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How to Get Started with a New Power Meter

You bought a power meter, and you're ready to start riding - but now what? Coach Jim Lubinski weighs in.

By: Jim Lubinski, Triathlete and Coach

Power meter locations

You bought a power meter. You’re excited. You’ve already got it installed on your bike and paired to your bike computer.

You see numbers under the “Power” tab on your screen when you turn the cranks. You get on your bike and start riding.

Now what?

Using a power meter for the first time could be both an overwhelming and perhaps a slightly discouraging undertaking rife with many questions, such as:

  • What do the power numbers mean?
  • Why do they jump around so much?
  • Where should I keep my power within certain workouts?
  • Is my power really that low?

Cyclist overwhelming by power meter statistics

Before diving headfirst into the world of power training, I recommend the following.

Step 1: Just Ride

You should execute the first few workouts with a new power meter just as you have done countless workouts in the past. Base them off of heart rate or RPE, just as you have done before using the power meter. Right now, pay no attention to the power numbers the head unit gives you.

Cyclist riding with bike power meter

After these initial sessions you can go back and look at the data and see how the power (wattage) lines up with the specific zones you executed within the workout.

For example, if you have a 10-minute interval where your average heart rate was 130bpm, you can look and see what the average power was within this 10-minute segment. This post-ride assessment will start to give you an idea about how power data lines up with your specific training zones.

Step 2: Do an FTP Test

After a few rides with the power meter it will be time to perform an “Functional Threshold Power” (FTP) test. This test will help determine your specific training zones by measuring your highest maintainable power for an hour of riding.

Fear not, I won’t make you ride an hour to measure this. You’ll want to do this test on a stationary bike trainer or a stretch of road with no stop lights or distractions that will impede your ability to fully complete each interval.

The FTP Workout

The FTP workout is an hour long, executed as follows:

  • 10 minutes of easy riding
  • 3 x 1 min high cadence (90+rpm), 1 min easy between each
  • 5 min ALL OUT riding
  • 5-10 minutes easy riding

Main Test
  • 8 minutes at your highest maintainable effort
  • 10 minutes of easy riding
  • 8 minutes at your highest maintainable effort
  • 10 minutes for cool down

Cyclist riding with power meter

After the Ride, Look at the Data to Calculate Your FTP

Take the average wattage from the 1st 8-minute effort and add it to the average watts for the 2nd 8-minute effort. Then, take the average of these 2 efforts.

Since this is based on an hour of riding and we are only completing 16 minutes, we need to account for the fatigue that would set in throughout that hour. To do so, we multiply the average of the two 8-minute segments by .90. The number that results is your FTP.

  • First 8 minutes: 210 watts
  • Second 8 minutes: 206 watts

  • 210w + 206w = 416 watts
  • 416 watts ÷ 2 = 208 watts
  • 208 watts x .90 = 187 watts

187 watts would be your FTP.

Now we take this FTP and create your training zones.

  • Zone 1: 60-70% FTP - Recovery Riding
  • Zone 2: 70-80% FTP - Endurance Riding
  • Zone 3: 80-90% FTP - Tempo Riding
  • Zone 4: 90-100% FTP - Threshold Riding
  • Zone 5: 100-110% FTP - VO2 MAX Riding

A Quick Note on Your FTP

Your FTP is exactly that—your FTP! No matter what anyone else says their FTP is, or what you read about the FTPs of pro athletes, you cannot fake your FTP. It is a benchmark of your current fitness and strength on the bike.

This number will change (hopefully upward) as you train getting fitter and stronger. You should retest your FTP every 4-6 weeks to gauge progress and readjust training zones.

Cyclist riding with power meter

Step 3: Focus On Training with Power

Depending on your specific phase of training, the focus will shift from endurance, to tempo, to threshold and beyond.

Now that your zones are set, you’re ready to dial into your numbers. But wait, once you start turning the cranks and focus on the head unit you see a problem - the power number is jumping all over the place! 100––300––253––115 ... Is the power meter broken?!

Nope, this is totally normal.

One of the major benefits of using a power meter is increasing your efficiency on the bike. The power meter measures the power you are creating throughout every millimeter of the pedal stroke. When you are used to riding by heart rate or RPE, you are not seeing the real time numbers of the efficiency of the pedal stroke.

The power meter shows these missed opportunities every time you turn the cranks. The first thing you can do is switch the head unit setting to show you “3 Second” power instead of real time power. This takes a rolling 3-second average of the power you are putting out, which tends to smooth out the power being displayed on the head unit.

After switching the view to 3-second power, you might still see some fluctuation. This is the time really dial in the focus on pedal stroke and maintain consistent power throughout. You may have to back off the effort during your initial rides with power in order to get the hang of it, but this will make you a much better rider in the long run.

Cyclist riding with power meter

It can be frustrating, but your pedaling efficiency will improve over time. It is critical that you remain present in the workout! Gone are the days of talking on the phone, listening to tunes or playing solitaire on the computer when riding. You must be dialed into each revolution of the cranks, making sure to Push Down-Pull Under-Pull Up-Push Over every time. This will smooth out the numbers and make you a much more efficient cyclist.

That's It – You’re Ready to Go!

Some key takeaways:

  • Ride your workouts based on your power numbers.
  • Be realistic with your numbers and your current fitness.
  • Retest your FTP every 4-6 weeks.
  • Stay focused on keeping the power smooth while learning your effort, and how they will relate to your specific race demands.
  • The more comfortable you are with your zones, the stronger you will get on the bike, and the better you will execute and perform on race day.

Cyclist riding with power meter

Jim Lubinski

About Jim Lubinski

Coach Jim Lubinski came to the sport of triathlon in 2005 after a long and successful career as a Division 1/Professional Ice Hockey Player. Over the next few years Jim used the knowledge he had gained through the years of ice hockey to refine his approach to the sport of triathlon.

In 2009 Jim qualified to become a Professional Triathlete. That same year, Jim also earned his coaching credentials through USA Triathlon. Jim founded his coaching business, Red Performance Multisport in 2010. That same year Jim earned his N.A.S.M Certification making him a certified strength coach/personal trainer and since has earned specializations in Corrective Exercise, Performance Enhancement and Behavioral Therapy.

These certifications, along with the Ironman University Certification, has given Coach Jim a strong base of knowledge and education to use in his coaching, although, Jim finds his personal experience in training and racing, as well as the experience he has had coaching hundreds of athletes in endurance sport, to be the main factor in the style he uses to get the most of each individual athlete.

Jim stresses open communication, a structured/periodized approach, and a strong emphasis on strength work both in and out of the swim bike run environment to help the athlete get faster, but more importantly, stay injury free. You can follow Jim at the Red Performance Multisport Blog, Facebook, @jimlubinski on Twitter, and @jimlube on Instagram. Jim is Co-Creator and Host of the Tower 26-Be Race Ready Podcast. Email Jim at jim@rpmtri.com.