Power Up, pt 1: The Book
Dec 2, 2011
article & images by Nick Salazar
Every triathlete who loves gear has certainly heard about training with power. Power meters are a growing segment of the market, with new types of hardware coming out every year. The problem is that, unlike most bits of high-end gear, you can't just bolt on a power meter and start getting its benefits. You have to learn about your power meter to get any good use out of it. But where do you start? Well, that's exactly what the new series, which I'm calling Power Up, is all about. It's meant to serve as a guide not only to the gear itself, but to getting acquainted with it.
With that in mind, the first place to start isn't anything you strap to your bike. It's a book. At one time or another, you may have thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was a manual of how to train and race with your power meter?" Well, there is. It's a thorough, informative book, appropriately called Training and Racing with a Power Meter. The thing should come as standard issue with every power meter sold. If you're self-coached, it's mandatory reading. If you have a coach who trains you with power, he'll likely make you read it anyway. Be warned, it's a beefy, highly technical read. But the time you devote to it will be a very worthwhile investment. It will teach you how to make best use not only of your newly acquired gadget, but how to make better use of your training time. As you can see, my copy has been thoroughly annotated and flagged.
What I'd like to do here is give you a bit of a Cliffs Notes version, to get you acquainted with the concepts. And after that is my interview with the co-author of the book, Dr. Andrew Coggan.
A power meter has different uses depending on what kind of cyclist you want to be, and the book devotes a bit of time talking about how you assess your strengths and improve on your weaknesses depending on that choice. But fortunately, the picture is a lot simpler for triathletes. Basically, we're all doing a solo time trial at medium effort, and running afterwards. (Yeah, the situation is different in draft-legal races, but let's forget about that for the time being.)
With that in mind, the most important number that you'll learn from your power meter is your Functional Threshold Power, or FTP. That number represents the number of watts you could generate in a one-hour, all-out effort. The book prescribes a couple different ways of learning that number (thankfully without having to actually DO a one-hour effort, which would not be much fun). Once you have it, your training starts to take real shape. A triathlete's goal is to push their FTP as high as possible, so that on race day, their actual effort (probably somewhere around 70-80% of FTP, depending on the distance) will be higher as well.
Training and Racing with a Power Meter has a lot of great info in terms of analyzing the data you collect, and how you would want to change your training as a result. But if you want to make things simpler, just find your FTP, and then flip to Chapter 11, which contains some great workouts just for triathletes, as well as some great training info (and workouts) specifically for triathletes. Let your coach worry about the rest of the nitty gritty.
Again, the basic logic is that as triathletes, we rarely care about our ability to do a 30-second sprint. We just want to have a higher power level for long, steady efforts. The higher that power is, the better we'll do on race day. The book contains some great workouts for increasing your threshold power, which generally involves a lot of work at or just below FTP. Like "The Price is Right," you often want to get as close as you can without going over.
At first, the plethora of data coming out of your power meter will seem like too much info: how do you use it all? Basically, I like to think of it this way: the if you're trying to train in a specific zone, your current power will tell you how you're doing, and whether you need to modify up or down. On a trainer, this is very easy to do. But outdoors, variable terrain will cause spikes and dips in your power. This is where the other numbers come into play. Some of the really useful tools during your ride are:
- NP - Normalized Power, which is a more sophisticated average that smooths out spikes and dips a bit better than a pure average
- TSS - Training Stress Score, a total measure of the workout's load on your body
- IF - Intensity Factor, or how hard your interval is compared to your FTP
Of course, the book goes into much better detail on where these numbers come from, and how to use them. But this just gives you a sense of what they're for. Once you have that understanding, you can leverage them not only in the short term, to mete out your effort during a ride, but as you collect data over the long term, you'll understand your overall fitness much better, and you'll see how your training is progressing.
Using these tools requires software that is capable of calculating and charting those numbers for you, and that is the subject of an article coming later in this series. Again if it all sounds like too much, just trust me that after just a few rides, it'll all start to make sense very quickly. I was very nervous about how steep this learning curve would be, but it's actually much easier than you'd think, especially for triathletes whose goals are relatively simple.
Hit the jump for my interview with Dr. Andrew Coggan, co-author of Training and Racing with a Power Meter, and one of the smartest people on the planet when it comes to riding with power.