get the most out of a power meter

4 Steps to Get the Most Out of a Cycling Power Meter

Combining quality professional coaching and a cycling power meter is the best way to improve cycling performance. Static training plans and self-coaching can be good introductions to training, but athletes quickly reach the limitations of both. Merely purchasing a cycling power meter is a step in the right direction. However, it’s important to take these key steps once you have the power meter to actually reap the performance benefits.

1. Look Beyond the Number on the Display

Too many athletes simply watch the numbers on the display instead of using power to drive improvement. Your power meter should be more than just a fancy speedometer! It is shocking how many new athletes come to CTS having ridden with a power meter for months or years, but with only an understanding of power that ends with “It says I hit 400 watts today.”

Your power meter has tremendous functionality, but you have to engage with it in a meaningful way. At the very least, use the Lap/Interval button to delineate efforts or portions of your ride. This way, you can see – right on the device – how your average power for given terrain (climbs, flats, Point A to B) changes with time and conditions.

2. Get the Data off the Device

Another extremely common scenario we see is the athlete who never transfers data from the device to a software tool. Whether you upload to Training Peaks, Strava, Garmin Connect, or one of the other tools, do something with your data! The advantage of using a power meter is not in the ability to see what your power output is right now. The advantage is the ability to identify trends in the data so you – or your coach – can make educated decisions about how to prescribe future training.

3. Set the Zero Offset

Power meters use strain gauges and sensors to directly measure the work you are doing. To measure power accurately, you need to be able to set an accurate baseline reading when there is zero torque. This is the zero offset value. Physical conditions like heat, humidity, and installation/adjustment can alter the value your power meter records when there is zero torque being applied, so it is important to set the zero offset before each ride and/or use the meter’s automatic zero offset settings. What happens if you ignore zero offset? Well, it is frequently noted that 200 watts today is 200 watts tomorrow because it is a direct measure of work rather than an observed response to exercise (like heart rate). But when the zero offset is not calibrated, 200 watts today might be 190 watts or 210 watts tomorrow.

4. Learn to Calibrate Your Body to the Numbers on the Display

While an entire Tumblr page has been devoted to pictures of Chris Froome staring at his stem and/or power meter, there are a lot of pros who don’t pay much – if any – attention to their wattage numbers during a race. Some even tape over that part of the display. Why? Because they have developed a very good understanding of how power output correlates with perceived exertion. During focused training sessions they pay attention to the numbers; during competition they listen to their bodies and race. Data from races is crucially important for subsequent training, but it is imperative that cyclists learn what riding at lactate threshold feels like.

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Perhaps more important is the ability to discern when there’s a disconnect between perceived exertion and power output, when producing 250 watts feels like an all-out time trial even though it should feel like a sustainable effort. This is important context to your power output numbers because it can be indicative of fatigue, or that an adjustment to your training schedule is necessary.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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