Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to psychoanalyze a hundred different metrics in order to get the most out of your power meter. You also do not need to be a professional cyclist to train with a power meter! Every Tom, Dick and Harry who rides a bike could greatly benefit from power meter training by following these five simple power meter workouts every cyclist should do. These power meter workouts, which focus on a handful of basic metrics, are guaranteed to make your training more fun and exciting.
Before I get into the metrics of training with a power meter, I would be remised not to recommend a dual-sided power meter, rather than a single-sided power meter. A dual-sided power meter will measure the power output of both your legs, while a single-sided power meter will measure the power output of one leg and double it. You can imagine that if your one leg is slightly weaker than the other, which is often the case, that it will greatly effect the accuracy of your power reading. A dual sided power meter is more expensive than a single, but it will be worth it.
So now that we have that out of the way, let us get in to what this post is all about starting with power meter metrics.
Power meter metrics:
When I train with a power meter, this is what I focus on and display on my GPS unit.
This is the most fundamental power meter metric. You will have to keep an eye on your current power while riding to make sure you are pacing yourself correctly. This is especially important when you are new to using a power meter. Once you have more experience you will begin to get a feel for different power outputs and will look at your power meter less. Power meter readings can be erratic if you set it to 1-second average power. Most people prefer 3-second average power. What this means is that your GPS computer calculates the average power output for the last 3 seconds as opposed to the last second. This gives a more stable figure.
The great thing about power meters is that they will not only measure your power output, but also your cadence. Keeping an eye on your cadence will help optimize your power output. If your cadence is too low, you will find that you are unable to push as much power as you could with a higher cadence. A “high cadence” is a subjective term, but I would put it at 80-100rpm. The top climbers in the world ride at a cadence of around 90 rpm and the best time trialists ride at a cadence of 100 rpm. Often the best sprinters will up their cadence to 130rpm in the final hundred odd meters of a sprint! When it comes to power output, cadence is king.
3. Average Power
Average power is useful, because it can tell you how tough your ride was. I love looking at my average power after a hard race! It will also give you an idea of how many calories you burned during your ride. To calculate the amount of calories burned during a ride, multiply your average power output on the bike by the number of hours you spent riding times 3.6 and there you have it. Most GPS devices have a setting to display calories burned, which it will calculate using your average power so that you do not need to work it out yourself.
4. Lap Average Power
Your ‘lap average power’ is more important than ‘average power,’ because it is used for every interval that you do. Simply press the lap button when you start an interval and the lap average power will begin to start for the duration of that interval. Press lap again as soon as you finish the interval. Repeat this for all the intervals that you do. You can analyze your ‘lap average power’ for each interval after the workout.
5. Average Cadence
If you want to train yourself to ride with a higher cadence then ‘average cadence’ is a great way to do that. Be sure to set it to non-zero averaging. This will ensure that the time you spend freewheeling is not included in your average cadence for the ride. You only want to know how fast you pedal not how much you do not pedal, if that makes sense?
6. Lap Average Cadence
This will come in handy when you do your intervals, just like your ‘lap average power’ will. If your goal is to keep a certain cadence for an interval then you can keep an eye on it and make sure you do not go over or under it.
7. Training Stress Score (TSS)
Training stress score is useful, because it gives you a better idea of how hard your ride was, more so than average power ever will. A score of 100 is the same as doing an hour long time trial at maximum effort. TSS will be most accurate if you test your FTP on a regular basis. I will talk a bit more about FTP later in this article.
8. Intensity Factor (IF)
Intensity Factor is the brother of training stress score in that TSS is derived from it. With intensity factor you can easily compare the difficulty of your training rides to races that you do of the same or similar duration.
Non-Power Meter related metrics
Once you have all the power meter metrics listed above set up, you also want to have standard metrics on display such as time, lap time, distance, lap distance, speed, average speed and lap speed. I recommend having three pages to group all the metrics that correspond with each other. So on page one you would have time, distance, speed, power and cadence. On page two you would have average speed, average power, average cadence, TSS and IF. Page three would be the lap page with lap time, lap speed, lap power, lap distance and lap cadence.
Now that your GPS is organized, let us talk about workouts you can do that utilizes these metrics. The possibilities are endless, but I like to keep the workouts simple. Simple does not mean easy though, so you have been warned.
Power Meter Workouts Every Cyclist Should do:
If you can only include one of the following five power meter workouts into your training program, then you are already taking a huge step in the right direction. If you do these workouts correctly, you will become a fitter and happier cyclist. All of these workouts are tried and tested. I used them during a decade of riding and racing, now I want to share them with you too!
Workout 1: High Score for Four
This workout focuses primarily on training stress score. You can think of it as playing a game and trying to beat your high score. This is the most challenging workout on this list, so do it on a day that you have enough time to rest and recovery afterwards. The aim of this workout is to get the highest possible TSS for 4 hours as you can.
You would think that the best way to get the highest possible TSS for 4 hours is to simply do a time trial at the highest sustainable wattage you can do for that amount of time. While that is not a bad strategy, there is another way to squeeze out even more of your potential.
