It never fails. The first thing a person does when they buy a power meter, is to go out and ride as hard as they can, and then they rush home to look at their power file. After all, everyone knows that Floyd Landis can sit on 450 W for almost an hour, so everyone wants to know how they stack up.
This is a fun exercise for sure, but it actually has very little to do with triathlon or with successful racing.
Instead of focusing on these higher end numbers, triathletes are better served by mastering their limitations with power, especially when it comes to race day. In other words, anyone can go out and start hammering on the pedals. It takes a special type of athlete to know the most appropriate time to work for the maximum results. Here's a look at a few places where the judicious application of effort can radically change your race day results.
Hills represent the biggest conundrum for triathletes. Everyone else slows down, so it's tempting to hammer to make up ground. Yet the hammering up the hill requires a great deal of energy that could result in a muscular or nutritional setback later in the day. Using a power meter, triathletes can sit on a specific number of Watts instead of focusing on the competition or their average speed. Make no mistake about it, riding your hill climbing Watts, in your aerobars, at 8 miles an hour, turning the pedals at 47 RPMs, is a skill. Remember that everyone else starts out climbing a hill as hard as they can, only settling down when the work becomes too much. By letting everyone go at the beginning of the hill and sitting on a steady number you can sustain for the full climb, you can ensure that you will pass these other folks by the top of the hill. Use your power meter to work less and do more.
Depending on the length of your race, the first 15 to 30 minutes of the bike can be the most critical. Just coming off a tough swim and blazing through transition means that your heart rate is high and the adrenaline is pumping. A successful bike leg — and overall triathlon experience — requires an almost zen-like cycling experience. Power meter athletes can avoid riding their race into the ground at the very start of the bike by pacing themselves using wattage. Sitting on a warm-up number for a specific time and sipping water means that your heart rate will come down, the competition will go flying by you pushing too hard, and you'll get your nutrition started properly. Patience at the start of the bike leg means you're racing with your head and not with your (you know what).
The most important column in your power file race day is the one where you're not doing any work — 0 Watts. The only time you're pushing 0 Watts is when you're not working. Nine times out of 10, this means that your coasting down a hill, through a turn, or biding your time waiting for someone else to make a move on the course. A high percentage of 0 Watts on race day as compared to all of your other Watts means that you have effectively shortened the race course. If you're doing a half Ironman for example, a 56 mile race on the bike, and you can spend 5 to 8 miles coasting, this means you are racing 48 miles instead of 56. Think about it another way: increasing your 0 Watts is the equivalent of finding a shortcut. So when do you coast? The most obvious places on the down hills once you've hit 27 or 28 miles an hour. This is the time when you want to get aero, focus on your nutrition, perhaps stretch a little, and just fly. The amount of work you have to do to increase your speed at this point is simply not worth it. Use this time to conserve your heartbeats and prepare for the next section of the race.
Almost as important as 0 Watts, soft-pedaling is another virtual shortcut on the racecourse. Soft-pedaling is most common when you're coming off of a nice present and you have some quality speed. As you watch the miles per hour drop 30 to 29 to 28 and you start paddling again you can actually ride a lower number of Watts and maintain that higher-end speed. So while riding 25 miles an hour but typically mean you have to ride anywhere from 100 to 125% of your functional threshold Watts, you can sustain this speed, coming off of a hill, by simply peddling at your warm-up Watts. Once again, a power meter allows you to apply the least amount of effort for the maximum impact by showing you that speed is a function of how smart you are and not necessarily how hard you work.
Remember: When it comes to long distance triathlon, it's more about what you don't do that will make your race. Good luck!
Triathletes interested in further information on power-based training, or in purchasing a power meter at discounted rates should visit contact Coach P via his blog at www.performancetrainingsystems.com/blog