QUESTION: I’m a relatively new category 5 racer looking to improve for when racing starts back up again. I use a heart monitor and am now considering a power meter, but I have a limited budget and they’re pretty expensive. I’ll do it if you think it’s a good training investment that’ll help me improve faster. — Gary B.
RBR REPLIES: The short answer is: “Yes, it is and it will, but.”
Think of your training as a stool with three legs, namely power output, heart rate and perceived exertion. Each leg is important if the stool is going to support you.
—Heart rate tells how your cardiovascular system reacts to training intensity.
—Power metering tells you how great that intensity is.
—Perceived exertion (PE), once you learn how to use it, tells you both of those things at once. It’s a holistic measure of the reaction of your body and mind to the stresses of training.
So, I contend that learning to listen to your body is the most important “meter” you can have. This skill is gained by paying careful attention to such signals as your breathing rate, the burning in your quads, feelings of well-being — mental states ranging from “I’m a beast!” to “I wanna go home!”
It takes experience to develop the ability to rate perceived exertion accurately, but it’s the most important item you can carry in your quiver of training tools.
You already have a heart monitor, so continue to use it to “calibrate” your PE. But realize that heart rate can be misleading. It’s affected by many outside factors, including hydration, temperature, glycogen status and mental state. So while heart rate seems like an objective number, it can be as variable as PE.
Power meters are excellent training devices because they give you a measure of your effort that really is objective. They’re great for doing repeatable training sessions and for testing your progress.
They also allow you to analyze your workouts. The software from several companies makes it possible to pick through workouts in minute detail. That might be a good thing.
But beware of “paralysis by analysis.” Some riders comb the data for revelations but don’t know how to apply them to training and racing. Data collection and analysis becomes an end in itself.
I’ve heard of people getting so tied up in data accumulation that they won’t even get on the bike if their meter isn’t working because they won’t have it in their training software, or it won’t be added to Strava. If they can’t record the data, it’s as if a ride has no purpose.
I’m not a fan of power meters for use during races, either — unless you hide the power field and only check the data later. Racing should be racing. If your meter should say you can’t generate enough wattage to follow a hard attack, it doesn’t matter — you still have to go as hard as you can.
I’ve seen a rider who was doing well in a criterium sit up and quit because he looked at his power meter data and panicked because the numbers were higher than he thought he should be able to sustain according to previous rides. Big mistake!
That’s not the kind of trap you want to fall into.
Given your budget and inexperience in the sport, I recommend sticking with your heart monitor. Learn to use perceived exertion first.