Do I Have to Train with a Power Meter to be Competitive?

Are power meters only for pros, semi-pros, and amateur racers with money to burn? Does training with power make sense for the brand new racer? What’s more, can you be competitive if you don’t?

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  • You can train mindfully without any specific equipment, but it’s near impossible to train with measurement on perception, alone
  • If you have a non-power measuring cycle computer, you can still develop measurement-based plans
  • A power meter is the gold standard, though. It provides immediate, accurate measurement of every effort, second-by-second
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]You don’t have to[/dropcap]read a lot of posts from me to realize my point of view regarding technology and “high end” equipment for the new racer. Essentially, my philosophy is “get a plan, get in the game, and do it as soon as you can.” Thumbing through the latest cycling magazines’ review issues, trying to determine which latest this-or-that will help you be fitter or faster is a forgivable temptation. However, you can’t buy fitness, and you can’t buy race experience. You need well-fitting gear, some foundational orientation, and a desire to experience racing.

Boom… you’re off. 

No. You don’t have to have a power meter to get started in competitive cycling. And no, you don’t need one to actually be competitive. You do, however, need a power meter if you’re going to start developing a measured, specific, goal-focused training plan, and to quickly experience real gains, in my opinion. 

And my opinion is strongly shared by many successful cycling coaches and researchers. Perhaps the most notable is Joe Friel who flatly states that he requires every athlete he coaches to purchase and learn to use a power meter. 

Why? 

Before answering that question, I should step back and address the technology that most of you probably already have: cycle computers that measure everything but power — including cadence, speed, distance, average speed, and perhaps heart rate. 

allen coggan power book friel power book

If you have one of these devices — with or without heart rate — you can develop training plans that will absolutely, positively help you develop your speed and endurance for racing. The ironic caveat is this: without being able to measure power, you’ll have to rely upon something that most cyclists only develop after they’ve started training with power. That something is a finely tuned internal sense of perceived exertion. In other words, an innate understanding of gauging how much effort you’re dishing out, while you’re dishing it out. And this is pretty difficult to do when you’re in the midst of say, your third hard 3 minute interval out of a total of 5. 

Friel — and others — require a power meter because it instantaneously, and with cold, merciless accuracy, tells you from the very first pedal stroke exactly what kind of effort you’re laying down. And it does so no matter how you feel, how awake you are, what you ate, or how you may have supplemented. 

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  • Buy a power meter. There are several: SRM, Stages, Garmin’s pedal-based system, AND a handlebar-mounted computer that connects to that meter
  • Learn it’s basic operation. Friel’s book, and — the gold standard — Allen and Coggan’s — won’t let you down
  • Conduct a Functional Threshold Power test
  • Calculate your Power Zones, from Zone 1 “Recovery” effort, to Zone 7 “Neuromuscular Power” effort, and enter them into your computer
  • Determine what your training weaknesses are: climbing, sprinting, speed endurance (breakaways and closing down gaps, etc.)
  • Research a training regimen with workouts designed to build you up where you’re weak, and ride at the prescribed zones for those workouts
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[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]You don’t have to have a power meter to get started — or even be competitive — in bike racing. But you do need one if you want to get on a measured, developmental, path for speed and strength.[/callout]

A heart rate meter will tell you your body’s reaction to the effort you’re putting out. But it will not be able to give you that information in a way you can use while training immediately. Your heart, you see, is a bit of a slow responder, and it gets slower as you age. This is why you usually discount the first interval you perform during a set of efforts if all you have is a heart rate monitor. The reason is that you’re “fresh” for that first effort.

Additionally, the power meter will show you, graphically, wether or not you’re actually improving against real benchmarks and towards real goals. It creates moment-by-moment “recordings” of every ride, workout, and race.

So. Do you have to have one to get in the game? No. Can you go out and train and work on form, acceleration, and endurance over time? You bet. However, if you want to set goals that can be measured more accurately than by your perceived exertion — which is easily swayed by many factors — then nothing will shape your workouts and your efforts like a power meter.

Advice for the novice racer

If you’re preparing for, or are just in the midst of your first season, I’d temper the feeling of need for that expensive power meter. First, you’ll need to learn how it records, what it’s recording, and how to interpret the data. You’ll need software that does that. But what’s more important than that, is a specific, race-day-focused training plan that gives you clear objectives to shoot for using that power meter. A backwards glance using your power data is of limited use, unless you have a future-oriented training plan that is designed to improve those weaknesses that are specifically holding you back from attaining your race goals.

Until you’ve actually gotten in the game and mixed it up enough to know what those goals are, the additional data overload — literally — will just get in your way of the enjoyment of the racing experience.

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”]Question: If you’re a power meter vet, tell us about your initial experiences with a power meter. If you’re totally new to measured training, tell us — do you plan to eventually join the ranks of “training with power?”[/icon_box]

Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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