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What’s the best way to train without a power meter?

Michael Donlevy
18 Dec 2020

Training with a power meter is all the rage. But what if you haven’t got one? Illustration: Clear as Mud

It has become a key training metric, and Strava even tries to help us by estimating our power if we don’t record it. You’d be forgiven for thinking you have to know your power output if you’re serious about training.

OK, it helps, and there are good reasons to use a power meter. It measures your output in real time (unlike your heart rate, which actually lags behind) so you can gauge your effort and track progress over time. Yet while power meters are declining in cost, buying one still represents a financial outlay that not everyone can afford, so what are the alternatives?

Invariably people start riding to get fitter, which could be as general as moving from a sedentary lifestyle or as specific as completing a sportive. Both objectives, however, are easier to reach by following a plan with a series of SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely – intermediate goals.

Progress can take two forms: endurance, which is sustaining the same effort for longer, and efficiency, which is the same effort for less energy cost. Both can be measured without power meters, as they were for decades.

As a coach I always provide clients with a personalised Rating of Perceived Effort (RPE) table, where RPE1 is the easiest spinning and RPE10 is flat-out sprinting for 10 seconds max, and encourage them to provide an RPE score for each session, even if they have power, heart rate, speed and cadence metrics.

RPE is by definition subjective because the same exercise on two different days could feel different for myriad reasons, but I’ve found riders do get better at removing the subjective elements with practice. You can then measure your progress in both endurance and efficiency.

So, if a cyclist can ride for 15 minutes at RPE4 on Day 1 of a training plan, but can subsequently ride for 30 minutes at RPE4, their endurance has improved. Similarly, if a Strava hill climb needs an RPE6 effort at the start of a training plan and later reduces to RPE5 for the same time, the cyclist is more efficient.

If progress is possible without technology, why are gadgets so favoured by coaches? Physiological metrics enable coaches to make smarter decisions regarding a rider’s training and recovery. Training can be more personalised and specific to the rider’s goals. But training isn’t all about numbers – power meters provide a lot of data, but not knowledge.

As a coach I’m often asked which is ‘best’ for training: power, heart rate or perception? A power meter helps but it’s not a silver bullet and certainly not a prerequisite for progression.

Likewise, knowing how your cardio system performs while you ride is useful, but it can’t replace knowing how you felt at the time.

In the absence of power data I recommend using a heart rate monitor because knowing your heart rate zone during exercise helps you to control your effort, but use it alongside the RPE because knowing how you perceived the effort level is invaluable.

Failing a heart rate monitor, use a stopwatch and your own perception, keep a diary – and keep training.

Good training is all about consistency week after week, layering on what has gone before, building the fitness platform higher and higher. And that, in the end, comes down to you and the bike.

The expert: Andy Tomkins is an Association of British Cycle Coaches Level 3 coach. Visit sportivecyclecoaching.co.uk for more information

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