You can get the highest TSS by doing a lot of short intervals of at least 30 seconds all the way up to 5 minutes. In-between intervals, ride at 65% of your functional threshold power (FTP). There are various different way to calculate your FTP. The most common is to do a maximum 20 minute effort and multiply your average power for that effort by 0.95 to get your FTP. Once you have your FTP you can put it into your GPS settings and you will be able to get an accurate TSS value when you do this training session.
To get your best possible TSS for this workout I would suggest doing 20x 30 second intervals, followed by 5×2 minute intervals and 2×5 minute intervals. The amount of recovery time you take between the intervals is up to you, but I would suggest taking ample time between efforts. This will give you a good variation of intensities and is superb preparation for a longer race that you might have coming up.
If you can get a score of 300 then you should be looking for a pro team.
Workout 2: Strava Segments
Strava is a fantastic website for logging and analyzing your training. In my opinion, the most powerful training tool on Strava is actually Strava segments. Segments on Strava refer to any section of road or trail created by Strava members where athletes can compare their times. It can provide an incredible source of motivation, especially if you are competing for a segment record against a friend or foe!
The lap function on your GPS will be useful when you are doing a Strava segment. Use the lap screen and press the lap button once you start your segment. This will allow you to keep an eye on your ‘lap average power’ and ‘lap cadence’, thereby ensuring that you pace yourself as efficiently as possible during the effort. There are some GPS units that will allow you to live track your progress on a segment, compared to the person who has the record on that segment. I do not recommend paying too close attention to this, because you do not know how erratic that person paced his or her effort. You will pace yourself far better by looking at your own statistics on your GPS screen.
If you only have short segments in your area, I suggest doing multiple repetitions of that segment. Always do the first one as hard as you can and see how many more you can do after that before you give up!
Workout 3: Endurance
This is a very basic workout, but it helps build the foundation of any successful training regime. Endurance riding should never be harder than 70% of your FTP and never easier than 55% of your FTP, in terms of your average power output. A good average power to keep during your endurance rides is 65% of your FTP.
Metrics to focus on for this workout is average power, normalized power and IF. If your riding terrain forces you to freewheel a lot then it is better to set a normalized power target, instead of an average power target, otherwise you will need to ride too hard to keep the average power high enough. Typical IF values for endurance rides are between 0.6 and 0.75. Endurance rides develop your mitochondrial efficiency, which means that you will be able to push higher wattages for a longer period of time during your hard workouts.
Workout 4: Fight at the Traffic Light
For this workout you do not need to pay attention to your numbers. Just start sprinting as hard as you can from a traffic light and try to accelerate faster than the cars around you. This adds an element of fun to the workout and when we make something fun we take care of motivation.
The goal for this workout is to sprint from a standing start at the traffic light for 200 meters, so set yourself a marker that’s about 200 meters away and focus on that. These sprints are at a maximum intensity and you want to give yourself plenty of time to recover after each one. Five minutes will usually be enough time. Obviously you can not always predict when exactly you will reach the next traffic light, so your efforts will be somewhat spontaneous and that is OK.
When you analyze the file afterwards, take note of your ‘5 second max power’ and your ‘max power’. Doing 10 sprints for the ride is more than sufficient. You can also experiment with different cadences and see what allows you to push the highest wattages while sprinting. If you are going to look down at your GPS unit during the sprint then the only thing you need to look at is your current power, but generally speaking you should not even look at that and should just be focusing on your effort. A final tip would be that you can always push a higher wattage if you are sprinting against a fellow cyclist. Do not be surprised if your max power output is 100 watts higher when you are sprinting against someone else, compared to when you are sprinting solo. You can thank testosterone for that!
Workout 5: How long can you hold on?
The final workout is about deciding on what wattage to hold and holding it as long as you can. After you give up, recover for five minutes and then do another effort at that same wattage. A good example of what wattage to hold is 110% of your current FTP. For this workout you can use the lap function, just like you did for the ‘Strava Segments’ workout above. If your lap average power drops below your target wattage for the effort, then you can stop and recover for 5 minutes before repeating the effort.
Final thoughts on power meter workouts
In terms of difficulty, from easiest to hardest I would say that workout 3 is the easiest and workout 1 is the hardest. As you can see, I have come up with rather unconventional power meter workouts that you can do to get the most out of your power meter. This is because I like to keep things simple and effective.
I do not recommend doing more than two hard workouts a week. If you are going to do the ‘high score for four’ workout then that should be your only hard workout for the week. It is important to stick to a schedule that you can sustain for life, rather than just a few months. If you need a break from high intensity workouts then that is fine too. You will often find that you come back stronger when you give your body the rest it is craving. Ninety percent of the time, you want to do endurance or even recovery pace rides and five to ten percent of the time you want to ride as hard as you can. This is a sustainable way to train for the rest of your life and will help you prevent burnout.
Ride hard and ride safe. Peace!
About the author:
Paul van Zweel was a professional road racing cyclist in South Africa, active between 2008 and 2016. After he retired from racing, he took up cycling coaching as a way to help others achieve their goals. He now lives in France with his wife Pauline, where he continues to coach cyclist online from all around the world.