Power: A short History.... and why you need it.

In this series, Coach Joe Beer will be looking at ‘Training with Power’, both for the bike and run.  Starting with this Introduction to Power, Joe will be writing a series of content over the coming months, covering the principles of training with power, how to use power meters such as the Rotor bike power meters and Stryd footpod and how to use heart rate zone training in conjunction with power.

    By Coach Joe Beer:

    Intro

    From my early power tests, through Elite testing and the emergence of affordable systems, I want to make the case for using power to get the most out of your hobby.  (For transparency: I have used SRM, Ergomo, Polar, Rotor [crank, BB and spider versions], Computrainer, Cycleops and other power measuring systems.)  I will not pretend (like some clever adverts) using a power measuring system will make everyone have elite power and performances.  If you want elite power it’s a case of choosing your parents very well, and especially what you do in your lifestyle and habits for the first two decades of your life!  It may be too late for that but no matter, using power can make you more effective in training and racing. Even if Olympic gold is impossible.

    Interested?

    Power measurement on bicycles moved out from lab-based turbo trainers hooked up to a PC and onto road bikes through the late eighties and into the early 1990's.  In the early part of the 21st century, reduced cost and increasing awareness allowed early adopters to get on board with “power” and many amateur cyclists and triathletes started debating watts, peak power and watts-per-kilogram.  Fast forward into the 2010s and processor speed and compact microelectronics such as accelerometers, allowed for lower back and then on-the-foot “pods” to be invented.  Thus measurement of a runner’s power output in real-time also became possible. 
     

    But why measure power?

    With races measured in hours, minutes and seconds, why should you even consider measuring power in training or pacing yourself in a race based on certain power?  I hear the counter argument that many athletes have trained before the emergence of power and had good, great or amazing outcomes.  However, people tend to forget those that got it wrong, paced it wrong, failed to improve, or worst still, suffered an early demise from the sport due to burn out or injury.  Power can help overcome these common obstacles.

    Measuring an athlete’s power gives a true measure of “work done”.  For example, if a cyclist worked in the core of a session at an average of 196 watts this allows comparison to other sessions or athletes.  Unlike someone’s subjective “pushed that hard this morning on group ride” or “really went for it today at the end of the run with Dave”, which you can see littered all over social media, power data is comparable from day to day, athlete to athlete or even across eras.  Your “300 watts held for 2 minutes and 35 seconds all-out interval” is comparable to an elite’s “300 watts for 5 hours controlled Ironman level ride, feeling spot on”.  I know (and before the Neuff Red e-mail inbox explodes) not every system gets the measurement to NASA pinpoint accuracy, but as systems have improved the data is a lot more comparable.  Don't argue over the 2, or 3 or 5 watts here or there. If you lie awake at night worrying about your data compared to others the issue is you need to get better at getting better, as being you, not you trying to be someone else.

    A word of caution: if your numbers don't seem high enough, (like a social media post seen 22nd July that “I only have a threshold power of 3.5 watts per kilogram”) don't:

    1. Keep buying even more power-measuring systems to find the one that gives you the biggest numbers. 
    2. Believe that we are all equal and that being able to hold 5 watts per kilogram of bodyweight, or even 6, is just a matter of “dedication” “training harder” or “will power” - and that you need to exercise more of all three of these actions.

     

    Power on the bike

    My own experience with cycle power started in 1989 with my first max test as part of lab experiments while at university.  I volunteered as much as possible, tempted at first by the fake messiah: VO2max – or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use per minute.  However, thanks to Chris Boardman's coach Peter Keen, the lab was using a breakthrough technology called the King Cycle to measure bike power.  The magic box of electronics could define a rider’s “Peak Power Output (PPO)” - which is the highest power held for one minute in a progressive effort test. With a PPO it is possible to accurately assess a rider’s potential to time trial, sprint or even make it onto the British Cycling Squad.   

    PPO is not a flat-out minute sprint that occurs after a warm up or mid-way through a training session.  This error in misunderstanding is why some athletes saying to me they have a “highest minute power from Garmin of over 500 watts” always get a quick 30-second 'sorry to burst your bubble' explanation.

    I used the King Cycle power system for the early PPO research and team selection for my dissertation on ‘fasted’ versus ‘fed’ rides looking at early glucose polymer drinks and their use in training.  It was immediately apparent from the data that even though all riders were naive to the system and the PPO Test, a talented national level triathlete had significantly greater peak power than a keen triathlete, the author: (419 watts [6.4w/kg] vs 399 watts [5.8w/kg]).

    A maximal test to get your PPO is not worth repeating constantly, after one or two you get the idea that your engine is 299, 399 or 499 watts. You won't get a higher and higher number (more about this in a future article).  It's why talent spotters can do a PPO test on teenagers or athletes from other sports and spot talent, and tempt them across to the track or the road – they can see it “in the numbers”.

    Jump three years ahead of my first use of the KingCycle power systems and a continent and whilst coaching professional triathlete Eric Harr in the USA I got linked up with CompuTrainer.  This was the first of the direct drive trainers that have now evolved to the Wahoo, Cycleops Hammer, Wattbike etc.  To assess if Eric was absorbing training over time, I figured we do a standard set of workloads, which also worked as a warm-up.  I called it a ‘Ramp Test’:


    How many watts can a Pro triathlete hold in training: Eric Harr bike power ramp test to at heart rate zone

    Power in Watts       Heart Rate   
                                    Jan 13th        March 23rd
    150                          98                85
    200                          105              93
    250                          117              102
    300                          129              115
    350                          N/A              126

    BIKE RAMP TEST: Eric Harr, pro triathlete
    Protocol: 3 minute periods increasing 50 watts, measured on CompuTrainer system. 

