If you're looking to get the most out of your cycle, equipping yourself with a bike computer was once the only option to consider. But with the likes of Garmin, Apple and Fitbit all stepping up, you can now strap on a smartwatch and receive the same advanced metrics.
Not only do you get all the usual data suspects from a wrist-worn wearable, such as GPS and heart rate, but some even have the ability to hook up to additional bike sensors and create a fuller experience when in and out of the saddle.
But while the Garmin Forerunner 935, Apple Watch Series 3 and Fitbit Ionic are all options to consider, alongside additional sensors from the likes of Wahoo and Garmin, you still need to know how to make the most of them. And, as with swimming and running, some of the data can get a bit overwhelming if you're only just getting started.
But fret not, we're here to help. Below, we've deciphered some of the most frequently used cycling metrics to give you a better understanding of how it all works and what it all means.
Got any questions? Hit us up in the comments and we'll try to clear things up.
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Let's start with the the most important cycling metric, and one that will prove absolutely integral to better understanding your ride and improving your performance.
There's a smorgasbord of information that comes with cycling with a power meter, but let's clear up the basics here. Power is essentially the rate at which energy is used over time, with this measured in watts. Naturally, this energy level fluctuates depending on effort, meaning that those calf-melting climbs are accounted for much differently to when you're kicking back and flying down a decline. Because of its objective nature, it's the most accurate way to analyse your work rate and help build your training around.
And if you want to take advantage of it, you also have plenty of options. Power meters almost always come with ANT+ connectivity, meaning they can be synced up with Garmin multi-sport heavyweights like the Fenix 5 or aforementioned Forerunner range, and some newer models are even starting to come with Bluetooth support, too. The big benefit here, of course, is that you can view the likes of total power on the wrist as you ride, and you can expect detailed feedback once you sync your meter up with its companion app in the post-ride.
Companies and apps may all call the peripheral power insights slightly different things, but the key thing you need to know is that this is the starting point for opening up your ride to more detail – and that also starts with giving yourself the Functional Threshold Power test.
Just be aware that the metrics you'll receive will vary depending on where your meter is being placed, and all come with their own positives and negatives. Be sure to fully explore whether you want a meter for your rear wheel hub, the pedals, crank arm, crank spider or bottom bracket, and, as we say, make sure it has ANT+ if you want to sync it up to a computer, watch or smartphone in real-time.
Power may be the most objective way to measure your rides, but heart rate is also a surefire way to get a closer look at your body's effort on the bike. And when they're paired together, you're cooking with gas.
After all, while that total power metric is the key to understanding what you're doing, heart rate gives you a deeper look at how your body is reacting to all the work. So, for example, you may be cycling with less than average power but still feel like you're putting in maximum effort. If you have your heart rate reading feeding back to you in real-time, you can measure this more objectively and see whether you're truly gassed or whether your mind is playing tricks on you.
Related reading: The best heart rate monitors you can buy
Since not everybody can afford to invest in dedicated power meters and you may already have a smartwatch with a heart rate monitor, this is also a great way for beginners to analyse their input. And though wrist-based sensors on smartwatches and fitness trackers aren't always the most accurate when compared to chest straps, they are hassle-free and still give detailed breakdowns.
A bit of a self-explanatory metric here, and also one that you can pick up a dedicated sensor for in order to track a bit more objectively.
When mounting a sensor onto your bike that's dedicated to tracking your speed, you'll be able to get a real-time look at the miles per hour you're pedalling at, and also sync this up to a compatible ANT+ computer, wearable or smartphone. A good example is the Wahoo RPM Speed sensor shown above, which wraps onto the front wheel hub.
Ever watch professional cyclists and notice how their legs always seem to be in a perfect loop when pedalling? Well, that loop is used to measure cadence, and is the rate at which a cyclist completes this movement. One total spin around the pedal is one revolution, and this is calculated over a minute in order to give an indication of average and current cadence.
It's a valuable metric for those interested in exploring training between fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres (as a very general rule, a low cadence on high gears is more taxing, using fast-twitch fibres, and higher cadence on a lower gear works your slow-twitch fibres), and mixing up training to test both is a solid way to ensure you improve your overall force on the pedals.
You're not expected to count the reps yourself, obviously – you're not Rain Man. That's why cadence sensors can be fitted onto your pedals in order to give you a live look at how this is varying through your ride. It's also a staple of many static bikes you'll find in your gym, making it easy to incorporate into your training.
This is a tricky one, since some devices will use the information you input into a companion app or wearable and some will simply take a rough estimate. There are also complications with regard to some trackers breaking down calories into active calories (ones you burned when actually cycling) and total calories (numbers you burned during that time, including resting calories).
Essential reading: How your fitness tracker measures calorie burn
Once you've deciphered where your device falls in these categories, it can become another key metric to measure your training by. If you really want to get the most out of it, though, it's probably best to look at alongside your heart rate and power information.
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Again, a bit of a self-speaking one here, but a metric that can vary depending on the device you're using. This will be measured by the GPS data provided through your wearable, computer or smartphone, but be aware that not all are created equally when it comes to accuracy.
Some companies, like Garmin, offer power-saving modes that help you stretch out GPS tracking over more considerable distances. That's all well and good, and certainly better than running on empty, but be aware that pinging for a GPS signal less frequently can leave you open to inaccuracies with your total distance.
There are also variations when it comes to how your distance is broken down in the post-cycle. Some will give you mile-by-mile breakdowns on speed and more, or even annotated maps of your route, and some only provide your flat number.