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Book Review: Training and Racing With a Power Meter
As far back as 1996 (when I did not have a power meter), I was intrigued by the physiology of athletic efforts. One book that helped me a great deal was Training, Lactate, Pulse Rate by Peter Janssen, though there is now apparently a newer 2001 version. Useful stuff.
With the advent of easy to use power meters for bicycles, actual power data can now be coupled with heart rate, speed, distance, elevation and (in a lab) lactate levels. I would not ride without a power meter; I consider it MANDATORY for anyone training seriously.
And so in Feb 2012, I ordered Training and Racing with a Power Meter, by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, PhD. Let’s just call it TRPM for short here on this page.
This is not so much a book review as a “how to” on reading the book.
First of all, you must make a time commitment to the book; because of my past research, and because I used a power meter for a year, I was able to dive right in. If you’re new to the topic, targeting your area of interest is critical to not being overwhelmed or intimidated by just how much planning and measuring and discipline is required to tune your performance, at least if performance is already high.
That said, I find a power meter incredibly useful for pacing (be sure to read the discussion of pacing in the book), as well as objective feedback while riding. You do not need a book to gain those major benefits! Though the book might get you thinking in the right direction.
For riders with relatively modest experience (e.g., a century is still intimidating), I’d strongly suggest becoming really familiar with the operation of your power meter, your own power and heart rate, and then regularly coming back to the book for ideas on how to use that information. Start by understanding the first 3-4 training levels; the hardest levels are irrelevant for relatively untrained athletes; one must establish a deep based of aerobic capacity, get those tendons and muscles strong, etc.
What I was looking for in TRPM were tips on how to raise my sustained power during the Everest Challenge, which means raising my VO2 max, my anaerobic ability, and raising my average power output for many hours of effort. I am much less interested in peak 5 second or 2-3 minute peak power; irrelevant for ultra distance events.
Which brings me to my first pointer: read the overview and introduction including the parts about FTP (functional threshold power), then skim for the topics that interest you for your particular type of riding.
The book contains a lot of information, so attempting to read it front to back is not very useful. In fact, large sections might not apply to your own goals.
Read the intro sections, understand FTP (functional threshold power), then try to put just one idea to work for you. Then come back to the book, and try another area.
I did learn based on FTP that I am a Cat 1 rider in terms of watts/kg. I guess that explains why getting passed is so rare. Which points out another glaring weakness in the book: it fails to explain (or even mention) that in computing watts/kg, one should be leaned-out (low body fat) to gauge one’s actual standing; if a person is 40 carrying 40 pounds of extra fast (as I was in early 2011) the ratio is fundamentally misleading as to one’s potential.
I would say that TRPM has this type of shortcoming throughout (failure to fully explain, leaving too much unsaid), and that is my main disappointment with it. The book is definitely worthwhile, but one has to think carefully to extract value from it.
The book falls short in the area of actual training examples; there are some, but I’d suggest that it should be FAR more oriented towards examples, if necessary by stripping out some sections likely to be of less use— those could be supplements instead.
Also, the discussion of FTP (functional threshold power) oversimplified and thus lacking in clarity— I was left wondering about such basic questions as whether the test should be on flat ground, or whether a 7% grade would do just as well. Particularly since I am able to generate and sustain more power on a grade. So this area is very weak in that it simply does not discuss the “edge cases” that could lead one to test inappropriately, the authors apparently being so familiar with their subject that they are oblivious the questions that might pop up in the reader’s head. And since FTP is the basis for the entire book and its advice, this is pretty darn important.
No sample training plans
While the book has a large number of individual workouts to draw on, and Chapter 9 goes through two outlines of how to approach designing a plan, this is not really adequate for the wide range of athletes. The book provides the building blocks but it fails to provide adequate training plan development for the reader to actually make an intelligent seasonal training plan. Neither example in Chapter 9 comes close to matching my needs.
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Weaknesses of book
I felt like many of my important questions just are not addressed (it’s possible I missed something here or there). I do not feel this book is anywhere close to addressing 90% of the issues to which I had wanted answers (why I bought the book). All in all, it feels more like an infomercial to get someone to hire a coach, as if the authors are saying less than they know, intentionally. But it could just be an inability to put themselves in the readers head.
- I could not find any significant discussion of the merits of flat-road vs hill riding or how that might affect power output. Or 3% of 7% or 20% grades, and how to use those and how they interact with power. And yet I see that I can generate more power on grades of 7-8% than under other conditions. I gained zero insight into this from the book.
- Little or no discussion of hydration and fueling and how to use a power meter to monitor performance in context of a long workout or race as one dehydrates and/or gets low on fuel (“stop and get a caffeinated drink” is not why I bought the book!).
- Psychology of repeated hard workouts. As if there is no “mind” involved, yet high performance is all about psychology. Weird.
- Cross training with road/cyclocross/mountain bike to stay fresh and develop different types of power.
- Cadence vs power output. I have observed variations that seem significant, and this deserves study and a chapter all its own. It is mentioned briefly, but the book is not helpful at all here. For example, should I run a 34 X 28 or a 34 X 36 for a race like the Everest Challenge, with its steep climbs? Because fatigue and cadence can be related.
- Recovery problems and especially how to determine how much recovery is needed. Any plan is worthless if one cannot recover for the next day’s workout (a challenge for me as I write this early in the season). My experience tells me that recovery is FAR more important than the particular workouts.
- In general, the authors do a marginal job of fully explaining topics, taking explanations only half-way, leaving the reader confused about specific details and/or what was really meant, or other variations that might be relevant.
Bottom line is that I felt that I got a box of building blocks, with only a crude idea of how to assemble them, and with a less than clear understanding of which blocks are important to much ultra-endurance efforts, like the Everest Challenge.
Choice of power meter
The book is weak in its discussion of power meters, basically staying so impartial on which to choose that the reader still has to start from scratch. And it says nothing about the headaches that an crop up with various gear. Or the software (PC vs Mac), etc. It leaves a LOT to be desired in helping a reader make an informed choice. Think of it as a summary of where to start your own research.
So here’s my one paragraph helper so that you can skip that whole bland and boring chapter in TRPM on which power meter: the ONLY power meter that I would use is the SRM, because it is proven, works with all my wheelsets, and its Power control head unit just works reliably all the time. The Quarq Cinco might be fine, but it punts on the head unit issue— see my review of the Garmin Edge 500 for why I would never use that as a head unit. TRPM blithely glosses over such issues, which are real and very important. Bottom line: SRM is the best, and the most expensive. You get what you pay for.