Do You Really Need a Power Meter? When A Heart Rate Monitor Isn’t Enough

Using a power meter with training zones and knowing your FTP will give your cycling a boost.

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power meter
Photo by Glory Cycles

burningquestions2Michael: “I’ve been training with just a heart rate monitor for a while, but I’ve been reading about power meters. What is the difference, and why would I need a power meter?”

All right Michael, now this is a serious question. While you can certainly make great strides training with heart rate zones, there are a few downsides when using an HRM in conjunction with a training plan. Heart rate numbers give you a reaction to your effort, and there is always a lag in moving your heart rate into the zone you’re targeting.

In other words, say an interval requires you to hit a heart rate zone between 130-140 bpm for 2 minutes. You’ll need to push your heart rate into that zone in order to complete the interval, but your effort at the beginning or end of the interval won’t be consistent–you’ll likely expend too much energy in the beginning and struggle to catch up to that over-exertion at the end. It’s somewhat of an inaccurate measurement.

So, while training with an HRM can definitely give you results (not to mention keep you from blowing your monthly budget), it will only show you the result of the effort you’re putting out. It can also fluctuate based on whether or not you’re tired, and you’ll have a more difficult time getting your heart rate up even though you might actually be putting out the correct effort.

Training with Power

A power meter, on the other hand, shows you exactly what kind of effort you’re pushing. Since this will measure your output, you’ll be able to immediately see when you’re in a certain zone. You can push to the number of watts you’re supposed to hit and keep it there throughout the duration of an interval or session. This can revolutionize your training and will show you some serious results.

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But first you’ll need to learn a few things about using power. You’ll need to do a ride that measures your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), meaning the effort you can sustain for an extended period without getting totes worn out. So if you know you can hit 600 watts for 15 seconds, then you’ll probably try not to hit 600 watts until 15 seconds from the finish line. Basically, this can help you to push your fitness during training rides, keep your efforts measured on a climb, and affirm your awesomeness in measurables to anyone you come in contact with–and they all want to hear exactly how many watts you hit on that third hill. For reals.

Using a Training Plan

All of what I just told you is tempered with the idea that you’ll be using your power meter with some sort of structure. It’s a serious investment–although most manufacturers seem to be chasing a more accessible price point these days–and you’ll want to be sure that you’re actually using it. If you don’t know your FTP, and don’t use training targets, it’ll really just be like taping a month’s rent (or way more) to your bike and riding around with it. Who needs the extra grams, right?

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So we definitely encourage you to choose a plan that makes certain you get the most benefit from your serious investment. We’ve been using The Sufferfest’s plans (don’t worry, that’s not a paid endorsement!) and writing about it weekly in our training diaries. Their video, The Rubber Glove, will give you your FTP and set you on the right course. We highly recommend The Sufferfest–it will give you some brag-about-them results.

So Do I Really Need It?

If you’re serious about racing, and you’re using it to dictate your training and rides, then you certainly will benefit from a power meter. If you’re really just on the bike to get fit and maybe compete in a few charity rides, then a heart rate monitor should give you the numbers you need to go faster, farther.

So there’s our answer, Michael. Let us know if you do pick up a power meter, and how you like it!

Got a burning question? Send it over to us, and we’ll answer to the best of our ability. Because it’s important to remember, there are no stupid questions. And anonymity is really cool too.

Photo by Glory Cycles

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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