By Martin Sigrist
Power meters have been in widespread use for a while now and so there is lots of data from lots of different types of riders. As a result we know the wattages typical for every type of rider from a grand tour winner to complete beginner.
This means you can easily compare your test results with those of other riders as in the table below. It adds four additional, imaginary, riders (all the same weight as me) to my data showing their wattages by zone and rating them according to how they compare with the population as a whole.
Each rider is clearly very different.
Alex is a typical “time trialist” not particularly good at short efforts but getting stronger as the going gets longer.
Bernie is a “pursuiter” with a huge turbo so would make a great 1k rider or short hill climber.
Chris is a “sprinter” very much stronger in Zone 7, but finding long distances tough.
Don is an “all rounder” – very good at everything, but not best at anything
Lastly, like Alex, I am a time trialist, but even more so.
The four categories above are known as “power profiles”. A useful first step after testing yourself and getting your personal numbers by zones is to find out what sort of rider you are and how you match up against others. (An internet search for “power profile chart” will give examples of the information you need to do this.)
The result can stack nicely with setting targets. You may find that you are just a few watts away from the next classification upwards. It can be rewarding to set yourself the challenge of moving up a level and then succeeding.
Confirming Your Speciality
Most riders have a speciality being stronger in one area than others. Of these, the majority are either “time trialists” like Alex or “sprinters” like Chris. A few are “pursuiters” like Bernie. The next section will explain the reasons for this split.
Your power profile will help you decide if you have a speciality and what it might be.
Go through your zones and ask yourself a couple of questions:
- Have I ever been in a situation where I have really pushed myself to the max in every zone? (For most this will be the same as “Have I ever raced against others in every zone?” even if only on Zwift or against friends up a local hill.)
- Do I enjoy training and competing in events where my zones are best?
If you reply “yes” to both then you know your speciality.
If not, then a suggestion is to focus time specifically on the zones where you are least able, in terms of training time and competition (you will never know how strongly you can sprint or time trial until you actually do it for real). You may well surprise yourself, making progress very quickly and enjoying the experience.
It may be that the events you like the most are the ones that you are least suited to. While not ideal, this is still a useful insight. You know you also need to use brains as well as brawn. So in road racing that will mean being especially proficient in the many tactics involved. On the other hand, a time trialist could concentrate on maximizing their aerodynamics so that they go faster per watt than others.
Returning to our road racer example. Let us suppose they are a time trialist first and foremost, with a zone 4 and zone 5 likely to be higher than most of the other competitors in the road races which they only do as a second priority. Raising zone 6 may not be a realistic option, so an alternative is play to their strengths. One means could be to push hard from the front during the lead in to short climbs, and then holding a steady zone 5 up and over the top while slipping back through the bunch then push again at the next opportunity. So turn a zone 6 interval into a couple of longer zone 5 ones. This should help them stay in the bunch and may even thin it out a bit.
You do not have to be a specialist, of course. Don in the example above is an all rounder and is very good at everything. Such riders exist at even the top level where they also happen to be some of the most exciting to watch, Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe and Matieu van der Poel being some prime examples from today, Eddy Merckx being the most famous of all. Such riders will still specialize, but to a lesser extent than most, fine tuning their zones in the lead up to specific events. As a result, their training calendar will be more complicated than most and (Eddy Merckx excepted) they still will not be able to beat an out and out specialist on their chosen terrain. This is a useful lesson. All rounders are the exception, even at the highest level. Most have to focus if they want to be the best they can be.
Preparing for a Challenge
Your speciality combined with power zones are a great way to choose, prepare for and ride a target event or other challenge.
They can help break down what may be big leap into the unknown on a once in a lifetime challenge into manageable steps you can practice on at home, gaining fitness and confidence as a result.
This can be done by considering the answers to some basic questions
- What are the demands of the event in terms of power zones?
- How do these demands match my power profile?
- Based on my current power zones what is a realistic goal for event?
- How does this compare to my ideal goal?
- If there is a gap, will training allow me to close it or should I reassess my goal?
This approach can be very effective and to do it full justice would require more space than allowed here. I will though provide a personal experience as an illustration, as I know it is one many cyclists face.
In 2008 after a couple of years cycling I entered the Marmotte, one the hardest “gran fondo” events going. It involves near 110 miles of riding and 3 miles of ascent over four major climbs including Galibier (one of the highest climbs in Europe) and finishing up the Alpe D’Huez. I knew some of the route from a holiday, but not in racing mode. So I did not have a clue about how to pace the ride or what a realistic time would be. Living in the UK, I had no opportunity to practice on climbs like the ones I would be tackling.
Luckily I came across the blog of a rider, very similar to me, who used a power meter. He had done the event several years running, improving each occasion. He kindly shared his power data which allowed me to carry out the steps above.
- Event Demands: This simply boiled down to: Zone2>Zone3>Zone1>Zone2>Zone3>Zone1>Zone3>Zone1>Zone3
- Power Profile Match: Good. I am very week at sprinting and short efforts but this event has none of these and lots of time in the zones I am strong in
- Goal based on current zones: If I could hold Zone 3 for all the climbs then I calculated a reasonable time for the full 110 miles would be around 7:30 (One advantage of using a power meter is that it allows you to accurately estimate how long a climb will take, based on your weight, distance, gradient and power)
- Compared to Ideal Goal? Anything under 8 hours is a good time for the event so I thought 7:30 would be a good challenge so I stuck with that.
- Training: My main concern was the effect of repeated long Zone 3 efforts over several hours. So I replicated these as much as possible with a combination of turbo sessions and long rides on flat roads with no stop signs both of which allowed holding Zone 3 pace for over an hour, recover in Zone 2 then repeat another long Zone 3 effort.
Due to some confusion at the start, I did not actually know my actual ride time during the actual Marmotte itself. But the pacing to zone went very well. My training paid off, the climbs held little fear to me, I just told myself they were just a long zone 3 workout which I knew I could do. I went a bit too hard on the first climbs and suffered on the last two as a result but the overall average was spot on. I was quite amazed when I checked my time after the finish to find it was within 5 minutes of my 7:30 target. This was not a one off. I’ve used the same approach many times since, with some great results including a comfortable finish in the top 200 of the Etape du Tour.
This template works on all types of events and at all levels of the sport. If you are a sprinter in a road race or a one day specialist on a fondo with lots of hard short climbs the zones will be different, but the approach will be the same.
One side note if you are planning to take part in large group races. Power on the flats while riding in a group is much lower than riding solo (anywhere from 10%-90% depending on conditions), so take this into account. A power meter can be useful here too. Your target is to spend as much time in the recovery zone as possible while riding in a group event.
So if you ever find yourself working hard to chase a group ahead, sit up and wait for the next group to pass and join it. Most times the seconds you lose will turn into minutes gained on the next hard section. In a similar vein, herd instinct can lead to crazily high watts especially at the start of events and the bottom of climbs. On longer rides there will be some zones you never want to be in (zone 5+ and maybe even zone 4). Using your bike computer to set an alarm to warn you if forget this when the red mist descends can be a life saver.