Powering Up

By Kris Swarthout USAT Level II Coach

Power, for the last couple years it has become the buzz word in cycling. Simply stated, power is the measurable amount of force created as you peddle your bike. Terms like watts, critical power, power to weight ratio, force and spin scan are being thrown around these days left and right. Unfortunately most people don’t fully understand what they mean or better yet how they can be used to take an athletes cycling fitness to the next level.

For the past two years I have been studying power, not only my own, but also that of my clients. I have been studying what other coaches like Hunter Allen have been teaching and found that most people don’t understand the fundamentals behind training with power. As a coach, a tech nerd and a cycling geek, I have been working on a system that makes this whole power thing understandable and practical for everyone. In this article I will address the power to weight ratio (P/W) and how it can be used to gauge and track your fitness.

The first step is having the right equipment. You must either have a power meter on your bike, like a Power Tap, or a system to measure power at home, like a Computrainer. A power meter on your bike can allow you to monitor your power output any time you are in the saddle. A Computrainer can only be used indoors, but that doesn’t mean it has only a limited use. Both can be used to test your P/W when used in the correct manner.

If you are using a home-based unit like the Computrainer start off by picking a course or route that you are going to be able to repeat. I would suggest using a test course of 6.2 miles and 40 miles as your basic protocols. You will be riding these routes every time you test, so be sure you know how to access them easily. If you are using a Power Tap, mark out a course of the same distance close to your house that has minimal stops or intersections. The 6.2 course is good for quick testing and is more applicable to athletes who focus on Olympic or Sprint distance triathlons and short distance road races. The 40 mile test would be better suited for athletes who are planning on a longer event.

Before you start, weigh yourself without your shoes and write this number down. Now start easy spinning for about 10 minutes as a warm up. It is important that you have a way to measure your average watts during your test. Be sure to reset the recording unit you are using or erase the data from your warm up before you start. Get yourself mentally ready and GO! Pace yourself, don’t go out too hard, but be sure to keep a strong, consistent effort. Monitor your cadence, heart rate and watts. You will want to keep your cadence between 85 and 95 in order to achieve your best result. Your heart rate data will be mostly used after the test is over. Your power production or watts is what you will want to focus on. Keep this number consistent, try not to let it spike in the beginning and then fade towards the end of the test.

Once you have finished, it is time to crunch some data. The first thing is to convert your weight from pounds to kilograms. Use this simple formula; pounds / 2.2 = weight in kilograms. Next, take your average watts from your test and divide it by your weight in kilograms, this will give you your (P/W). Record this number along with the overall time it took you to ride your course, your average watts, pre-test weight and average heart rate (HR). These numbers will be used as bench marks for your current cycling fitness level.

The next question would be, what do these numbers mean and how do we use them in the future? Your P/W can be used to compare you to your peers who have done the same test to see how you currently stack up. With P/W you can take the results of two athletes of the same gender and age, but different body types and compare them accurately to each other. The theory is, the higher the P/W, the faster the r