Why a Power Meter Should Be Your First Cycling Upgrade


, by Nikalas Cook

If you're looking to improve your performance on the bike, a power meter is the first - and perhaps best - upgrade you can make. Photography by: PingPong56 / Shutterstock

If you go onto almost any cycling forum, you’re guaranteed to see a post from a novice cyclist asking, "What’s the best upgrade I can buy for my bike?" Some deep-section carbon wheels, a groupset bump, or some old sage quoting Eddy Merckx—“Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”—are the sort of answers you’ll commonly see. However, my advice, almost without exception, would be to get yourself a power meter. I know it’s not as sexy or instantly satisfying as some carbon bling but, in terms of improving your cycling, it’s a game-changer.

Aren’t they just for pros / “serious cyclists”?

This is probably the biggest misconception about power meters, and I’d argue that it’s actually less experienced cyclists who stand to gain far more from using one than seasoned riders.

RELATED: The Watts, Whys and Hows of Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

For novice riders, who probably lack experience in pacing and what different riding intensities feel like, a power meter will massively aid pacing during training and at events. For example, when you’re feeling fresh at the start of a ride, it can be easy to overcook a climb and then pay for it later. A power meter and accurately set zones will prevent this.

Top pros are so in tune with what their bodies are capable of that, even without a power meter, they could probably give you a pretty accurate estimate of their wattage at any moment. For us mere mortals, though, we lack that insight and intuition into how hard we’re pushing, and a power meter provides a shortcut to pro-perfect pacing.

For almost all non-pros, time on the bike is precious and limited. Knowing that you’re getting the most out of every workout is essential, and a power meter is the best tool for ensuring that.

Photography by: Kovop / Shutterstock

Why can’t I just use a heart rate monitor?

One of the biggest advantages of a power meter over a heart rate monitor is that any change in your riding intensity is fed back instantaneously, whereas, with heart rate, there will always be a significant lag. This isn’t so much of an issue on longer even-paced efforts, but for shorter intervals and punchier rides, your heart rate just doesn’t react fast enough.

When training, any hard intervals of less than five minutes are incredibly difficult to pace with heart rate. If you’re aiming to hold Zone 5 using heart rate and building into the zone over the first minute or so to allow for lag, it’s likely you’ll undercook it. Conversely, if you punch your heart rate up hard, chances are you’ll blow long before the five minutes is up. With power, you can guarantee hitting the correct wattage from the first to last pedal stroke of the interval.

RELATED: How to Pace with a Power Meter

Heart rate is also impacted by external factors—a row with your other half, an extra pre-ride espresso, event day nerves, or having to fix a mystery shed flat before heading out can all raise your heart rate. Don’t forget it can also be affected by illness, hydration level, air temperature, and altitude. If you’re especially fatigued from a hard training block, this can also flatten your heart rate.

For almost all non-pros, time on the bike is precious and limited. Knowing that you’re getting the most out of every workout is essential, and a power meter is the best tool for ensuring that.

For longer rides, there’s also a physiological phenomenon known as "cardiac drift" where, over the course of a long ride, your heart rate will rise even though you’re not working harder. This effect can be as pronounced as 15% and, although it can be managed with optimal hydration, it can’t be completely negated.

When riding indoors, many riders, in relation to their perceived effort, find that their heart rate is typically 10-15 beats per minute lower than it would be outside. There are a number of reasons for this, such as reduced recruitment of core/stabilizer muscles, but, as long as your pain cave is well-ventilated, you have a decent fan, and your position is the same, your power numbers should be similar to riding outdoors.

Photography by: Bavanq / Shutterstock

That’s not all to say that you should ditch your heart rate strap. Your power meter tells you what output your body is producing and your heart rate monitor shows the impact this is having on your body. By becoming aware of the impact of one on the other, you can get real insight into the effect that your training is having. For example, we’ve already mentioned how a block of hard training can flatten heart rate. So, if you notice that despite pushing high watts, your heart rate stays stubbornly low and your perceived effort feels relatively high, it could well be time to back things off.

Aren’t they really expensive?

If you’re already toying with the idea of treating yourself to a new wheelset or similar, then a power meter is definitely affordable. A single-sided pedal-based system from a reputable brand can now be bought for under $500.

Single-sided systems simply measure on one side, usually the non-drive side, and then just double it up. Some riders and coaches are a bit snobby/dismissive of these systems, but unless you have significant known imbalance issues that are constantly changing/evolving, they offer a perfectly valid and affordable power option.

Aren’t they really complicated to use and understand?

Real data geeks and some coaches who like to work behind a curtain of complexity make training with power far more complicated than it needs to be.

The fact is, with some basic knowledge and a platform like Strava to track your riding, a power meter has the, well, power to transform your riding.

In this series of articles, I’ll go through:

  • The importance of FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and how to test for it - including a shortcut “guesstimate” using your Power Curve.

  • Using your FTP to set training zones, what these zones mean, and how to use them.

  • Setting up your head unit - what data fields to show when you ride.

  • The key power metrics you’ll see when you upload a ride to Strava and what they mean.

  • Fitness, Fatigue, and Form - what these are, what they mean, and how to use/interpret your Fitness & Freshness graph.

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