Do I need a Cycle Power Meter?
Power meters are all the rage now with many companies offering more and more competitive prices on power meters. Furthermore, understanding and analysing the data becomes easier with some great pieces of software now more available than ever. Coaches and athletes have a far greater understanding of it all too so the question we ask now is "Do I need a cycle power meter?"
Clearly "need" is a very controversial word. Power meters haven't been readily available for a long time yet triathlons still existed before that so clearly the two aren't mutually exclusive – you can do a triathlon or cycle event without one! However, should you get one?
Yes! Buy me a Power Meter!
It helps you measure a training input measurement (power), not an output (speed), so therefore is unaffected by road surface, wind etc. 200W is 200W at whatever speed you are going at. Therefore, it allows clearer training sessions and specific improvement measurements, allowing you to chart progress in a more meaningful way. Average speed on a ride is not a fair or accurate measurement of how your training is progressing when compared with power.
Now coaches generally understand how to utilise training with power meters in a training session allowing you to have a greater insight into your training metrics.
A power meter helps with accurate interval training based on what you can sustain for a given duration. It also may help you recognise when to keep pushing: going "hard" for 30 seconds is not as useful a motivation as staying about 300W for 30 seconds. This itself gives further information to your training improvements – "where you are at" – as you succeed in hitting the target numbers, or struggle.
It allows you to track key elements of you and your ability and thus measure how your training has improved over specific performance indicators. For example, you may track how your 30 minute power output has improved over the past six months if you are racing a sprint distance event.
As it is an input measurement, it allows us to measure how much work someone is doing and thus measure the training dosages more accurately to avoid over training and ensure adequate recovery which can only help keep your training efficient and effective (only if you download all the data!)
It also helps you accurately recognise when maybe you aren't at your best. If your struggling on certain efforts to hold a power and the bike is working well, then maybe your legs are tired and thus life is getting in the way – it gives an immediate feedback to the athlete who can make a more informed decision on how they feel and help them recognise that maybe today isn't the day to try and improve their Functional Reserve Capacity (how much work you can do above FTP) and an easier ride or even taking the time out is a better idea.
It makes racing very prescriptive. You can literally race by numbers!
No! Turn off the Gadget!
Athletes have always done without it and many people still recognise that racing to feel is the best for the final performance.
It is expensive, it is another tool you could use but perhaps it is not the most effective use of your funds. Triathlon is expensive already and spending money on coaching (for example), or swimming lessons is a far better, holistic investment in your overall performance than a power meter.
It can fix you to one bike (with power) as opposed to having the flexibility of multiple bikes. Do your commutes not count if they are done on a bike that doesn't have power? What about where to put e.g. a crank power based system? Do you put it on the training bike or the race bike? What about a hub? Training wheel or race wheel? Power can suddenly add complexity and limit your options.
By racing with numbers, it can remove the element of racing and then maybe the joy of racing too. Racing by numbers can be hugely effective, but at a cost to enjoyment. Especially over the shorter courses or where the goals are less about winning or PB's.
It can be just another gadget: if you or your coach doesn't really understand how it works or how to use it to its full effect, then it is a significant waste of money when not used to its full potential.
It can negatively impact the off-season as you tend to worry about finding power or having everything working before you head out rather than setting off. You may also find yourself worrying about time away from training.
Again, the lower numbers can be a negative impact on you if you are looking to head out for just a social ride – you lose the joy of riding around the countryside with friends...now you worry about what numbers you ride at while talking to friends.
You can lose touch with your own body and its feed back as you blindly follow the numbers. Skilled judgement is all part of using any training tool.
So What is the Verdict?
To keep it simple, a power meter is just a training tool and that perspective should never be lost. Give me a paint brush and I can almost paint a wall...badly...give it to a modern-day Picasso and you have a masterpiece. The same is true with a power meter. If you are a numbers person with the budget and you can see the benefits really suiting you, or you have a coach or a good understanding of power which will make a difference. Then using a power meter is a great idea to help you improve. If however, you don't, then you sticking a block of computer to your handlebars, are potentially ruining the aerodynamics and adding weight to your bike just for bling's sake! And that is the biggest shame of all!