Should I Buy a Power Meter?
by Coach Matt Russ
“Should I buy a power meter?” is one of the more common questions I get from our athletes, followed by “which one?” Although I believe training with power does offer a significant advantages in training accuracy and analysis, I also recognize that it is not for everyone. There are some key questions you should ask yourself before purchasing a power meter.
- What is your budget? Power meters are expensive and there are not a lot of viable options under $1000. Many athletes are waiting (and have been waiting) for power meters to come down in price; however, I don't foresee a major drop in price any time soon until more competition is introduced into the market. There are some new options in various stages of development but right now the major brands (Power Tap, Ergomo, SRM) each have a fairly established niche or price point. For now, your budget largely dictates the power meter you will be able to purchase. Each power meter has its pros and cons but the more expensive models do have specific benefits. A good place to start is determining what you are willing to spend.
- What is your technical aptitude? For some athletes a power meter will simply be a more expensive bike computer. Unless you are willing to take the time to learn the device, its use, and function, it will be of little value to you. If you are not technically-minded and have trouble working your cell phone, a power meter may not be a good purchase. Power training technology, like any other complex technology, has become more complex as features are added. The rewards are there, but only if the complexity does not drive you nuts first. On the coaching side we charge more for power training due to the additional time it takes in analysis and technical support. A good place to start is by reading the book “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” by Hunter Allen and Andy Coggin. If you can not make it through Chapter One, I would suggest either hiring a coach to help you in handling a power-based training plan design and analysis, or, perhaps, saving your money.
- Which device? As I stated, all power meters have their pros and cons. I do believe that a triathlete, or any athlete using multiple wheelsets, is best served by a bottom bracket-based power meter such as an SRM or Ergomo. There is a significant difference in price between a Power Tap and SRM, and you would need to purchase two Power Tap wheels; one for training and one for racing, in order to get the same value of both training and racing with a power meter. Unfortunately, the expensive carbon race wheels are not designed for everyday use; thus, the need for a training Power Tap. However, even with two Power Taps you are in the same ballpark price-wise (or under) the price of an SRM. One major advantage Power Tap has introduced is the wireless model. Wires and connectors get damaged with use; period. Eliminating them is a major step forward in technology. The bottom bracket-based Ergomo has a price point that is right in between the Power Tap and SRM, however there have been issues with the US distributer and service and support of the device in the past. Power Tap and SRM both have excellent customer and technical support departments, good warranties, and a quick turn-around on service. For a highly technical device, I believe this is a very important selling point.
- What about a Computrainer or 300PT indoor cycle? Both the Computrainer and Cycleops 300PT are good power training options. However, I put these two options in a different category as you can not train outdoors or race with them. The Computrainer is a great option if you spend a lot of time indoors on your trainer. Not only do you get power data, but there are a variety of software options that allow you to ride various race courses, analyze your pedal stroke, and even create your own courses using a GPS device. The Cycleops 300PT is a very high quality indoor cycle that incorporates a power meter. It is solid, simple, and allows you to adjust it to the same fit specifications as most bikes. The 300PT head unit is fully uploadable and is almost identical to a Power Tap head unit. Both of these devices allow you to train with power and are high quality; however, if you are looking for full-time power training / race data, I do not recommend them.
- How will a power meter help my training and racing? A power meter will NOT make you a better cyclist. It is an instrument and a data recorder and does not power the bike. The two main advantages to a power meter are that it acts as a “carrot” to help push you to new levels and serves as a tool for analysis of training efficacy; or lack thereof. The “carrot” is knowing what your current power levels are; and then trying to beat them. I believe this may pull that extra 5-10% out of you that heart rate or RPE (Register of Perceived Exertion) training will not. It gives you real time feedback on how hard you are actually working. It can be used as a valuable pacing tool for a wide variety of event types and distances. For sports such as mountain biking or cyclocross, it is a good analysis tool but not as useful for training or racing outdoors due to the nature of these sports.
Using a power meter every second of every ride offers data points for analysis. By plotting them and tracking them over time you will see the trends in your power throughout the season and from season to season. If all is going well, you will see a slow steady increase in your various power levels. Nothing motivates like progress and a power meter definitely indicates how well your training is progressing. There are also a great many ways to analyze power training beyond simple power increase over time. Training Stress Score and Intensity Factor indicate how stressful or intensive a ride or race was in relation to your threshold power, or average sustainable power for one hour. Quadrant Analysis and Power Profiling help identify individual areas of strength or weakness. Chronic and Acute Training Loads chart reaction to training stress over time. Some of these concepts are complicated and may be beyond what the average cyclist is willing to learn and invest their time in. However, simply knowing your power capabilities is useful. For instance, if you know your power is generally “X” at “X” heart rate this information helps indicate overreaching within your training cycle. If your wattage is particularly low on a given day or you have trouble achieving a desired wattage level, it is a simple indication that you may need a day of rest. This more than anything can drastically affect the efficacy of your training plan.
A power meter is also an effective pacing tool. You can more effectively gauge your energy output and learn how to conserve it. You can also use a power meter as a tool for fit adjustment and equipment change by analyzing how changes affect power output at a particular heart rate level.
Once you have purchased a power meter, be patient and take the time to learn its functions. That means breaking out the user manual, learning to calibrate it, and learning the various settings. Each device comes with proprietary software but there are also options such as Training Peaks or WKO for more detailed analysis. The more you learn about power training, the more value you will get out of your investment.
Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over ten years. He currently holds an expert license from USA Triathlon, an Elite license / Certified Power Based Training Coach from USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a free lance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit sportfactory.com for more information or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org