Meanings of Watt Cycling Power: Is High and Low Good or Bad?

You probably associate the term "watt" with light bulbs rather than riding a bike. But the term, derived from Scottish inventor James Watt, measures rates of energy conversion, whether they be created by electricity in a glowing filament or your legs pumping the cranks to bring a bicycle up a hill, ramp or mountain pass. More watts or power conversion is a good thing, as it demonstrates more reliably than other methods increases in your fitness.

A cyclist is riding his road bike in the mountains. (Image: dulezidar/iStock/Getty Images)

History

For decades, cyclists measured their performance by looking at miles per hour or heart rate. In the 1990s, elite cyclists switched to measuring their power output in watts. When Lance Armstrong trains, for example, he uses a device to provide a more accurate gauge of exactly how much force he is applying to the pedals. Since the late 1980s, companies including SRM, Powertap and Ergomo have made these devices, which measure the deflection of the crank arm using minuscule gauges or in some cases employ a specialized wheel hub. A handlebar computer displays and stores the data. Armstrong pores over wattage data obsessively, writes Christopher Koch in "CIO" magazine. Whereas an average cyclist can produce 100 watts, Armstrong can average 400 watts over the final hour of a Tour de France stage.

Significance

Training for an elite race requires an appropriate balance of training duration, intensity and frequency, writes Jeffrey P. Broker, a University of Colorado biomechanics professor, in "High-tech Cycling." Training intensity is the toughest variable to measure. Speed is a poor measure, as it relates more to terrain and wind. Heart rates provide a rough gauge, but they vary in response to temperature, humidity, altitude, hydration, fatigue, caffeine intake and exercise duration.

Function

Energy delivered to the pedals and measured in watts measures the intensity of your work. Measuring power allows you to monitor your training, characterize your practice course, assess your aerodynamic sleekness and drag, and assist in pacing. Broker notes that wattage figures measure the work of applying energy to the pedals but not the total physiological energy expended to perform the task. Cyclists are about 21 to 24 percent efficient in converting chemical energy to mechanical energy during cycling, he writes, so a cyclist riding at 250 watts is expending metabolic energy at a rate of nearly 1,000 watts, or 1 horsepower.

Benefits

The advantage of power monitoring is that "watts don't lie," writes Selene Yeager in "Every Woman's Guide to Cycling." Wattage figures stay exact, unlike heart rate. If you ride your standard circuit and average 160 watts where before you only managed 125, you have gotten stronger, she indicates. To measure your wattage, you warm up and ride for 20 minutes at the highest power you can maintain. You reduce that number by 5 percent to arrive at your lactate threshold power, which is the wattage you can maintain for about an hour. With your coach, you then set up training zones of varying duration and watts.

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