The Numbers Game

Posted on Posted in Blog

I’ve seen a few posts and had a few conversations lately about the trend for berating the modern training equipment and methods used by some novice and lower category cyclists. There seems to be an attitude out there – especially amongst the older more experienced or successful riders – that power meters, training zones, structured programs and even a bit of coaching are completely unnecessary for the club level rider and should be left to the elites.

As you might imagine I have a slightly different view on this. Firstly if you’re on a bike, whether fat, thin, fast, slow, all the gear or no idea – that’s fine by me. Then, if you’re taking steps to try and ride that bike a bit faster, even better!! The newer rider has a plethora of technological innovations and apps available to them to record just about every metric concerning their training but it doesn’t make their quest for speed any less important than the old skool rider who still trains the way they did 30 years ago. The actual training methods may not be that different anyway, it’s just the fact that it is now so measurable and quantifiable that seems to upset some people. But some people like numbers. Some people respond to numbers and when they see those numbers improving, it motivates and encourages them to train harder and pursue their particular goals. It’s not really any different to what Time Triallists have been doing for donkey’s years. Week after week trying to chip a few seconds off their personal bests isn’t that different to trying to add a few watts or sustain a given power for a bit longer in training. It’s all progress that equates to the need for speed.

The argument that training with power is best left to the top riders doesn’t really make any sense to me either. I train and race with some really good experienced racing lads who have never used a power meter and probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if they were given one. But they know exactly how to train based on what they have done over the years and can pace a ride precisely just using ‘feel’, a skill gained over many miles and hours in the saddle. But the newer rider doesn’t have this kind of experience and knowledge. Are they not the ones who would benefit more from having some kind of help with pacing and measuring the intensity of their training and racing? They will get a far more effective training session if they have something to help gauge their effort and get the most out of every session. For example, picture the rider setting out with the objective of a 3 hour solo tempo ride, he sets out far too hard and fades halfway through, just limping back home for the second half of the session, or even worse just bimbles around without creating any training effect. Is this effective training? Or would they be better establishing a few training zones and measuring their effort for the full duration of the ride and creating just the right amount of stress to make them a little bit fitter?

I also think there is an element of technophobia amongst the naysayers. Granted, there can be a lot of confusing abbreviations used in power training. If you don’t know your mFTP from your TSS, your CTL from your TSB then I understand it can be daunting and easier just to turn your back on it all and just carry on doing what you always did. But when you boil it all down its just numbers. A few clever algorithms in a computer program that look at how much power you’re putting through the cranks and how much time you spend doing this to tell you if you’re probably going to be fitter if you carry on doing it. Numbers. That’s all. Imagine going to the gym to do some strength training and when you walk in all the dumbbells and barbells look the same and have no numbers. You’d go through your session lifting a few different weights until it felt like you’d done a workout and your muscles were a bit fatigued, but you wouldn’t have a clue if you were stronger than last week or which weights you should lift next week in order to progress. Just because you’re getting tired doesn’t mean you’re getting better.

The other fallacy seems to be that if you use power to train, then you don’t do anything else and your cycling consists of sitting on a turbo day after day crunching numbers. This may actually be true in some cases. Some of the power forums that you can go on are so geeky that they seem to have nothing to do with riding a bike. But the riders I know who use a power meter just use it as a tool during a few specific sessions. Of my coached riders, most of them probably won’t be going to the Olympics. They still want to go faster but there must always be an element of enjoyment in the program. I’ll often just put ‘Free Ride’ on their weekly plan. This means basically turn your Garmin off and do whatever you like. Some coaches would call this junk miles, but it could be the only ride that they get on with their mates to the café that week. OK there may not be much training effect but it reminds us why we started riding and recharges the batteries for the harder sessions. You can still enjoy going on the chainy, still put the panniers on for a few days touring and still enjoy the craic of a club run and a café stop even if you use a power meter.

From a coaching point of view, training with power is so much more effective than alternative means. Prescribing intensity and seeing measurable improvement in a rider’s performance is so much clearer and accurate using watts. Heart Rate can be useful but isn’t much use when trying to describe the intensity of shorter higher intensity efforts. RPE is also subject to interpretation. But give someone numbers to hit and they know exactly what is being asked of them. Even training with power has advanced thanks to the likes of WKO4 software. So whereas in the past all training zones and intensities would be derived from a single 20 minute test, now we can build a power duration curve based on every maximal effort from a single revolution of the pedal up to several hours. The guesswork has gone. Of course it still takes knowledge and experience to build and structure an effective progressive program, but sessions can now be so individualized and specific that trial and error and wasted hours in the saddle can be all but eliminated.

Of course training without a power meter is still possible and always will be. Numbers and endless abbreviations aren’t for everyone. And as every coach knows, fitness and absolute power output are only one part of the jigsaw. A successful competitive performance needs numerous other skills and factors like tactics, team work, bike handling, position on the bike, climbing ability, riding in a bunch, descending, pacing … and the list goes on. But none of these attributes will usually win you a race if you don’t have a decent sized engine. A power meter doesn’t give you more power but it just might help you be more effective in your sessions and prevent wasted effort and inefficient training.

So whether you’re gauging your watts and trying to get a PB on your local Strava segment with your SRM cranks, deep section wheels and your Rapha jacket or you’ve got your panniers on checking your map to find the youth hostel, you’ll still get a wave from me as I’m passing in the other direction.

( If you’re interested in some coaching get in touch for a chat – )