Training with a power meter is the absolute best way to get the most out of both your training time and effort. Unlike heart rate-based training, power allows us to measure the muscular demands of the effort instead of just the aerobic. The metrics-based approach to training that power provides is invaluable in helping athletes reach their goals, but what is it that we need to focus on, and how do we decipher all of the available information when one wants to get started training with power?
There are a few key places we can direct our attention to begin to understand the information generated from our power meters, and how to best utilize it to inform the decisions we make regarding training prescription.
What is Threshold?
In order to grasp and apply power metrics to our training we first need to understand the foundation on which everything is built: threshold. Threshold is simply the maximum wattage (power) you can maintain while your body can still remove the lactic acid being produced by your working muscles.
It’s also the point at which your body begins to recruit greater amounts of fast-twitch muscle fiber. Working for longer periods of time above your threshold creates the familiar “burn” in the legs as a result of accumulating lactic acid. Athletes can increase their body’s lactic acid clearing potential by spending significant time training in specific ranges below and right at threshold.
Time in these ranges also trains the body to slow the rate of carbohydrate utilization. Once you understand the concept of threshold we can take it a step further with FTP (Functional Threshold Power). FTP is the linchpin of power-based workouts, and the key to executing them properly.
Setting and Maintaining FTP
By now you’re no doubt at least familiar with FTP, how it impacts your training approach and your overall performance on the bike. However, knowing what produces a strong and accurate FTP, how to establish it, and how maintain it are vital to keeping your training on track.
Setting your FTP, or rather producing efforts that yield the results you want, takes some practice and know how. With tools like TrainingPeaks and WKO4 we can understand and analyze power numbers more accurately and consistently than ever before.
So how do you know what your FTP is? With the tools we have available to us today there are a couple of things you’ll want to do and look at to ensure your FTP is accurate. The first step is to produce threshold level efforts in training. The “field test” is a tried and true method, and usually the first step in setting your FTP. To perform the field test use the following protocol.
- 20 minutes at endurance pace
- 3×1 minute high cadence drills at 100 RPM w/ 1minute rest between each
- 5 minutes at endurance pace
- 5 minute all out effort.
- 10 minutes at endurance pace
- 20 minute all out effort
- 10-15 minutes easy
Once you’ve performed the FTP test, upload your data and analyze your performance. To calculate your FTP take 95 percent of your 20-minute, all-out effort. This will serve as a good approximation of your lactate threshold, and a strong baseline number for your training. However, while the field test is a strong indicator of FTP and a great place to start, physiological adaptation and performance is more nuanced than a simple 20-minute test.
The Power Duration Curve
WKO4 takes things a step further with the concept of modeled FTP (mFTP), which plots your performances across a curve and generates an mFTP based on historical efforts. Since everyone’s strength isn’t necessarily a 20-minute TT, the PD Curve can be a good way to gain insight into where you’re strongest, and what efforts you may need to focus on to elicit critical adaptations.
If you’re using mFTP and the PD Curve, it’s best to perform all-out efforts of varying durations anywhere from 30 seconds to one hour to get the most out of the “curve.” When establishing any power-based metric, the importance of valid and accurate data can’t be overstated. Power spikes and inaccurate data can drastically skew test results, and can even result in an inaccurate FTP or other power-derived metrics. Whether you’re using the field test, the PD Curve, or a combination of both, you’ll want to perform FTP level efforts four to six times a year so that your FTP is set correctly at key points in the season. It’s tools like this that make training with power so insightful!
Establishing Power Zones
Now that you’ve determined your FTP, and understand what it is you need to do maintain an accurate threshold, you can calculate your training zones. Power-derived training zones are what you’ll use for every workout and ride to decipher how intense the ride was, and whether the planned intent of the ride or workout was achieved. Zones allow you to establish the appropriate intensity to induce the adaptation necessary for aerobic, metabolic, and muscular development. Power zones also further highlight the importance of an accurate and up to date FTP. There are several different zone structures available for athletes to use, but ultimately the more detailed and accurately the zones reflect your physiology the better. Below is one example of a seven zone format that can be used:
Zone 1 Active Recovery (AR) = < 55% of FTP
Zone 2 Endurance = 56%-75% of FTP
Zone 3 Tempo = 76%-90% of FTP
Zone 4 Lactate Threshold = 91%-105% of FTP
Zone 5 VO2max = 106%-120% of FTP
Zone 6 Anaerobic Capacity (AC) = 121%-150% of FTP
Zone 7 Neuromuscular Power (NP) = Maximal Power
If you’re using WKO4 you can also use Dr. Andy Coggan’s Individualized Power Levels that allow for an even more granular approach to workout prescription and ride analysis.
