Gadgets are definitely a thing with cycling. Here are five we reckon will have the biggest impact on your cycling training.
Yes, it’s entirely possible to be a great cyclist without a power meter. Having one doesn’t magically allow you to start pulling extra watts out of the air. However, success leaves clues. The fact the majority of the pro peloton is training and racing with them these days suggests they offer worthwhile advantages.
The primary advantage is that it offers the most brutally honest assessment of your cycling training performance. Pace is influenced by wind and drafting. Heart rate can be affected by things like how strong your coffee was before the start of the ride, and how well rested you are. Heart rate is also less reliable for short intervals. Rate of perceived exertion then takes over as a substitute, which takes practice to be accurate with estimation.
A power meter removes all the guesswork, especially with intervals under 3 minutes. You can see exactly how much effort you’re putting in. Seeing your wattages helps guard against the dual training sins of putting in too much effort at the start of your interval to try and get your heartrate into the zone, and slacking off at the end because it hurts. It also provides the feedback required to makes sure that your recovery rides are in fact recovery rides.
While not as common on mountain bikes, power meters are still very useful on the dirt. Structured cycling training interval efforts are generally done on fire roads and smooth trails. The readings will end to be a little low for total session effort, since the core and upper body are used more when riding trail compared to road. They still offer valuable insight and are becoming an increasingly common sight on the cross-country pro’s bikes.
However, you do need to know what you’re doing. Finding a coach is the best way to make use of this tool. Indeed, many coaches require you to invest in one before they will work with you.
For those who prefer to self-coach a copy of Joe Friel’s Power Meter Handbook is a great start. Hunter Allan and Dr Andrew Coggan’s Training and Racing with a Power Meter is widely acknowledged as the gold standard.
A few years ago prices were higher than a good bike. Prices are coming down rapidly, and if I had to choose between a good set of wheels or a lightweight bike, and a power meter, I’d opt for the latter.
Heart Rate Monitor
While power meters offer significant advantages, the heart rate monitor is alive and well as a training tool. While the power meter tells you how much power you’re putting out, the heart rate monitor tells you how hard your body is working to produce that output. If you find that you’re struggling to hit the required power zones and your heartrate is high, it might be time for some recovery.
Using heartrate alone is still an effective method of measuring effort and training the different energy systems your body uses, especially for the longer intervals. As maximum heart rate isn’t a great measure of fitness, and varies so much among individuals, most training programs set their training zones relative to threshold heart rate.
Your threshold heart rate marks the maximum effort you’re able to maintain while your body can still remove the lactate acid being used by the muscles. For most trained athletes this is similar to the maximum effort they can maintain for an hour. However, because it so taxing to maintain and recover from that level of effort for an hour, let alone find a suitable interruption-free location, a 20 minute effort is usually used instead.
Based on this threshold number you can work out your heart rate zones for recovery, endurance, base building, developing sustained speed, improving oxygen carrying capacity and/or neuromuscular power, and set up your training plan to develop in each of these areas as you progress through the season to best meet the requirements of your target events.
GPS Bike Computer
If you’re using a heart rate monitor without one of these you will struggle to get the best out of the information you’re collecting. Smartphone apps can be a substitute and since most people already have a smartphone it can be a cheap option.
However, my preference has always been for a dedicated recording bike computer.
Firstly, most smart phones have very poor battery life with the GPS engaged and will easily run out of battery on longer rides, risking losing the stats for the entire ride.
Secondly, in the event of a crash your phone is more fragile and definitely more exposed sitting on your bars or stem. If anything goes wrong during the ride that you are unable to deal with yourself, summoning help can then be a problem. Since a portion of your structured training sessions
will likely be done solo, this is something to consider, especially if you venture off-road where having a minor off can be more common.
Purpose-made bike computers are tough, and usually have resistive touch screens rather than capacitive screens. This means they function better with sweaty hands or in damp conditions.
While there is a wide variety of units out there from very cheap to eye-wateringly expensive, you don’t need to drop a lot of coin. Being able to record and display heart rate, cadence (pedalling rate), power (if you have a power meter), speed and route, and upload to your choice of web- or PC-based application is all you need.
Ergo Trainer or Rollers
My first encounter with backyard cycling training on a resistance trainer had me convinced they were the training device from hell. After half an hour, I was done. Amazed and scratching my head, I wondered how people could apparently do sessions of an hour or more in their garage during bad weather and stay sane.
I’ve since come to appreciate their virtues. As a way of consistently getting in a decent workout when the weather is too wet, cold or windy to safely venture outside they’re hard to beat. And yes, I’ve since joined the insane mob doing efforts of two hours or more.
The trick is in how you set up your pain cave. You need a big-arse industrial fan to keep you cool and something to keep your attention focussed on doing the efforts instead of the screaming of your legs.
Industrial fans are readily available from Bunnings, and I purchased this pedestal fan unit. It turned out to be overkill – even in summer I need a long sleeve jersey and thermal underneath on the minimum setting. Any loose papers need to be put away lest they be blown into next week. It’s not easy to store out of the way when not in use either. Something more like the smaller floor fan below would be more suitable and convenient to store.
For distraction from suffering incorporating a great cycling training program, I’m a happy customer of The Sufferfest video series. They’re not at all like boring coaching sessions from spin or trainer classes, where the scene is set inside a gym, and all you have to keep your mind off the burning in your legs is a coach with a stopwatch yelling at you,
The Sufferfest uses real POV footage from the Grand Tours, mountain bike races, cyclocross, snow biking, and track events to place you in the middle of the action. Audio and visual cues tell you when
to ramp it up and when to back off for the interval sessions, the music is excellent, and the gallows humour keeps you entertained.
For those who are likely to incorporate indoor sessions as part of their regular cycling training schedule, interactive trainers like the Wahoo Kickr and a Zwift subscription are hard to beat. These internet-connected trainers automatically vary the resistance to match the virtual terrain. You can train with and race against people from all over the world, making indoor training into computer game. It worked spectacularly for Mathew Hayman, who used Zwift to keep fit while recovering from a broken arm to go on and win the 2016 edition of Paris-Roubaix. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dBpdDlHDKw
Software Tools: Strava, Training Peaks, and Golden Cheetah
Strava is like Facebook for athletes. It introduces a competitive element with segments and leader boards, enabling you to keep track of your progress as your cycling training improves your fitness. Comparing times on climb segments with your mates for bragging rights and trash talking kicks along your motivation. The Premium subscription offers power analysis, and calculates a suffer score off heart rate that is similar to Training Peaks’ heart rate Training Stress Score (hrTSS).
I find the Training Stress Score (either heartrate or power) is extremely useful measure for managing my cycling training load and ensuring my enthusiasm doesn’t get the better of me – ramping up by more than 10% per week is usually considered unwise and I’ve learned the hard way that going over this results in injury or illness.
Golden Cheetah is a free, open source power analysis package for your laptop computer that does most of what Training Peaks does if you are a self-coached athlete. However, if you want to work with a coach then Training Peaks is the better option as you can share your workout results with them on line.