How Technology Can Make You a Better Cyclist
Cycling technique has come a long way over the past several decades. Today’s riders can fine-tune their training to perfect the smallest details in their pedaling so they can ride faster, harder and longer than ever before.
Although there are undoubtedly a number of reasons for these advancements, perhaps no single factor has been as influential as the transformation of cycling technology. With the rise of simple tools like heart-rate monitors and power meters, cyclists have slowly taken control of their training, becoming ever more powerful and adept on the pedals.
Understanding these changes can help you fully leverage the available tools to fine-tune your own training. As longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie notes, you can now capture key data about your cycling power and put it to use in myriad ways.
To show you how, we’ll explore how developments in cycling technology have changed the game — and what it means for you.
The Dark Ages: Miles Training
If, like Coach Darryl, you cycled in or before the 1980s, you may remember a time when the only data you could track were the miles you pedaled. Whether by checking your route against a map or estimating based on previous drives, you could see how far you went — and that’s about it.
With such limited information, cyclists understandably fell into the trap of assuming more miles always made a better rider. Many felt you were only a “real cyclist” if you pedaled more than 100 miles per week.
“This, of course, has its faults,” says Darryl. “One person may pedal fewer miles but harder miles or at a faster pace. In that case, riding fewer miles may have a bigger effect on becoming stronger.”
That’s not to say miles tracking has no value. Early in his cycling career, Darryl used this information to set goals and eventually pedal 5,000 miles a year for 20 of 21 consecutive years.
A Better Way: Heart Rate Tracking
The first big advancement in training technology came along in the ‘90s. With the arrival of small, portable heart-rate monitors, cyclists could now track changes in their heart rate as they rode.
Originally, these monitors were fairly basic. Darryl’s first was the size of four or five quarters stacked together, and the readout on the bike showed only current heart rate, no average or maximum. With this info, cyclists could break out different heart rate zones and set training targets, but little more.
Eventually, this would change as monitors improved to display more information and allow cyclists to download their data and analyze heart rate trends over the course of multiple rides. These capabilities gave rise to the entire coaching industry, as professionals like Darryl could now help cyclists evaluate these trends and put them to use in their training regimens.
The Best Way: Power Meters
As helpful as these advancements were, it wasn’t until power meters came along that cyclists had access to truly impactful, real-time data.
Power meters use strain gauges, time and distance to provide a live view of your pedaling power in watts. Unlike heart rate, there’s no delay between your actions and your body’s reaction — power shows you what you’re doing right now.
When you track heart rate, you’re really seeing your body’s reaction to this effort — it tells you how you’re responding to what you did a few moments ago. For instance, imagine you’re pedaling full blast for a short sprint. Your heart rate would rise gradually in response to this effort. A power meter, meanwhile, would show exactly the effort and energy you’re using in real time.
With this information — and the ability to log it and review it later — you can track all sorts of important metrics about your cycling abilities and how they change over time. Coach Darryl has a running log that shows not only his maximum power at different points in the ride but also key data like:
- Average Power (AP): This shows your average pedaling power throughout a ride or specific intervals and includes times when you were not pedaling, such as when you were coasting downhill or rolling up to stop signs.
- Normalized Power (NP): This averages your power in watts to compensate for changes in ride conditions for a more accurate depiction of power expenditure. Conventional power measurement is based on a steady resistance and excludes periods of coasting, etc.
- Functional Threshold Power (FTP): This is the highest average power you can sustain for approximately an hour.
- Training Stress Score (TSS): This quantifies the stress on your body from cycling activities to help you understand how tired your efforts are making you.
- Intensity Factor (IF): This compares your NP to your FTP to quantify how difficult a ride was in relation to your fitness level.
As Coach Darryl puts it, access to this type of data represented a “sea change” for cycling training. For those who want to dig deep, they can use this data to be, in a sense, their own cycling coach.
Use Power Metrics to Enhance Your Training
With this much data at your fingertips, you can fine-tune your training in ways cyclists would never have imagined decades ago.
For instance, if you’re training for a specific ride with some difficult hills, you can measure your pedaling power on those hills over several rides to see how you’re improving. Or you could set a target for a time trial, calculate how hard you would need to pedal to achieve that goal, and then work toward that target in your training.
Darryl has even used power meters to isolate power output from each leg so he could rehab a weak leg after surgery. The power meter showed him the lopsided power output from each leg, and he was then able to target his weak leg and measure his progress toward recovery.
Whatever your goal, understanding your pedaling power can help you achieve it. That’s the beauty of these technological advancements. The information is so easy to track, and cycling computers are so simple to use, that you can start doing it today.
So, get out there and start dialing in your training.
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