Question: Is a power meter worth owning? I have been seriously training for the last couple years using heart rate and cadence. I want to make the best use of my time and effort and improve my fitness for racing. — Mike D.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: I like a power meter (watts meter) for serious training and have used a PowerTap since it became available years ago. A power meter lets you carefully monitor power output during specific workouts, such as intervals. It also allows you to monitor total work output (in terms of a stress score) so you don’t overtrain.
I especially like using a power meter to gauge if a particular workout regimen is helping me improve. It’s easy to test myself periodically during a regular workout.
However, power meters have drawbacks. Or more accurately, the way people use power meters can have drawbacks. For example, some riders get fixated on the numbers and try to increase their average wattage every time they ride. This quickly leads to overtraining. Power meters are no substitute for the discipline to control your effort.
Also, power meter data can be downloaded so you can analyze every ride. Great — unless you can’t ride without the meter. 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. If they can’t download the data, it’s as if a ride has no purpose.
I’m not a fan of power meters for use during road races, either — unless you cover the monitor and 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.
For time trials, power meters might have more utility. But I confess that I race time trials by feel, not using my PowerTap in competition.
Bottom line: If you learn how to use the data a power meter generates, and you have the discipline to use it correctly, it can be a great training aid. But it’s just a tool.