Joy's Adventures with a Power Meter 6: Lessons Learned
I want to get faster and stronger on the bike and have set myself a goal of riding a 10 mile time trial in less than 30 minutes. To help me train towards this goal, I’ve been using a power meter. I’ve had one for a couple of months now. What have I learned in this time?
Garmin Vector 3S
The power meter I’m using is the Garmin Vector 3S single sided. This replaces a Look Keo pedal. This was fine for me because I was using SPD-SL pedals before and they are pretty similar to Look Keo so it wasn’t much of an adjustment. This is the only power meter I have ever used. Other power meters replace different parts of the bike and you can find out more here http://www.cyclingweekly.com/group-tests/power-meters-everything-you-need-to-know-35563.
Being pedals, they were pretty easy to fit, just like any other pedals. Plus a key advantage in that it’s easy to switch the pedals to other bikes.
Connecting and Calibrating
As soon as the power meter was on the bike, my Garmin detected it. The key things I had to do to calibrate the meter was to make sure the correct crank length was in the bike settings on the Garmin, then follow the instructions it gave for calibrating. One of the steps with my Garmin set up involved cycling at a constant 80-90 rpm for a few minutes which I found easiest to do on rollers indoors rather than out on the road. And that was it. I was up and running. Or cycling I should say.
You need to recalibrate every time you take the power meter pedal on and off the bike, for example, if you are switching the meter between bikes.
The Vector 3S uses two LR44 button batteries. I was disappointed that within a week a message appeared on my Garmin 810 screen saying the power meter battery was running low. However, the new batteries I put in lasted two months at a usage of around 8 hours a week, a total of approx 65 hours. This is about half the 120 hours claimed in reviews.
It was very easy to change the batteries. It’s an opportunity to use your bike multi-tool. You know, the one you keep in your saddle bag for emergencies and never usually sees daylight. Just be careful putting the new batteries in, making sure they go in completely straight. Otherwise they might get stuck and you have to find a skewer in the kitchen drawer to prise them out again.
Power meter Ecosystem
A power meter on its own doesn’t achieve very much. When I first had it on the bike, it gave me a new set of numbers to look at rather than focussing on speed. But the numbers on their own are pretty meaningless. You need to do something with the numbers.
So you need something to collect the numbers and a way to make sense of the numbers. You may even need someone to help you make sense of the numbers.
I already had a Garmin 810 cycling computer which collects the power meter data alongside ride details. I upload the data to both Strava and TrainingPeaks for analysis. And Will in the shop helps me make sense of the readings.
Breaking free of the plateau
So we come back to the big question: why bother with a power meter?
I started out thinking what I want is to get faster and stronger. Like most people who take up road biking, initial gains are pretty easy and can be achieved just by riding your bike more and by riding with people faster than you are. Then I got to a point where I wasn’t making any more gains. What did I need to do to break free of the plateau I found myself on?
This is where specific training comes in. You need to push your body to the next step so that it adapts to a higher level. And one way to know that you’re really pushing yourself is to measure your power output.
What about “feel”?
I used to think I could do this by feel, or “perception of effort” as it is also known. Surely I knew when I was going hard? But what I have found since using a power meter is the difference now is that I push myself far harder and for longer than I ever did. Before, I used to hold something back. Having a number gives me a target to aim for and I put every effort into hitting those numbers.
The other difference is I now take recovery seriously. It’s during recovery and the easy spin rides that your body builds itself up and gets stronger. And if you don’t recover properly between training sessions, you can’t push yourself as hard at the next one which kind of defeats the object of the exercise. Again, I didn’t know what easy spinning was until I had the numbers in front of me. I found it quite difficult at first to cycle at such low effort but I’m getting better at it.
I like numbers. Seeing numbers change shows me that something is happening. Before using a power meter, I focussed on speed and felt great if I got a faster overall average or PRs on Strava segments. With the power meter and heart rate monitor, I have even more markers to measure success. No new Strava PBs? What about new 1 min power? Or highest 10 min heart rate? Endless opportunities to reassure myself I’m improving!
Training is not just riding your bike
This has been my first foray into using specific training workouts. What a revelation! For one thing it made me appreciate far more what my Garmin can do: I never used it before for workouts. Now I upload a workout and follow the times and power numbers to hit.
And the workouts themselves, switching between different power zones but always with a warm up and cool down period so I arrive home feeling quite rested. Only to realise over time that I started to feel really tired, far more tired than I ever had before. Because now I was working much harder than before. Afternoon naps really helped.
It’s all about the cake
And eating more cake. I was working harder, and using more calories. One week I found myself eating cake for lunch three days in a row. Not a diet I would usually recommend.
You can train outdoors
One of the constraints I gave myself was that all my training and measurements had to be done outdoors. Riding a bike for me is about enjoying being outside, seeing how the scenery constantly changes, the wildlife, and going to new places. Like new cafes for coffee and cake.
What I found is that I had to look at the workout on my list and think about a route that would work. One that minimised hold ups at junctions and traffic lights. And a route that I knew well so that I didn’t have to think about where I was going. So I now have a few routes I use specifically for the more intense training sessions. And I head out on more varied routes to new areas on longer sessions such as recovery rides.
Life still gets in the way sometimes. Which is how I found myself going out late at night or very early in the morning. Because the training programme must be obeyed.
What about non-training rides?
One of the many questions I have been asked is whether specific training has interfered with the enjoyment of riding my bike.
At first it did. I found it difficult (and still not easy) to ride at a specific power reading. Outdoors the terrain changes constantly and any tiny variation in the road surface seemed to change my power output. I realised a lot of this was about retraining my body to maintain a constant effort rather than a constant speed which is what I used to do.
Now I enjoy the training aspect of my rides. I’m still outside riding and having the numbers and workout to follow adds a fourth dimension to the experience. I still see the bluebells in the shadows of the woods, the buzzard flying overhead, and the startled muntjac racing across the fields.
What about group rides? Will’s advice to me was to try and get value out of every ride I do. One of the things I am learning is trying to ride at constant power throughout a ride and this is what I aim to do on group rides. In practice, this has meant changing my riding style to focus on riding easy up hills, push really hard down, and go strong on the flats. I’m getting better at riding at constant power without glancing at the power meter all the time and I hope the whole group benefits from this exercise.
It does take effort to think about getting value out of every ride. Training for me is about doing something I enjoy, which is riding my bike, but doing it better. Sometimes I still just ride my bike and forget about the training. But don’t tell Will.
The power meter works for me. I like the way I can still ride my bike outside which is what I want to do. I like the structured workouts I download onto my Garmin so that I just have to follow the numbers. And I like the way the power meter is a way of measuring something personal to me so that I know the effort I am putting in is the right one for me.
So far, my FTP has increased by 12% and I’m looking forward to one day achieving my goal of a 10 mile TT in less than 30 mins.
I set this as a goal I can easily measure. Overall, I’m aiming to get faster and stronger. Last year I used to go out on 60 mile rides by myself and average 15 mph. I always averaged 15 mph and it was frustrating not to see this change over the year. A couple of weeks ago I tested myself again and averaged 16.5 mph over 60 miles. I have finally broken that 15 mph long distance plateau!
I shall continue training towards my TT goal and update in a month or two on my progress.
Meanwhile, I am going to investigate what the Human Performance Centre at the University of Bedfordshire have to offer (https://www.beds.ac.uk/humanperformance).
What will I learn about my lactate profile and VO2 max?
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