Training with Power

Training with power by Willie Esterhuyzen

As is the case in every sport, training methods for cycling have evolved much over the years with training on feeling and perceived effort being the norm for many years.This was driven by training philosophies from “go as hard as you can for short periods” to “go as long as you can” or where some coaches advocated some form of a hybrid between the two approaches without much scientific backing or data.

Things changed radically when Polar released the first reliable heart rate monitor in 1977 and as far as we know became the first device to measure effort, in some form, on a continued basis.

Power meters have actually been around long before heart rate monitors but unfortunately not in a practical package to fit to bicycles and certainly not in a cost effective manner. SRM was the first brand of power meter to be fitted inside a bottom bracket in 1988 in a lightweight compact way. The system was the first to work accurately without interfering with the general functioning of the crank. Today we have a number of popular brands and can expect more brands to enter the market. Accurate power meters should also become more affordable over the coming years.  If you look at the advantages of training with power, you can expect power meters to become as popular and essential to cyclists as is the case with heart rate monitors.

Testing Protocols and your personal data set

We are seeing the emergence of tables of data specifying typical power levels for categories of cyclists for specific durations to which cyclists and coaches can compare their own efforts and progress. Testing protocols are becoming fairly standard, supporting the creation of data for comparisons.

More important, is the creation of one’s personal test data, to compare against from time to time to measure progress and to evaluate the effectiveness of one’s own training.

The nature of training intervals are changing

As an example a cyclist can do an interval of 15 minutes at 95 % of threshold power and his heart rate will be increasing all the time while the interval is in progress whereas when an interval of 15 minutes is completed at say 80% of maximum heart rate, the power range will start at a much higher number at the start of the interval as compared to the end of the interval. Therefore the type of stress from a power based interval is different on the body. When using heart rate only, an effort at a percentage of heart rate will equate to a certain power band the one day and most probably quite a different power band on another day whereas power output from a power meter is measured consistently on every occasion.


As already mentioned, some concepts are fairly technical in nature and need to be understood before we can discuss power based training and what typical terminology and concepts mean. Before we define some concepts here, lets first look at the advantages more closely:

The advantages of power based training:

  1. It eliminates guesswork when gauging effort.
  2. It allows training to be precisely quantified.  Strengths and weaknesses to be understood by testing against previous tests and against available data from all levels of cyclist and more importantly to develop power based training zones for each individual cyclist.
    Important are the ambitions of the individual cyclist, assessing his or her profile in respect of talent and in following a solid testing protocol, to establish how a person’s fitness profile is out of balance and to design a training program to correct the balance.
  3. It allows for a more scientific approach to training and to isolate specific physiological systems and train that specific system for that specific cyclist. So for example cyclist A have a functional threshold power of 200 watts and cyclist B have a functional threshold power of 300 watts. So for cyclist A 15 minutes interval at 180 watts will develop his threshold power but for cyclist B a 15 minute interval at 180 watts will equate to a recovery session with no effect on stimulating functional threshold power. So the same effort means very different things to the two riders.
  4. Following on to the point made above, it is therefore possible to isolate systems and effort much, much more accurately than without power.
  5. Power based training aids us in NOT making the most typical error in training which is to do all training “quite hard to hard”  and as a result not be specific enough in training to emulate the various levels of effort and periods of time at such levels required in the events we wish to prepare for.
  6. Power meters aids us in allowing enough recovery and easy sessions as much as aiding us in doing those hard sessions! Sometimes VERY HARD is required. When it is supposed to be an easy session a power meter can warn us very quickly when we are going too hard!

What is your Functional Threshold?

Having mentioned functional threshold a number of times already lets define what it is: It is the level of power output which can be maintained by a cyclist where the body is just coping with supplying enough oxygen to the working muscles to continue with that effort for a prolonged period of time generally accepted as an hour.

The body’s defense mechanism to starving it from oxygen is to produce lactic acid that in turn creates the burning feeling in our muscles to make us slow down, reduce effort, in order to once again manage to transport enough oxygen to our muscles.

When we operate above the level of functional threshold our muscles are starved of oxygen and the higher the level, the shorter the duration we can maintain that intensity and the higher the level of lactic acid produced.

Below functional threshold we operate aerobically and above threshold the body operates in an anaerobic state. Aerobic equals sufficient oxygen and anaerobic inefficient oxygen.

Putting it into action

Coaches use Functional threshold power of individual athletes as a marker to stipulate up to typically 7 power bands. So threshold power is at level 4 and training to improve threshold power is known to be intervals of 12 to 15 minutes at 85 to 100 percent of threshold power. After a period of time and after re-testing indicates new levels that have been adopted by the athlete’s body, the tables are adjusted and the cycle repeated. For an athlete or recreational rider, numbers progressing in the right direction is highly motivating.

Level 7 on the other hand would be a short; few second efforts, at maximum power and level 1 at around 50% of threshold power would be a recovery session.

Each level has a different and specific stimulus to the cardiovascular and muscular system with specific benefits. So for example level 6 would develop a person’s vo2 max that is the body’s ability to extract oxygen form the air that we breathe and transport it via the lungs to our muscular system for use. Super athletes have a natural ability to transport oxygen in very high percentages. Training intervals at specific power levels can and will improve this ability for all.

Although this article can only speak of some concepts with space and time allowed the importance of functional threshold power in most cyclists makeup cannot be stressed enough. At least in the case of all but short sprinting events. Every athlete can only exceed this level a limited number of times in a race situation, so the higher the number the lower the duration of time required in a race situation by the athlete to exceed his threshold and the lower the fatigue or the faster the athlete can race or a combination of the two.

This is true for marathon, cross-country, road racing and time trials.

Additional factors are just as important

There are various additional factors that are just as important once a base line for threshold has been developed. For example some athletes can operate above threshold for a longer period than others and recover quite well in race situations when efforts return to threshold or below threshold which is a great attribute in disciplines such as cross country racing. The good news is that most abilities can be trained and developed quite extensively.

Obviously a cyclist and possibly a coach should take into consideration the natural abilities of the athlete and the goals and objectives of the athlete.  Some riders might have a great threshold level 4 power but not a great maximal power at his level 7 and as such could not be a sprinter. A sprinter on the other hand needs a “good enough” threshold power to get him to 200 meters from the line in contention and “fresh” enough to use his power.

Invest in a quality indoor training device

It is important to note that a quality indoor training device with accurate power measurement can be used to complete most quality interval sessions. This device could provide a significant return on investment, both in cycling performance and for those of us with limited time available to ride on the road or trails.

In summary

By establishing relevant power levels for a rider, training can be specifically designed to operate at each level for optimal periods in a training week, relevant to abilities and goals, relevant to the time frame in the season and this could be part of an even longer term goal such as a year or number of years.

Training with power against power levels allows for specificity, structure, measurement and comparison. All of these are principles which were previously difficult to manage. Training with power, like most things in life is not for all, but for those recreational and competitive riders who want to improve, worth considering provided that training with power, is approached with the required knowledge or guidance in hand.

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Willie Esterhuyzen

Willie Esterhuyzen is involved with many riders and Triathletes on a weekly basis. For more information, visit

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