By Martin Sigrist
As you may have gathered from previous articles, I’m a huge fan of training with power. However it’s not perfect. It has one major drawback, one that I have experienced and one that I find it very hard to overcome. It’s a variant on the obvious one: addiction to numbers.
My degree is psychology and the first experiment I learned of was “Pavlov’s Dog.” It may be the most famous psychological experiment of all. Pavlov was a psychologist who had a dog. Every time he fed it, he also set a metronome running. After a while, just setting the metronome running made the dog salivate in the expectation of having a meal.
This is called “conditioning,” and it is one of the most basic methods of learning new things. A stimulus (metronome) is linked, through experience to a response (salivate).
Consciously and unconsciously we are continually developing our repertoire of conditioned responses. That includes when we train.
The problem with a power meter is that after using it for a while and having extracted all the quick wins in terms of performance gains, progress becomes more slow and steady.
So for a considerable period of time you may see a number on your bike computer and associate that with a certain feeling in your legs ranging anywhere from mild tiredness to agony depending on your ride and the type of rider you are.
After a while this can become a conditioned response, just like salivating. You see a number and expect to feel the response. So you expect pain even before you actually feel it. You also know how long you can maintain certain wattages so the first 10 minutes of an interval done at 20 minute PB pace are easy but then your mind starts to tell you the remaining 10 will get harder and harder and sure enough they do.
This can become a bit of a vicious circle and can lead to stagnation.
Your expectations on what you can achieve are important. In his excellent book “Endure,” Alex Hutchinson noted a study that simply noted the distribution of marathon finishing times. In theory they should be evenly spread but what happens in practice is that there are clusters, a big one at every hour mark, a smaller at the half hour mark and even smaller every ten minutes. At each of these intervals there was a bias with most finishing just under the mark. i.e. they had summoned up the extra energy for a finishing sprint that allowed them to hit their goal.
In the book this is associated with the “central governor” theory of fatigue. This is the idea that at the end of the day it is the brain that says it’s time to quit not the legs. There’s a way to test this but it’s not very ethical. If you were to let lose a wild animal behind a group of marathon runners a mile or so from the finish if the central governor theory is right they would all set new PBs by a big margin as the brain would decide the risk of overcooking the legs was worth the risk given the circumstances.
Such an event would not be possible even it would become a Youtube hit. But there are some extreme real life examples that lend credence to the theory that in the end it’s the mind that matters more than the body. There are a number of tales of “Hysterical Strength” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysterical_strength) involving people in life threatening situations who find the means to perform seemingly impossible feats of strength. So the mind may well really matter.
But getting back to real life, what does that mean for a rider training with a power meter?
If starting fresh, I would strongly suggest finding means to set training targets without the need to stare looking for specific numbers on a screen. This is easier than it sounds. A future article will recommend some Garmin “IQ apps” that allow you to have customized fields in place of the standard ones, but most bike computers also allow you to arrange which data is on the a screen. A great use for these on some computers with a color display is to use one that shows colors as well as numbers. You can then just get used to turning the screen a certain color when you need to hit a workout target. As you get fitter you just update the field so it needs a higher number to make it change, say from green to yellow as you move from base to tempo zone.
Another way that sounds daft but works if you have already become conditioned like me is to use a field that displays less than your real power, say minus 10W. Your mind will be confused and you may well end up, if not 10W then 5W up on your target. (This also works for speed. I broke 4 hours for a 100 mile TT by setting my speedometer to read 0.3mph slow so that every time I saw 25mph I was ahead of schedule)
Another way is the old fashioned way. Do workouts where you ride on feel and just use a power meter to record the data and see how you did afterwards. This can be revealing, you may go much easier or you may go harder. In any event it is essential to be able to do this, as accidents happen. You don’t want to find yourself in the situation I ended up in, 6 hours into a 12 hour TT without a clue about how to pace the remaining 6 hours as my Garmin crashed due to rain.
There are other ways. The bottom line is that a power meter is a great tool, but as with all such helpful devices it’s important that they do not become the master and you the dog.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.