Watt Do You Think?

I’m greatly intrigued by wattage and power meters used in connection with biking.  2012 happens to be a very exciting year in this area.  There continue to be power hubs that can be laced into wheels:

There are expanding options for power meter cranks that can be installed in the BB and used with any wheels:

And we’re also venturing into the world of pedals with power meters built into them, such as the forthcoming (or shall we say allegedly forthcoming) Garmin Vector pedals:

Power meter pedals have the advantage of being able to be swapped among multiple bikes, and to be used with any wheels or drivetrain combination.  They also have the potential to show wattage generated by each leg, and wattage generated during each portion of the pedal stroke, for greater detail and analysis.

The ability to switch between bikes is the real benefit to power meters in pedals, from my perspective.  I could swap between the Ridley and the Vaytanium, depending on what I wanted to ride.

Detail and analysis is the point of this post.  When I started riding “seriously”, I was using a Garmin Edge 800 + heart rate monitor + cadence/wheelspeed monitor for some seriously intense record keeping.  While riding, I’d watch my percentage of maximum heart rate (MHR), to see how hard I was training.  I’d watch calorie burn, speed and average speed, cadence and average cadence, and get a ton of instant feedback.  After rides, I’d download the data, and examine it studiously.

On one particular road ride, I realized that I was riding really well, and looked down at the Garmin to see that my MHR was at 99%.  Just in seeing that objective result, I suddenly felt tired.  I started psyching myself out with “if you’re at 99%, you’re pushing too hard…you’re going to wipeout…you need to slow down…this isn’t sustainable.”

It was at that moment that I realized just how silly this was.  I was riding strong, feeling good, and was not winded…chest was not pounding…legs weren’t quivering.  It was at that moment that I took the Garmin off my handlebars, and stashed it in my jersey pocket, where it remained for the rest of that ride.

That was the last time I rode with a heartrate monitor.  I find that I do better not having that kind of instant feedback in heartrate.  Based on rate of perceived exertion (RPE), I know that as I’ve become a stronger rider, my heartrate and exertion is lowering to ride a given ride at a given speed…or conversely, I can ride raster at the same exertion level.  So I have some concerns about riding with objective data on how my body is reacting to a given ride…especially where the data is heart rate, which can be influenced by so many things (caffeine, hydration level, temperature, state of relaxation, etc.)

On the other hand, I love having objective data about things other than my heart rate.  For example, I still love riding with the Garmin and monitoring speed and cadence–which have become my primary training tools along with RPE.  I’m fortunate enough to ride with a group of riders who are stronger than me…so in group rides, I push hard to keep up.  When riding by myself, I try to throw in the powerline sprints and other interval work to build on my sprinting ability (which is currently my greatest weakness in road biking).  In that interval training, I rely on RPE to train by…and I use the speed data from the Garmin as an objective metric to confirm that I am pushing hard enough.  If I go out for a road ride and find that I’m only averaging XXmph, I know that I’m really dogging for some reason, and need to push harder.

Wattage really intrigues me, though.  With the Indoor Nationals that I blogged about a couple of  weeks ago, I ride by wattage.  Frankly, I have no idea how fast I should be riding on a 10% grade with a standard 53/39 crank and an 11-28 cassette…speed is totally irrelevant.  As hard as I’m pushing, I shudder to think what my heartrate might be.  But wattage is a great metric.  When I first rode the Bushido trainer a few months ago, I thought 200 watts for an hour was an insane effort.  I’m now able to average right around 230 watts for an hour ride, covering grades from downhill to 17% inclines.  And as I ride, I use wattage as my effort meter…if I strive to maintain 235 or 240 watts, I end the ride completely dead, totally drained, legs shot, ready to keel over…at 229-232 watts average for the course.  It keeps me on track on the flats, on the downhills, and on the climbs.

With the Bushido, I’m seeing the only advantage to steadily declining weight: improved weight:wattage calculation.  But as crappy as I’ve been feeling, I’d take a worse power ratio and a little bit more weight any day.  I did decide to accept reality and adjust my weight in the program…and with daily weight monitoring that I’m now supposed to do, I suppose I’ll keep adjusting it each time I ride.  (According to my driver’s license, I should be about 40 pounds heavier right now).

Watt I’m curious about is how this wattage data would translate to the real world.  If I were riding with a power meter, would it change my training?  Would it be more like heartrate monitoring that psyches me out, or more like speed monitoring that is just an objective result?  (I tend to think the latter).  I’m also curious about undertaking some of the training programs that are wattage based, and seeing if they make any substantial change in my cycling growth (as compared to my less scientific, RPE-based program currently being utilized).

Watt I’m also curious about is how my wattage compares to other riders in the real world.  My maximum wattage output, according to the Bushido, is right at 1000 watts.  I generate maximum wattage in too high of a gear, standing, mashing on the pedals.  That is very, very temporary, peak wattage (and I suspect there may be a wattage spike as the Bushido tries to react to sprint efforts).  My maximum threshold effort, at the moment, is 232 watts average for 1:06:31.  That was at 147 pounds of weight, or 66.67 kilograms.  So basically, my threshold output for an hour effort is 3.5 watts/kg.  According to most of the online data I can find, that puts me squarely into Category 4 territory…and probably at about 40-50% of what professional riders do.  Looking at TdF results from last year, those guys are doing 250 watts for 5 hours, and riders like Andy Schleck are close to (if not over) 6 watts/kg.

I do think it would be interesting to see how Bushido wattage compares with real world results.  In the real world, I don’t think I could push as hard as I do on the Bushido…  Like I said above, at the end of my 232 watt ride, I was shot.  I had to sit for a few minutes and compose myself before I could take my bike out of the trainer.  In the real world, I couldn’t push that hard without risking a crash or worse.

I plan on continuing to monitor my wattage–maybe some periodic Bushido rides throughout the year–to see how it is impacted by continuing efforts at cycling training (and hopefully, to see how it is impacted by improved health, if/when that comes).  And I’ll look with interest as new power meters come out and become more readily available, to try to evaluate whether it makes sense to incorporate one into my routine.




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