How to Use a Power Meter (part 1)

power meter

A power meter is a tool. While they do output complex data, at the end of the day, it is just data. Many feel overwhelmed with what to do with a power meter. Books have been written about the subject to try and capture how to most effectively use this tool. Often the very nature of this overflow of information causes potential users to be scared off, and end up not using these incredible tools that we have. But there is a simpler way, a more basic method to using them that is accessible to all.

Here is exactly how I use my Quarq Riken  power meter. I've used  and Golden Cheetah in the past, and they offer excellent analysis tools. But, for the sake of simplicity, I use  Strava


power performance
power performance

When you first get a power meter, it is important to go out and ride with it even if you don't know what you're looking at. You'll begin the process of collecting the data you need to establish a baseline for understanding your personal power abilities. I use a

Garmin 510

as a head unit and set my screens to include 3 second Power, Average Power and Normalized Power for a given ride. This tells me a few things specifically while I'm riding.

First, what power I'm doing at this exact moment. This is helpful for glancing down and seeing that in my 53x11, on a flat road, at 450w I'm going 30 mph. Or on a 5% climb at 300w I'm climbing at 12mph. It gives you an instantaneous snap shot of the effort you are putting out. Over time, this will help you get an idea of what your Perceived Exertion is at a given wattage output. Also, as you begin to learn your output abilities, you will discover what you are able to do for certain time intervals which will be important later on.

Second, your average power will depict what the average wattage has been for the duration of your ride. If you go up a 1 hour climb at 250w, turn around and coast down the other side of the mountain at 0w for another hour, your average for the ride will be 125w. This is a number that you can use to quantify how hard a ride was in real time. However, a road race would have lots of coasting at 0w which would influence the total average while a time trial would have a steady wattage output thus making them both (by the numbers) appear different. The road race will look like it was an "easier" ride, and the time trial will appear to have been more difficult because of the higher average. This is not always the case, but leads us to the third item.

Third, normalized power is an algorithm that outputs what the computer guesses you would have put out on average had the effort been "even" and devoid of any 0w moments. It eliminates the coasting from a ride and shows you what the effort really was on your body. You may often do fast road rides at an average of 250w but your normalized power could be closer to 300w. This would mean that if you had just gone out and done the same amount of effort in a time trial of that distance, you would have put out 300w to achieve approximately the same effort as the 250w average cost you. The reason for this is that often times in road rides, there are sharp spikes in effort or speed because of steep climbs, attacks, sprints, drafting, etc. The normalized number attempts to smooth this out and give you a theoretical number of what that effort was in terms of steady watts.

power meter history
power meter history

Now that you have your screens set up, you can begin collecting data. After a few rides, you will have what Strava calls a Best Efforts Power Curve that will show up on your ride page. This curve shows you the current ride power curve directly compared to your historical power curve. If you run your mouse along the curve, you'll notice that 3 values show: duration, power today, best power historically. You can adjust what your historical power shows by last 6 weeks, a given year, or a custom range. I always leave mine on the given year that I am in.

power curve
power curve

After a few tough rides and races, your power curve will begin to accurately represent what you are capable of. This is the key to your power meter, and it dictates everything that I do with mine.

Check out more in Part 2 of the series.