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Beginner’s Luck: Power Meters for Everyone! Or Maybe Not.

When entering the sport, be a consistent worker before worrying too much about the data.

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When entering the sport, be a consistent worker before worrying too much about the data.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a “fast bike” and a “fancy power meter” when starting out in triathlon. I tell my beginners to just ride and run and train the first (and maybe even second) season—make sure you even enjoy the sport before making major investments. Okay, “I love the sport,” they say. “What is next?”

The next step is actually doing workouts and training on a consistent basis—for most people, data can wait. Heart rate is the exception: You can (and arguably should) use heart rate from the get-go. The truth of the matter is that while we may want to look cool with the fast bikes and be in the cool power meter club, there’s no point in buying all of those things if you are unable to string together consistent workouts for periods of time. Sure, life gets in the way sometimes, and you have to adjust a schedule. That is called life. Or maybe you just don’t “want it” that badly. But if someone is a triathlon “dabbler,” then investing in a power meter is actually counter-productive. Again, it is a-okay if one is a dabbler—no judgements there—but power information is going to get the dabbler down, because it’s work-intensive and work-based information.

Another misconception is that a power meter is going to make someone a faster cyclist. Only the athlete can make the athlete a faster cyclist. A power meter will give an athlete data; but data is a complete waste of time, energy and money if the athlete is not putting in consistent work—for weeks and then months on end. Why? In triathlon, one of the major draws behind a power meter is to learn to manage how to pace on the bike so that you have legs for the run. A power meter gives an athlete a range of intensity to maintain on the bike during a race—but this range is completely a wildcard if the athlete doesn’t train or test the numbers (e.g., something like FTP – functional threshold power) on a consistent basis. Without testing or consistent training with your numbers, the range is more like, “Who the heck knows right at this moment,” and you’re really looking at arbitrary numbers and even worse, basing your race plan on those numbers.

In cases of the triathlon dabbler, heart rate and rate of exertion measurements really are king. The heart rate data doesn’t change that much, and rate of exertion is a pretty good measure of one’s current fitness in a race. This also applies where perhaps a seasoned athlete has had a rough few months with life and training. Depending on the athlete’s mental state, a good coach would either re-test the athlete’s FTP or have the athlete go off exertion and heart rate. Sometimes old, out-of-date power data can be discouraging to an athlete, even though it’s truth. Balancing those considerations are real, and should be done.

“The casual triathlete will get better by just riding consistently—some days easy, some days hard, some flat, some hills. For beginners, I have them concentrate on cadence and HR to start. If you can get a beginner to push one gear harder at the same cadence and heart rate, then they have improved,” says Brett Daniels, Level II USA Triathlon coach.

I didn’t get a power meter until nearing my fourth season of triathlon. Was it a game changer? You betcha. But it was a game changer because I was training consistently 12-15 hours a week and had several long distance races under my belt. With my coach, I learned how to use my hard work and data together. Note that I am not discouraging beginner or new athletes from getting all the data and doing all the things: Data is awesome. I am simply encouraging the athlete to be a consistent worker before worrying about these particular numbers. Numbers will make an already consistent athlete stronger; numbers will not make a dabbler faster.

For more in-depth analysis and how-to on power for those who are ready to take it to the next level, two great resources: Joe Friel’s The Power Meter Handbook and Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan’s Training and Racing with a Power Meter.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the new podcast, “The Same 24 Hours,” a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith has teamed up with amazing experts to bring programs from peak performance to nutrition to her own sobriety group to her social following. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com

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