The emergence of the potentiometer or power meter in professional cycling a few years ago represented a turning point for training and competing. Today, it is practically an essential tool for top-level cycling and for those who want to make big improvements on the bike.
Its origins date back to the 80s, when German engineer Ulrich Schoberer reached the conclusion that power was the only set and constant value for improving one’s physical condition. To measure it, he developed the first power meter that, over time, would become smaller, more precise, more durable and affordable.
We chatted with Alberto Losada and Tomi Misser, from the Orbea Factory Team, and also with Mikel Azparren , cycling coach and Orbea ambassador, to find out more about some of the aspects of training with watts and the use of power meters. Three different profiles, all of whom have the power meter as their common denominator:
First of all, and for those who are not yet up to speed on this… What is training by watts?
Alberto Losada: Training by watts is the key to a good training session. The work is much more specific and much more effective as compared to the heart rate monitor.
Mikel Azparren: Training by watts nowadays means training well. And I say ‘well’ because it shows you where your limits are, when you can and cannot exceed them. And above all, training with watts means training with the security and tranquility that you are doing a good job.
Tomi Misser: For me, it is training while controlling the power you exert at all times and knowing exactly the level of power that you are at. It is a way of knowing with greater accuracy the power we are exerting.
How is training by watts different from training by heart rate?
Alberto: Many years ago, people trained according to heart rate, but that has nothing to do with it. Your pulse is quite variable; for example, your pulse is different depending on whether you have slept well or poorly. Watts are always the same, and that enables you to train better than with a heart rate monitor.
Mikel: That’s it. The big difference is that the watt is a fixed value and your pulse is not. Like Alberto says, your pulse is much more variable, because it has an influence if, for example, you’ve had a stressful day at work, if you're catching the flu, etc. In addition, your heart rate takes longer to reach the anaerobic threshold, for example.*
Tomi: What happens with power (measured in watts (W)), unlike your pulse (measured in beats per minute, bpm) is that, in theory, the power remains the same, even if you’re tired, while your pulse varies a great deal, according to how you have slept, fatigue from the previous day, etc.
* “It takes longer to reach the anaerobic threshold.” What does that mean, Mikel?
Mikel: I mean that before, they said climb a mountain pass between zone 3 and zone 4*, you started off at the pass and until you reached the bpm in zone 4, maybe a minute or a minute and a half would go by (because heart rate increases gradually).With watts, this can take between one and three seconds (because the measure of power is almost instantaneous).
Tomi also wanted to weigh in on this: in other words, to reach X heart beats, you’re making a far greater effort than you would normally, because you want your heart to increase its number of beats; with power, what you’re doing is that your heart gradually adapts to the power you’re demanding from it.
*What are zone 3, zone 4?
Mikel: Trainers use zones a lot to plan workouts for the athlete – the aerobic zone to burn fat, the aerobic glycogen work zone, the anaerobic threshold zone, the maximum power zone, etc. (there are a total of seven zones)
Getting back to the topic…What’s the difference between the first time out with a heart rate monitor and a ride with a power meter?
Alberto: Someone who goes out with a power meter for the first time will probably reach a mountain pass and at the start will say, “This is easy, I’m moving at 500 W” and three minutes later will realize that it is really, really hard.
Mikel: You also probably go a little crazy. Both the heart rate monitor and the power meter provide data that have to help you conduct your training according to certain criteria, normally set by a coach, because there is a lot of information and you might not entirely know how to use it.
Tomi: That’s right, it’s totally different. On your first ride with a heart rate monitor, you’re trying to get your heart rate up and then keep it there. In the case of power or watts, you’ll see that you reach your desired level of watts quickly, but then it’s harder to keep it there, it’s more rationed out.
What would you tell me about my first ride with a power meter?
Alberto: I’d recommend you do a stress test.
Mikel: I agree. Do a pass with an elevation gain between 3% and 5% and pedal all out for 20’, if you’re more or less in shape. Then, subtract 5% from the total number of watts and you’ll have the Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Based on this data, we obtain the zones we were talking about before. If you haven’t been training much, I would tell you to do 10’ and subtract between 10% and 15%.
