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Why Use a Power Meter for Cycling?

The first in a series of articles in association with Limits Power Meters covering everything you need to know about cycling with a power meter. Here we answer why you should be using one.


Are power meters just for pros and top riders?

Far from it and arguably amateur and novice riders have far more to gain from power meters than top riders.  If your training time is limited, knowing that you’re getting the most out of every workout is essential and a power meter is the best tool for ensuring that.

For novice riders, who probably lack experience in pacing and what different riding intensities feel like, a power meter will massively aid pacing during training and at events. For example, when you’re feeling fresh at the start of a ride, it can be easy to overcook a climb and then pay for it later on. A power meter, and accurately set zones, will prevent this.

But aren't they ruining racing?

You’ll often hear fans, commentators and even some riders – usually ones who aren’t winning, bemoaning that power meters have turned riders into robots and have taken the spontaneity out of racing. Although there have been some riders in recent years who could be accused of “stem gazing”, for the vast majority of pros, who have spent years and hundreds of thousands of kilometres in the saddle, a power meter is mainly for post-race analysis. 

Training with power

Top pros are so in tune with what their bodies are capable of that, even without a power meter, they could probably give you a pretty accurate estimate of their wattage at any moment. For us mere mortals though, we lack that insight and intuition into how hard we’re pushing and a power meter provides a shortcut to pro perfect pacing. 

Instant intensity feedback

One of the biggest advantages of a power meter over a heart rate monitor is that any change in your riding intensity is fed back instantaneously whereas, with heart rate, there will always be a significant lag. This isn’t so much of an issue on longer even paced efforts but, for shorter intervals and punchier rides, your heart rate just doesn’t react fast enough.

When training any intervals of less than five minutes are incredibly hard to pace with heart rate. If you’re trying to hold Zone 5, using heart rate and building into the zone over the first minute of so to allow for lag, it’s likely you’ll undercook it. Conversely, if you punch your heart rate up hard, chances are you’ll blow long before the five minutes is up. With power, you can guarantee hitting the correct wattage from first to last pedal stroke of the interval.

Not affected by external factors

A row with your other half, an extra pre-ride espresso, nerves or being late for the Ride Captain’s briefing can all raise your heart rate. Don’t forget it can also be impacted by illness, hydration level, air temperature and altitude. If you’re especially fatigued from a hard training block, this can also flatten your heart rate. 

For longer rides, there’s also a physiological phenomenon known as cardiac drift where, over the course of a long ride, your heart rate will rise even though you’re not working harder. This effect can be as pronounced as 15% and, although it can be managed with optimal hydration, it can’t be completely negated.

When riding indoors, many riders, in relation to their perceived effort, find that their heart rate is typically 10-15 beats per minute lower than it would be outside. There are a number of reasons for this, such as reduced recruitment of core/stabiliser muscles and simple boredom but, as long as your pain cave is well ventilated, you have a decent fan and your position is the same, your power numbers should be similar to riding outdoors. 

Perfect pacing = optimised training

All of the above means that whether you’re on a long training ride, tackling an Alpine climb, riding a 10-mile TT or nailing an interval session, as long as you’ve tested for your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), set training zones based on it and ride to them, you’ll be able to pace your effort perfectly.

Accurate Analytics

With power derived performance metrics and using a platform such as TrainingPeaks you can accurately analyse sessions you’ve done and see how future planned rides will impact your cycling fitness. You really can take the guesswork out of tapering and peaking for key events.

You’ll also have a far more accurate gauge of calorie expenditure than the estimates based on heart rate, age and weight. This can be really useful for planning fuelling or if you’re looking to lose a few pounds.

We’ll dive into post ride analysis, key metrics and how to understand our power data in future articles. 

So, should I chuck out my heart rate strap?

Definitely not. Your power meter tells you what output your body is producing and your heart rate monitor shows the impact this is having on your body. By becoming aware of the impact of one on the other, you can get a real insight into the effect that your training is having. For example, we’ve already mentioned how a block of hard training can flatten heart rate. So if you notice that despite pushing high watts your heart rate stays stubbornly low and your perceived effort feels relatively high, it could well be time to back things off. 

There’s also a metric known as the “rate of decoupling”. Over the course of a long ride, if there’s a significant divergence between power and heart rate, decoupling is said to have occurred. This can point to diminishing efficiency, possible poor pacing early on and a need for improved endurance.

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