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Is a Power Meter Right For Me?
Insights from Master Coach, Tim Cusick, on how to decide if you should train with a power meter.
By: Master Coach, Tim Cusick
Part of the challenge with embracing change and accepting new technology in cycling is understanding the impact of that technology. Why? The impact of technology is relative to what motivates us in cycling itself. Aero wheels might be all the rage, but there are plenty of cyclists who still find the steady handling of good ol’ box rims a greater benefit than the increased cruising speed of a fancy set of carbon deep-dish wheels.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this key question: is this technology right for me?
With that in mind, let’s talk power meters. Since power meters have been around for a while now, I’m not sure they can still be classified as new technology, but in recent years, advanced production capabilities and increased competition have significantly lowered their price, making them affordable for a wider array of cyclists. This increased access means more and more cyclists are taking a look and wondering, “Is a power meter right for me?” It’s a big question, and I think there are several things to consider.
What exactly does a power meter do? Well, it measures your power in watts, which is the measurement of how hard you pedal times how fast you pedal. Why does this matter? These watts are a quantified measurement of how hard you’re working to overcome the forces working against you, such as air resistance, rolling resistance, and gravity.
Does a power meter make you faster? Yes and no. The power meter itself doesn’t make you faster; you make you faster. Power meters simply give insight into both training and performance data that can guide your efforts and unlock your faster.
The first step to deciding if a power meter is right for you is to determine what type of a rider you are. For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at three kinds of riders: the casual recreational rider, the competitive recreational rider, and the racer.
Casual Recreational Rider
Cycling is fun - plain and simple. Getting outside and cranking out some miles in the sun is both enjoyable and rewarding. Casual recreation riders do not typically track their riding duration and distances; they generally ride their bikes for fun. They have little desire to add structure to their rides or set any performance goals; they just ride to build general fitness and enjoy the bike.
Is this you? If yes, a power meter probably isn’t for you, as it will be an additional complication and cost that will likely bring you little to no benefit.
Competitive Recreational Rider
The competitive recreational rider tends to have two nemeses: themselves and their ride buddies. This is the rider who enjoys riding casually but likes a little structure from the occasional workout, group ride, and mass start events (like gran fondos).
These riders are always looking to improve, often tracking their competition via Strava KOM/QOMs and victories at the town line sprints. The competitive recreation rider enjoys the bike and achieving new best performances.
Is this you? If yes, a power meter is probably a great choice for you. In fact, a power meter is the biggest bang-for-the-buck investment you can make, better than aero wheels or a new aero helmet. A cycling power meter will give you immediate insight into your riding and guidance on how to quickly improve. You can make improvements without a power meter, of course, but using one tends to shorten the time it takes to improving the amount of achievable gain.
Now that you’ve been cycling for a while, have you decided to try your hand at racing? This requires an uptick in the amount of structured training and performance monitoring to succeed in organized racing.
If this is you, a power meter is definitely right for you. As you begin to engage in more structured training and competition, the guidance that power data supplies is invaluable in achieving the improvements needed in both your training and race performance to achieve your goals.
Once you determine what type of rider you are, and if you’re considering the use of a power meter, let’s talk about the benefits and check in with the leading expert: Google.
Do a quick search on the benefits of training with a power meter, and you’ll get hundreds, if not thousands, of results (the sheer numbers of sites listing the benefits should tell you something). I can boil down the essence of those results in a few simple bullets.
- Accurate Measurement
Power meters allow you to accurately measure and quantify the work you do on the bike that leads to improved workouts and achievements.
- Train by the Numbers
The data and metrics we get from training with a power meter allow us to identify specific strengths and weakness that give clear guidance to our training goals.
- Know When to Train and When Not To
The use of data metrics can also guide your training load, providing deep insight into how much training is good and when too much is bad.
We improve what we measure. Power data is an accurate measure of how hard we work, delivered in real time on your head unit and in post performance review. These numbers are motivational. There’s nothing like climbing your local hill hard, looking down, and seeing a new personal power best.
- Quantifiable Goals and Achievements
Power data will guide your goals and act as both a carrot for achievement and a stick for the days you need a little push.
- Performance Guidance
Power data will help guide your race pacing and performance capability. Using a power meter in a long, steady-state race (such as a triathlon or long time trial) is almost like cheating.
Most of the benefits will fall under those six categories, but don’t let the simplification make them seem unimportant. I have observed over fifteen years of experience that most people gain at least 10-15% in performance within six months of investing in a power meter.
Is a Power Meter Right for You?
So back to the question: is a power meter right for you? The answer starts with what type of rider you are and whether you want the benefits of owning a power meter.
If you simply enjoy riding for general fitness and fun, a power meter might be an unnecessary complication with little to no advantage. If you want to improve performance, there is no single piece of equipment you can invest in that will better help you achieve such improvement.
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is a master coach with Velcocious Endurance Coaching.
Working primarily with professional athletes, Tim has coached multiple World and National Champions, including pros Amber Neben, Emma Grant, Adam Bucklin, Miriam Brourer, Carson Miller, Zdenek Vobecky and while also consulting for numerous professional teams. For more information on Tim, visit velociouscyclingadventures.com/velocious-coaching.