Faster, higher, stronger – the Olympic motto determines the world of competitive sports and increasingly also the self-image of many amateur athletes. In a discipline like cycling, where a lot depends on training methodology and equipment, this is particularly clear. Whereas 20 years ago even successful professional athletes showed a rather relaxed attitude during the preparation for the season, amateur cyclists now also show themselves to be surprisingly professional – with a team, training camp, nutrition plan and performance diagnostics.
So it’s no wonder that the topic of performance measurement has long since left its niche in high-performance sports. Instead of simply increasing the distances, ambitious cyclists today work on the quality of their training – and from a certain level onwards, this is only possible with a power meter.
The corresponding technology has been around for about 25 years. SRM, the first manufacturer on the market celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011, but the big breakthrough was not long ago. In professional sport, the systems were used from the early nineties onwards – initially only by very few riders. As coaches and athletes came to understand the possibilities of performance measurement, power meters became more and more a constant companion in training and competition. If you look at the training and competition bikes of today’s professional cyclists and top triathletes, you will see that only very few are still on the road without mobile power measurement.
However, many cyclists are still sceptical about training with power meters. It’s one thing to shy away from the high expense – if you only ride on a whim and don’t value systematic training, you’re probably over-equipped with a powermeter.
Cyclists, on the other hand, who really want to make progress, set targeted training stimuli and want to use and evaluate the training time as effectively as possible, cannot avoid training according to wattage. At the moment, the Stages power meters are very popular with beginners. They are quick to install due to a one-sided measurement and are also relatively inexpensive. The Garmin Vector S and Rotor Power LT models also offer one-sided measurement at a lower entry-level price.
If you want to determine the power even more precisely and possibly also evaluate the left/right distribution, you can use SRM Powermeter, Quarq Powermeter, Rotor Power or Garmin Vector.
You can find a selection of our most popular power meters at the end of this article.
Heart rate – a favorable alternative?
But surely there are alternatives that are cheaper, easier and more practical, right? For example, what about the widespread training based on heart rate? Today, after all, every trim-you athlete has one of those little beepers on their wrist.
Probably a heart rate monitor is really one of the best investments for a newcomer to endurance sports, because it gives them biofeedback of their exertion. Untrained and inexperienced athletes in particular find it very difficult to assess the training load and are regularly too intense in their training. Therefore, feedback is very important, especially when starting out.
However, like all training methods, training with heart rate has its limitations. Why is that? The heart rate reflects the “stress” of the body. This stress results, among other things, from the training load, but is also influenced by other factors, such as the outside temperature, psychological stress, the fluid balance or the state of regeneration. All these aspects and more have an influence on the pulse. In addition, the heart rate always reacts to changes in load with a delay of about 20 to 60 seconds; it is therefore relatively blurred.
This becomes clear with a simple example: An average hobby cyclist rides at 28 km/h through the plain. It has a pulse of perhaps 135 beats per minute and produces around 180 watts. Then he drives over a motorway bridge, keeping his speed constant as far as possible. The power immediately rises to over 400 watts – a value that for our example athlete is already far above his continuous power output, which he could ride for a long time on a mountain, for example. However, the heart rate practically does not change during this phase, it remains constant at 135 beats per minute. Now our cyclist has reached the top and is rolling down the bridge on the other side, only slightly “dropping his legs”. At the same time, its power is just 50 watts, at the same time the heart rate begins to rise. However, by the time his heart has reacted to the strain and is beating 150 to 160 times per minute – which is probably still below his heart rate at the continuous power limit – our hobby rider has long been cycling along on the flat again. It takes a few more minutes, then the pulse has settled back down to the 135 beats per minute.
What does this example show us? Heart rate reacts with a significant delay to short-term changes in load and is therefore not suitable as the sole parameter for controlling the training load – especially not for inexperienced athletes who cannot counteract this by body feeling. The wattages measured by the power meter, on the other hand, reflect in real time the power delivered during cycling, which incidentally represents the actual current load on the body.
If our hobby rider were on the bike with a power meter like the Quarq or Garmin Vector, he would significantly reduce his pace on the climb to stay within the targeted power range. Downhill, on the other hand, he would pedal on in a bigger gear instead of letting it roll with almost no load. In short, a powermeter allows the rider to precisely meter his power; it allows him to immediately adjust to changes in riding resistance (incline, wind). And only with a power meter is it even possible to carry out the finely graduated training programs that lead to performance gains in 21st century cycling. None of this can be done by the good old pulse watch.
Which physiological processes are behind the cycling training, which conclusions can be drawn for the training control and how to optimally carry out the training and the analysis of the training, we will present in the following articles.