You might just be getting into endurance training, or have been into it for a long time. Either way, you're getting more serious about your racing goals and want to make the most of your available training time. Are heart rate or power training tools worth it for you?
Both tools are terrific options and worthwhile if you want to be analytical about your training and have some instantaneous feedback during your key sessions and races.
If you're going to get a HR monitor, go ahead and get a unit with GPS as well. "Just" HR monitors are available but you'll find yourself wanting to upgrade to a GPS device rather quickly.
Power meters for the bike used to set you back at least $1,000 on the new market. These days, there are a number of new devices available for under $800, with a couple around $500. This is not inexpensive, but reports and reviews for these are all generally positive.
The cons: every device on the market can have issues with hardware or software, just like any other computer, electric or mechanical device out there. Hopefully your tool functions as advertised with a minimum of disruption.
So, how to train with these gadgets? The first step is to establish your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) or functional power threshold (FTP). You can read a bit more about lactate threshold here. Each of these values is a number that, when in shape, you could maintain for roughly one hour at continuous effort.
For either or both, you can work with a sports physiologist in a laboratory setting, or you can do a road/home test.
The prerequisite to this type of testing is that you are actually in good shape. If you're just getting off the couch then you need to exercise consistently and frequently for a few weeks before attempting to establish these threshold values - done too early in your fitness life risks injury due to the effort demanded.
The lab test may consist of a effort step-test (increasing effort) with blood drawn along the way, or a monitored power step test done to fatigue (you can't continue at that effort level).
The home test is pretty simple: Warm up well, then do a time trial in the 30 minute to 1 hr range. The fitter you are the longer you can go. Give it an honest "all out" effort for this duration. Scratch the first 5 or 10 minutes of the test section and take the average of the remaining time. If it was an honest effort, this number will be very close if not exactly your LTHR or FTP.
Take this value and plug it into Joe Friel's HR training zones calculator or Dr. Andy Coggan's power zone calculator. Both are available for free online and can be found embedded within training sites like www.trainingpeaks.com.
Using any other calculation for heart rate, like 200 minus your age, or maximum minus minimum divided by whatever are useless for really specific endurance fitness. This is because each person's lactate threshold is both unique to them and in a constant state of change depending on the training stimulus or lack thereof.
The same goes for bike power - using a general guide of sex and age if one exists would yield functionally useless data for most athletes. Your FTP is your number at a specific point in time and will change as you do.
Now that you know your training zones, you have a clearer idea of what is aerobic training and what is not. The focus of your training will be dependent on what your goals are - if you're training for a one mile run, or a 20k criterium, your training goals are much different than someone preparing for an Ironman or ultradistance run. This is where the concept of specificity and methods of specific training come into play.
Generally speaking, if you're preparing for 70.3 or Ironman events, most of your training will take place at lower percentages of LTHR/FTP. Everyone is different based on age, experience, and fitness, but this is generally true - your focus is becoming as aerobically efficient as possible.
If you're preparing for short bike races, sprint triathlons or 5ks, you'll spend more time at or near LTHR/FTP and above. Your ability is still built on a base of sound aerobic conditioning, but you want to raise your LTHR/FTP as much as possible. While these do improve through aerobic conditioning and body composition management, to really push the values (and hence, your speed) you need to do workouts at/near/above.
Good training programs consider these goals and training needs from a holistic viewpoint including recovery time and stress management. You can work with a knowledgeable coach to help shorten the learning curve. You can find well written pre-made training programs online. And you can, with study and practice, figure this out on your own.
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at www.osbmultisport.com.
One Step Beyond is the producer of the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD, intended to help new to intermediate triathlon swimmers become faster and more powerful in the water.