Power – A short history… and why you need it.

Training with Power – an Introduction

Neuff Red (www.neuff-red.co.uk) has pulled together a team of pro-triathletes, top coaches, sports scientists, physios and others to create resources to support all athletes achieve their own best potential. 

In this feature, Coach Joe Beer (www.coachjoebeer.com) 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 Stryd footpod and how to use heart rate zone training in conjunction with power.


Introduction

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?

Rotor Power Meter

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’:

Joe Beer / Power / Neuff Red
Joe Beer / Power / Neuff Red

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 are absorbing the training effectively, then Heart Rate is dropping. This is why measuring power is so, well, “powerful”.

Amateur athletes with power systems can therefore do regular RAMP TESTS 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.

Joe Beer / Power / Neuff Red

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.

Stryd foot pod running power meter
Stryd foot pod running power meter

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.

Joe Beer / Power / Neuff Red

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.

In Summary

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” below, 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.

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, deboer, 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 although he claims a 16-minute 5k.

Any questions?: @NeuffRed on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

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