it’s important to get the most bang for your buck.

A new pair of wheels might improve your ten-mile TT time – but it’s a one time gain. Once you have put those wheels on your bike, it will make you faster but it won’t continue to make you faster.

The beauty of a power meter compared with an upgrade elsewhere on your bike, is that as you improve, it will help keep helping you and enable you to improve further still.

The steps described above – identifying areas for improvement, working on them in train, measuring performance, and putting them into practice out on the road – is a continuous process which will help you improve in the short, medium and long term. Only a power meter will give you the opportunity to make those continuous gains.

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