Monday, February 20, 2012

I H(E)A(R)T(E) My Powermeter

I HEART my powermeter because it is a completely objective measure of how I hard I am working.

I HATE my powermeter because it is a completely objective measure of how I hard I am working.

I've been training and racing with an SRM since a year ago, yesterday, and while the goal is pretty simple - produce consistent, and consistently increasing, amounts of watts - the implementation has been a complete reassessment of what is effective training, what are effective training routes and situations, how to allocate effort and output, and most fundamentally, the psychology of riding a bike.

A year later, I am a completely different, and in many ways humbler but better, bike rider.  I've learned a lot about myself, my legs, my mind, my bike, and how they all conspire in racing.  I can't really tell you how to train with power, or won't actually, because any specific how depends on philosophies, physiologies, and goals, yadda, yadda, yadda.  But I can share with you a few of the painful lessons my powermeter has taught me in the past 366 days.

The first lesson of training with power is that a watt is a watt is a watt.  Heart rate changes with effort, sleep, hydration, nutrition, hormones, and the vicissitudes of Kaiser Soze, and pace (or speed) is affected by terrain, wind, road surface, effort, drafting, and all manner of adrenaline-fueled pacing schemes.  But with power, there's no faking it or hiding from it.

I refer to my PC6 as The Eye of Sauron

Thus, the second lesson of training with power is to check your ego at the door.  Sure, Mini Phinney and The Manx Missile can summon maxes of 1600 watts or more, perhaps even at the end of punishing Tour stages....but that is why they have internationally recognized nicknames!!  Mr. Legend In His Own Mind should aim - desperately hope! - for 20% of that.  Heck 15% of that.  During a pretty challenging interval

But max wattages are only part of a much larger, more relative, story.  IM racing rewards those with "high" watt outputs, sure, but even more so those who can hold a "high" watt output for a long time.  Like 5 hours long (and that's before running).  Which is just another opportunity for your powermeter to crush your ego and leave you huddled, whimpering, in the corner.

My first interval workout with a powermeter was laughable.  I came from an RPE/heart rate training program, so I set my heart rate and then tried to hold the wattage I was putting out.  And then watched as my power plummeted like the stock market on Black Tuesday, while my heart ticked steadily along.  

The third lesson of training with power is to understand your own Jedi mind tricks.  Our minds have long connected speed - as determined through all of the sensory stimuli indications of going fast - with effort.  The scenery whizzing by, the rush of wind in our ears, the feel of water flowing past our cheeks.  In some cases that hurts us: we feel like we are working harder than we are, and give ourselves credit for doing that work, simply because we are going fast.  In some cases that helps us: the wind against our face and rushing by our ears eggs us on to stronger efforts and bigger power numbers.

So lesson 3b of training with power is the exception to lesson three: use your Jedi mind tricks on yourself.  Since a watt is a watt, no matter where you eek it out, and many people find they can sustain higher watts in a certain place (due to cooling, RPE, boredom, scenery, whatever) and physiological adaptations are greater from higher watt outputs, ride where you feel strong and powerful.  This place could be outside, where the wind can rush by your ears and the pavement can flash past beneath your wheels, or inside, where you can focus 110% without stoplights and flat tires and the "Single Finger Howdy."

My Mad Scientist La-bora-tory, for when I really mean it

The fourth lesson of training with power must thusly be: reconsider the value of your established training routes.  You know that feeling when you are tearing along, good tension in your legs, a good mental vibe going, flying?  Your mind is telling you that you are working so hard.  But under rule two, be sure to look down.  You might be putting out 100 watts, in which case it's the terrain, wind, and momentum conspiring to help you.  It's fun, sure, but doing a lot less for your fitness that it is for your average speed.  And don't think drafting is any different; there's a good reason it's not allowed in triathlon.

Good scenery, yes; hard work, probably not

Lesson 4b of training with power is to find long, steady ascents or roads into the wind.  Part of the responsibility of being an athlete in training is finding training grounds that allows you to do your workouts correctly: rolling terrain tends to create big swings in power output; flat terrain allows consistency, but is very dependent on wind; uphill and/or into the wind requires a consistent application of power.  Basically, conquering hills and wind keeps you honest, about both hard work and real recovery (just go down hill or wind for the rest intervals!). 

Thanking my powermeter for displaying such high numbers during the long steady climb into the wind

Once lesson 4b is learned, lesson five of training with power can be appreciated: Training with power helps increase the watts you can push; racing with power allows you to monitor and moderate those watts across an entire bike leg.  Triathlon rewards athletes who slow down the least, and part of that is knowing what you are capable of doing - and then not asking for (much) more than that on race day.  If you can pop up to 400 watts for 10 sec every 3 minutes, attack those hills (or better yet, race ITU).  If you can't, learn to ride up hills at a wattage you can reproduce up each and every hill, and even better, maintain on the flats between the hills.  Your trusty powermeter will be there to tell you how well you are sticking to the plan.

And if you don't want to listen to your powermeter, mayhaps you'll listen to Kaiser Soze.

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