As you know, or are quickly realizing, triathlon is an expensive sport/hobby. We make significant investments of our time, money and emotions. In reading the latest issues of triathlon magazines and perusing websites, forums and blogs it is easy to think you may be missing out on the latest and greatest piece of technology or equipment to aid your efforts. One of these gadgets is the power meter.
When I first started racing I knew nothing about cycling, aside from years of pure bliss cruising the neighborhood streets on my candy apple red Schwinn as a kid. Heck, I did not even know what cadence meant relative to cycling! Overtime I became more familiar with the various pieces of equipment for triathlon and slowly embraced, at the suggestion and encouragement of my coach, using these tools.
While I am big proponent of developing one’s internal compass and using RPE (rate of perceived exertion) to temper training sessions, there is certainly value in using heart rate monitors, GPS devices and power meters. Simply stated, power meters have the ability to make our training more three dimensional. In addition to RPE and heart rate (HR), data from a power meter gives an athlete another metric to structure training and gauge effort while racing.
If you are looking to dial in your training to be more specific, then a power meter may be worth the financial investment. Before discussing costs, let’s first take a look at how a power meter can benefit an athlete. Athletes who are focusing on sprint or Olympic distance triathlons likely do not need to be concerned with watts from a power meter. These races hurt…a lot…and for those who are competing for age group National spots, they simply need to go hard over the distance. RPE, heart rate and data from a bike computer should provide ample info for anyone in this group. For athletes racing half Ironman or Ironman events, a power meter can become very helpful in training and racing. In addition to HR zones, having power zones can keep one in check very effectively and provide specific ranges for varied terrain from flats to climbing. As previously noted, power meters provide a third dimension to assess fitness and make adjustments real time. For example, if an athlete is using a power meter during a race and notices the watts are holding steady, but heart rate is increasing, it may be a good indication of becoming dehydrated and the athlete can make adjustments accordingly. Another benefit in using a power meter is consistency over time to assess fitness. Watts are watts as they say and are not impacted by outside variables such as weather. Power meters are a great tool to keep our efforts in check while training and more importantly on race day!
Power meters are definitely a financial investment. However, with the growth of triathlon has come the expansion of companies making power meters. The costs have decreased significantly the last several years. Here is a chart detailing various brands with their associated price tags and pros/cons:
(chart provided by Ken Axman, USAT Level II coach)
A final benefit of using a power meter is the aid it gives in becoming a better cyclist. Prior to using a power meter in my own training and racing, I would have massive surges in my bike sessions. I was extremely inefficient over varied terrain and wasted a lot of energy with surges. There are only so many “matches” in one’s matchbook. In analyzing data from a power meter, it is easy to see the spikes in watts via graphs and over time I was able to ride more consistently. Additionally, having real time watts displayed helps regulate the effort to avoid unnecessary surging and the spiking syndrome.
Ultimately, I encourage athletes to not become too attached to data, numbers, GPS devices, etc. They are excellent tools to help us become better athletes, but if used incorrectly they can become distractions and hinder our performances. Power meters seem to have more benefits for athletes training and racing over longer distances. As with any significant investment, I encourage you to do some research and inquire with your training partners and local training groups about their experiences with using a power meter.
About the author: Brad Seng has been racing triathlons professionally for 11 years and resides in Boulder, CO. He is an assistant coach with D3 Multisport and was recently named the head coach for the University of Colorado Triathlon Team. He coaches athletes of all ages, abilities and experiences. For more info please visit www.d3multisport.com.