As triathletes, we are obsessed with data. That is no secret. The thing is, how much does it actually help? Does a myriad of information about our training session actually help us physically, or is contributing more to mental satisfaction?
Over the modest number of years I have been competing in triathlon, my relationship with data has evolved. This is kind of how it looked:
- Year 1: I used to plot my run routes on a rudimentary route-plotting platform online AFTER I had been for my run to find out how far I had gone
- Year 2: I had the Garmin Forerunner that looked like you had some sort of 1990s satellite phone strapped to your arm. I looked at distance and time for running and strapped it to my bike handlebars so I wouldn’t have to do a post-ride route plot
- Year 3: I upgraded to the Garmin 910 multi-sport watch. I now looked at time, distance and pace for swim, bike and run
- Year 4: I acquired a separate bike computer and now had a crank on my bike which measured power output. I didn’t understand what it really meant. New Garmin 920 multisport watch
- Year 5: I know my CSS swim pace, FTP and various percentages of target power, and my threshold run pace by heart. I use Training Peaks to analyse my sessions, poring over TSS, IFs and assessing fitness, fatigue and form indexes. I measure heart rate variability and all my software is synced to my coach, so he can analyse the data too
Now this ‘data journey’ I have travelled on is hardly unique to me. It’s also not surprising, given the proliferation and advancement of technology over the past five years or so. But it has and still does serve to provide me with feedback on my training. I mean, what’s the point of it all unless it is going somewhere?
Some people feel that the ‘data frenzy’ has gone a bit too far and it takes away from the authenticity of the sport – many of the great athletes in the sport’s history just trained and raced by ‘feel’, they didn’t need live feedback every minute of every workout to verify that they were working hard.
I can completely appreciate this, and sometimes, data does compromise enjoyment. Inevitably there will be days where you’re just not feeling it, your body is resistant and quite frankly, you’d rather be sat on the sofa watching Netflix. Can data tell us whether we are simply being lazy, or whether in fact we actually might need a rest day?
Possibly, but I don’t any algorithm in the world will ever be as sophisticated or intuitive as your own body, and learning to listen to it and understand it is something which happens through maturation as an athlete.
However, for me, data has proven invaluable to my development and improvement in the sport, and I think there’s two key components to this:
- At risk of stating the obvious, you know you’re improving in your sport if the numbers tell you so, and you can look at them every day
- You can train at specific pace/power targets set to increase your threshold/VO2 max
- Similarly, you can reign yourself in and stick to the numbers during easy/steady sessions, without risk of encroaching on the ‘junk miles zone’
- Various testing throughout the year can help establish benchmarks, re-set pace/power zones and measure performance improvements
- Data can provide feedback about whether you are fatigued and perhaps might need extra recovery time
- Data provides reassurance that the time, energy and commitment you are putting in day in, day out, is paying off, which can help motivate
- It helps to back up intuitive feelings, i.e; “I’m feeling great today, and it’s showing in my power output”, or “I’m feeling really tired, I can’t even hit my sub-threshold pace and my heart rate is higher/lower than usual”
- By having consistent records of your training on various software platforms, you can track improvements/trends over years and compare ‘the bigger picture’ of where you are now versus where you used to be. This is especially important if your gains are very marginal, which for many of us, they are. It provides perspective and motivation to keep pushing
For me, data provides that reference point to make sure that the stuff you're doing every day adds up. Otherwise, it can all feel a little pointless, and what we need as goal-driven types of people is a nod in the right direction every now and then. Obsessed, maybe, but isn't that what differentiates the good from the great?