Tomi: Yes, and you also have to get used to it, but you learn to pedal differently, to regulate your effort a lot more and, no doubt about it, to be more efficient.
Do you have a power meter on all your bikes?
Alberto: Yes, although I use it the most on the days when I have an important training series.
Mikel: Me too. The truth is that when I’m on a bike without a power meter, it takes me five days to do it…
Tomi: Except on the Rallon, yes. In the end, after so much training, you get to know yourself really well and when you’re going downhill, you can’t pay attention to the watts because you have to watch the terrain. It does help me a lot in enduro races, for example, to control my power on the climbs. They are long stretches and it keeps you from getting overly tired. I use it a lot to train, because it also helps you to train more efficiently.
And with the rest… How does it help you?
Alberto: Back in my pro days, it helped me a lot, because I knew that if I rode at a certain number of watts, I could eliminate people from the peloton or if I had to ride fast in two passes, for example, it gave me a very, very good reference. In MTB races, I don’t look at it so much.
Mikel: In my ultra distance competitions, it is essential, because it helps me to know if I am using more energy than I should (based on the zone in which I’m pedaling).For me, it’s crucial in these competitions.
In rides with the grupetto, to give an example, the first short climb comes 15 minutes after the starting line and if you have a threshold of 300 W and you see that you’re doing 450 W, that’s an extra 150 W that you’ll never get back and you’re just throwing away. Right away, I’d ease off the pedals. However, with the heart rate monitor, it’s likely that on a short climb you wouldn’t have time to reach that anaerobic threshold to let you know that you’re going at it too hard.
And besides, the important part about watts is how long you can keep up your FTP, right? The kilo/weight ratio is really in fashion now, meaning that if there are two cyclists with the same number of watts but with a different weight, the lighter of the two will go faster. But the important thing is the capacity to keep up that FTP threshold. The kilojoules, as they’re called, the energy the cyclist has to produce one watt in one second.
When and how did you start to use a power meter?
Alberto: It was in 2010. In 2011, I started to interpret the data with a specific coach and that’s when the noticeable improvement began. Now I can't train without watts.
Mikel: I began three years ago and the truth is that today I can’t imagine training without it either, even on the rollers. Before I did it with a heart rate monitor.
Tomi: I got started around 2011.I studied at the National Physical Education Institute (INEF) and I specialized in training, so the whole parameter for improvement interested me, as did comparing my data.
I imagine that you’ve tried several, then…
Alberto: Yes, I’ve been able to try out several… (laughs). Right now, I’m using the ROTOR 2INpower and the truth is that I am very happy with it. It’s very reliable and it can be recharged with a battery (it lasts for 300h of pedaling). This is a very important improvement, since you don't have to stop and change the batteries. It’s a power meter that gives you the measurement for each leg, in case you have issues with asymmetry, if you exert more force with one leg than you do the other, etc. It helps you a lot to achieve a rounder pedal stroke, with the data it provides through Torque 360º.
Mikel: I’ve tried a few, too. On the pedals, the ones that go on the crank, and the one I like the most is the one I’m using now, the 2INpower by ROTOR, because it gives me a lot of data. I also use the oval Q RINGS® chainrings, which have different positions and the power meter gives me a lot of data that help me determine my position.*I wasn’t a big fan of oval chainrings, but now I don't want anything else. The same thing happened to me with disc brakes.
Tomi: I have the same power meter. In the beginning, on the Orbea Factory Team, we started with measuring the watts on one leg, then we had the one that averaged them both and now we have the power data exerted by both legs separately. This gives us a ton of information, so much that sometimes I compare it to that of the suspensions: high adjustment, low adjustment, rebound, etc.
* To finish… What about those data that help you to position the Q RINGS® chainrings according to the way you pedal, Mikel?
Mikel: ROTOR has an application that gives you a ton of data. The application itself interprets all these data and tells you which is the best chainring position, for example, based on how you pedal (technologies known as OCP and OCA).It even helps improve pedaling efficiency, because the app gives you data on how round you’re pedaling, and that helps a lot. In the end, all this information that it gives me allows me to improve my performance on the bike more effectively.