    This meant we could turn a home trainer into a perfect fitness testing tool. 
    Note: how the 350-watt workload was not measured at a first.  This is because the heart rate at 300 watts was almost 130 and it was seen to be a test of workload not how high we could push HR. 

    By February 7th 300 watts had dropped to 120 HR so 350 watts was introduced, at a HR effort of 134.  After 69 days of very diligent training Eric could ride at 350 watts for 126 beats, 3 beats less than what had been the 300-watt effort.  If you're absorbing the training effectively, then Heart Rate is dropping.  This is why measuring power is so, well, “powerful”.

    HEART RATE ZONES
    Though there are multiple systems of zones and theories, a 3-zone physiological approach states:
    Zone 1 – aerobic training from 55% to 80% HRmax. Lactate is low and the majority of training is performed in this zone. (e.g. steady 2 hour cycle)
    Zone 2 – from 81 to 87% HRmax, this is a lactate accommodation zone where stress on the carbohydrate system is greater and speed of recovery is slowed. (e.g. 6 minute run intervals at 10k pace)
    Zone 3 – above 88% of HRmax, lactate is increasing and you can spend very little time in this area before fatigue. (e.g. 400m maximal time trial swim effort).

     

    Amateur athletes with power systems can therefore do regular RAMP TESTS (see explanation below) and because they can be done regularly to test “fitness” (and not will-power) the data can be used to adjust training, recovery, nutrition or lifestyle factors.

    RAMP TEST
    A Ramp Test is a structured way of testing your power in comparison to your heart rate.  Keeping your heart rate in zone 1 is the ideal scenario.  Doing these tests periodically allows you to track progress and the effectiveness of your training.  If you are new to using wattage, you may not see a variation for the first few times, but this will progress after a while of appropriate training.
    Ramp tests are tailored to your own ability and goals.  E.g.  
    • a series of 3-minute efforts, building from 100-250 watts in 25-watt blocks
    • then 10 minutes steady riding
    • then 2 x 30 minutes @ 70.3 race pace with 5mins easy in between 
     

    How much power in watts does a top age group athlete ride at on a bike? Power to heart rate for cycing triathlete

    Power (watts)       HR Average
    100                         86
    120                         88
    140                         93
    160                         98
    180                         103
    200                         109
    220                         114
    240                         118
    260                         124
    280                         130
    300                         135
    320                         141

    Bike Ramp Test: Top Age group Triathlete
    Protocol: 1 minute periods increasing 20 watts, measured on Rotor INspider system using Cycleops Hammer Trainer.

    Power when running

    In a sci-fi like scenario which my 1989-self would have gone nuts about, we now have (well, have had for over 5 years) the ability to measure power during running.  And you've guessed it: I have been nuts about this since my first client got a Stryd food pod.

    How does it do this magic?  A dongle is attached to your shoe around the laces and using clever accelerometers, GPS, and all the stuff we don't have to think about just trust, you see power.  However, unlike the uphill struggle to convince athletes about bike power measurement, the lessons have already been learned in cycling so the new gadget for running has already had a high uptake.  Those already into bike power totally get what this can do for controlling warm ups, pacing hill intervals, pacing in the first hour of an Ironman run leg, and so on.

    How do you use a Stryd footpod to track training progress? Ironman age group triathlete uses power meter to show heart rate training absorption

    Watts

    Average Heart Rate

     

    April 13th

    May 10th

    June 8th

    July 13th

    180 - 200

    133

    130

    123

    117

    225

    138

    136

    129

    122

    250

    148

    143

    139

    129

    275

    158

    153

    149

    137

    Running RAMP TEST: Matt, Ironman top 15% age group triathlete
    Protocol: 15 minute warm up, then 8-10 minute sets increasing 25 watts, on flat course measured on Stryd footpod.

     

    With power in run sessions, we can measure efficiency, watch for form dropping during essential fatigue-simulation double-run days and know when someone really is tired and needs extra recovery.

    This article is merely an introduction to Power Measurement and just a few reasons why power is a very useful tool for your training and racing.  Future articles will help expand on how to actually make the best use of your power measuring systems from more practical examples from real-life athletes.

    Take a look at “Four ways power makes you better”: it should help to show briefly how the bike and run power measuring systems can improve training, racing and ultimately getting the most out of your toil and purchases.

    Train smart and have fun testing yourself.

     

    Any questions: Add a comment to this blog

     

    If you are interested in purchasing a Stryd running power meter footpod, or a Rotor power crankset, click the links below:

    Rotor 2INpower power meter crankset

     

    Bio

    Coach Joe Beer has been in endurance sports since the mid 1980's and has done a fair few Ironman's, duathlons, time trials and running races.  Joe has helped quite a few elites and a ton of amateurs to train smarter and get higher peak performances.  He works with some of the best in the business such as Science In Sport, Neuff Red (Ventum, Stryd and Rotor), Nopinz and ForthEdge.  His bike max power is the same today as in 1989, but he has no idea what run power he produced way back then but claims a 16-minute 5k.

     

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