Training with Power
The reason that you purchased a power meter is to enhance your training and improve your fitness. So, how do you go about training with power? The variations of workouts that can be performed are endless, but there are several key areas that you can focus on to elicit the greatest response.
These efforts are performed at 88 percent to 94 percent of your FTP and are a great way to strengthen and build your FTP. Typically they’re performed earlier in the season, or mid-season to rebuild toward priority races. The duration of Sweet Spot intervals can vary depending on the athlete, but the goal should be to extend the duration and number of intervals throughout the season.
Threshold workouts are meant to directly improve your FTP and should be completed at 96 percent to 105 percent of your FTP. These should take you to your limit. Much like Sweet Spot intervals, the goal is to increase the length of time you can spend at this level. Typically these FTP-specific efforts build off the time you’ve spent training in your Sweet Spot.
Steady State Tempo
Tempo workouts are the foundation for most cyclists, especially those looking to increase muscular endurance and/or those training for longer endurance events. Tempo workouts occur between 76 percent and 88 percent of FTP, and should be long sustained efforts lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.
These efforts are often the focus for traditional criterium and road racers looking to improve sprint and lead out performance. Lasting from three to eight minutes, they’re very challenging and should be planned for accordingly, as they require proper recovery upon completion of the workout. Depending on the duration of the interval, the intensity may range from 105 percent to 120 percent of FTP. These are valuable when matching race specificity for climbs, sprints, etc.
Analyzing and Tracking Training
Power-based training is only as good as you and/or your coach’s ability to track and analyze it! To get the benefits of training with a power meter you have to analyze your workouts and chart your progress over time. Again, the beauty of training and racing with power is our ability to quantify the effort and assign values to it. Here a some key areas to focus on when it comes to analysis:
- Analyze your training to measure progress and understand what prescription is necessary to move you toward your goals. How did a particular workout go? How did you feel? Comparing the qualitative with the quantitative is not only good practice, but it’s how you improve and learn more about yourself as an athlete.
- Review race files to understand if your training has been impactful. The goal of training for the majority of athletes is to prepare for race day. There’s more to race day than just fitness, but understanding your performance is a start.Take the time to perform an in-depth review of races to look for valuable insights that can also help inform your training moving forward.
- Use the Performance Management Chart (PMC) to track your buildup to priority races. Paying careful attention to training load, ramp rate and fatigue will ensure you’re not overtraining, and will also help you peak for race day.
- Pay special attention to Chronic Training Load (CTL), Acute Training Load (ATL) and Training Stress Balance (TSB) to take full advantage of training with power. These core metrics allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of your training. They’re invaluable for properly structuring training blocks, and being prepared for priority races.
Often times the barrier to entry for athletes that are new to training with power can be the learning curve as it relates to power-based metrics. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of metrics and numbers that an athlete can pay attention to, but here a some of the most important ones:
Watts per Kilogram (W/Kg)
All things equal, the rider with the highest W/Kg will be the fastest. Simply put, it is how much power you produce per kilogram of body weight. The higher the number is, the stronger you’ll be.
Normalized Power (NP)
Due to the inherently variable nature of cycling, NP is a better representation of how metabolically challenging a workout was. It takes carbohydrate burning power surges into account and thus highlights the overall fatigue of the ride better than average power.
Intensity Factor (IF)
IF is the ratio of the Normalized Power of a ride to your FTP. Think of IF as a snapshot of how intense (hard) a workout or ride was. You can use this metric to understand if your perceived effort matched the actual intensity, and if you were on target for the workout.
Training Stress Score (TSS)
TSS measures the total workload of a ride. TSS quantifies how much work was done, and thus how much recovery is needed. Training Stress Score is important to track over time because it drives both fitness and fatigue, which in turn tells you how prepared for a race you are.
Tracking your peak power numbers for key durations will help you not only see how you’re improving, but also ensure your training is matching the demands of your racing. As a rule of thumb if you’re focused on shorter and more intense races you should see higher peak powers for shorter durations, and more endurance focused athletes should focus on longer durations.
Training with power, no matter the ride or race, is extremely valuable to athletes at all levels. The ability to quantify and track efforts, as well as to make individualized training prescriptions ensures that you’re getting the most out of your training time. There’s a lot that goes into training successfully with a power meter, but in the end if you grasp a few basic concepts you’ll be ready to begin. Make sure your FTP is accurate and take the time to review and analyze both your workouts and races. Successful athletes are always looking to improve, and training with power is the best way to make sure it happens.