I borrowed from a cycling buddy Joe Friel’s The Power Meter Handbook to get an introduction to bike training with a power meter. I had just purchased a power meter and started to take in my power numbers. However, while the basic idea of power is easy using power to measure and train is not so obvious. Online tools such as Strava, Polar, and others report on your basic power and fitness measures but without an understanding of what the numbers mean, they are just numbers.
The Power Meter Handbook — My History
I have been cycling seriously now since 2012 and in 2014 I obtained a road bike. I then started to ride with groups and hanging out with the local bike racing crowd. I have only one official result to my credit and that was in a short time trial. As this summer dragged on my appetite to race has grown.
One question nagging me is how is my fitness in comparison to those around me? Am I ready for racing? My speedometer and heart rate monitor are helping me to understand I am improving, but there was still a sense of uncertainty. Strava segments are helpful, but of course favorable winds and other hacks (which I shamelessly use) can lead to misleading KOM glory.
Strava attempts to solve this problem by providing power estimates. However, those are not convincing either. I rode up a cat-3 climb and Strava estimated my average power well under 100 watts. I calculated the work of hauling my mass up Granite Peak. The result shows my power to have been closer to 200 watts than 100. Strava estimates make too many assumptions and are only available after the ride.
The Power Meter Handbook — Stages on Sale
This summer Stages put their crankarm power meters on clearance sale and I took advantage of that. My first ride with the power meter was Race the Lake 2016. I finished the race and got the data into Golden Cheetah.
The Power Meter Handbook — Mind-Numbing Data
Lord, the mass of numbers and the density of the data is numbing! Lots of acronyms, bio-technical terms, charts, graphs, options, inputs, you name it. It was clear to me I had better learn about power in cycling and this is where Joe Friel’s book The Power Meter Handbook text enters the picture.
The Power Meter Handbook — Time to Learn
When you search Amazon you will find many of Friel’s books. I then asked my friends which one of the many cycling power books they recommend and one of them offered to loan me his copy of the Friel book.
The book I am reviewing is copyrighted in 2012 and the Velopress from Boulder Colorado publishes it. The Power Meter Handbook comes in three sections, ten chapters, and 232 pages. In addition, the book contains three appendices, a glossary, acknowledgements, an index, and a section about Joe Friel.
The Power Meter Handbook — Part One
Section One is an introduction to cycling with power. It addresses why one may want a power meter on their bike. Why? In short it is what we are after on the bike. Who will win when two cyclists who weigh roughly the same and are racing together? Power determines the outcome of the race.
Under the same conditions speed is a satisfactory predictor of who will win but when we train speeds vary. We all have had rides where we work hard and the speed is slow. Power is a better measure to use when training for a race because it is not affected by wind and road grades.
Mr. Friel continues on by explaining the basics of power. What it is, how it we measure it, how power meters work, and using power to become stronger. The real slick part of the discussion is the reminder that power is simply FORCE*SPEED (for the physics sticklers out there, power is the dot product of the force and velocity). With a crankarm power meter we know the length of the crank arm, the force, and the cadence. Then we can easily calculate the power. One thing this equation shows us is that power is not about brute force alone, light force at a high cadence also translates into power!
Do not skip this part even if it seems simple or trivial. It will at the very least reinforce what you have been doing or already know.
The Power Meter Handbook — Part Two
Part Two now begins to delve into more interesting topics. This is the section where the Friel discusses concepts such as FTP, power zones, intensity, and matches. The section also discusses ideas such as periodization and using the power meter to manage your energy during a ride or a race.
Friel emphasizes intensity. That it is intensity of your training that is the most important component of training and not volume or frequency (of course, within reason — one intense ride per year is not going to do anything). He emphasizes the need for recovery (low intensity). Either by staying off the bike (which he recommends for less experienced athletes) or active recovery for more experienced athletes. Again the notion many of us go too hard on our recovery rides and too soft on our intense rides comes to mind. With a power meter you can be confident where your effort truly is at.
Periodization is another idea Friel spends sometime talking about. That is the basically time based training blocks. He talks about early training and here he actually gets away from using the power meter as your primary measure of effort. Instead Friel advises to keep your heart rate steady in zone two (of five) and using your analysis tools to monitor how your power and heart rate correlate. Early, one expects a strong correlation between your heart rate and your power.
As you progress through the aerobic training your power and heart rate will start decouple from each other. In other words, when you increase the power your heart rate responds less strongly. Friel calls this number aerobic decoupling and advises cyclists to target and aerobic decoupling of 5% or less.
I have read other approaches to training that pooh-pooh early aerobic training and talk of polarized training. Polarized training follows the Paretto principle of 80/20. The approach is 80% of your training needs to be lots of distance at recovery intensity. The remaining 20% of it needs to be at “OMG I’m going to puke” intensity. Joe Friel is an authority on this subject and many athletes have proven the effectiveness of the periodization approach. I have seen friends of mine follow this pattern and perform and improve at a high level.
The Power Meter Handbook — Part Three
Part Three of Friel’s text talks about preparing for competition. The first part is about road races and time trials, the second part is for triathletes, and the last part is about century rides. The approach is one we are all familiar with but adds in power. Look at your previous rides on the course (or similar rides), study your numbers for those rides, think of who your competition is and then plan.
The Power Meter Handbook — What I Learned
I learned a few things from The Power Meter Handbook. One is a rule he refers to as the 50-40-30-20-10 rule. Many of us often like to power down hills to maximize our speed, in fact a Cycling Rule urges us to do so. However, considering physics and our limited “matchbox” Friel recommends getting aerodynamic and grabbing some recovery when we are harvesting some free high speed. The reason is the higher our speed the higher the force opposing our motion. We then bump into the law of diminishing returns – you have to expend greater power for lesser and lesser gains in speed.
However, when your speed is low the equation reverses and the suggestion is to increase your power to get your speed up.
Another neat thing I learned is that road racing and criterium racing is usually marked by somewhat lower power overall and short bursts of near maximum power. Whereas time trials and triathlons are usually steady state events with a sustained increase of power at the end.
The Power Meter Handbook — The FTP Test
One other thing I learned and have put to use already is on performing an FTP test. It is best to start at a power level you think is under your FTP and then creep up to your targeted FTP.
My first first attempt at an FTP test started too hard and fell off. The resulting FTP I determined was 230 watts (a calculated number based on a short ride). However, when I started off somewhat easy and pushed the numbers up, I came up with 245 watts (plus a PR and a KOM). In my second FTP test I increased the power in the last few miles of my ride.
Friel’s book also explains a number of training drills and regimens. They are all fairly standard and work on the different ways you can produce power. They usually focus on power but not all, some are heart rate based too.
The Power Meter Handbook — Training Drills
The key thing I learned here was that we can mix up the way we drill on the bike to emphasize different skills and power demands. For instance on my last ride, I did one set of high intensity intervals (HII) at a high cadence. I would focus on producing power with a high cadence for one minute (110+ RPM with bursts up to 120-130 RPM) and then recover at a low effort. I did five repetitions. After that (and a longer recovery) I did some low cadence HIITs, aiming to turning my crank at no more than 80 RPM and during one of my intervals I was turning around 60 (a slight climb). Again, I did five repetitions and then spent some time in recover mode.
The last set of HIIs I performed was to get to a good cruise on and then go hard for ten seconds. When I completed the ten seconds I reverted to the cruising effort for fifty seconds and then I would go again.
The Power Meter Handbook — My Recomendation
I do not plan on buying Friel’s Power Meter Handbook now that I have read it. However, I would recommend buying this book to someone looking for an introduction to cycling power meter training. This book was well worth the time I took to read and think it over.