Technology in training – the key is in the detail.

What are we doing this for ?

Technology is there to assist us, isn’t it ? Online training plans and diaries, HRMs, swim aids and power meters – all tools available to us for the right price. But are they right for us or not? It’s certainly down to the individual to make that decision, but how do you know you’ve made the right one? Are you a free spirited individual that can go with the flow, or a number cruncher that needs data from a session to make your next crucial training decision ?

I for one, have embraced the use of technology in my pursuit of improvement. Using technology in the right way enables me to track my performance over time or give me real time feedback in a session on the road, both of which have their place in a structured training plan. True, I can train without a watch or powermeter and if the need arises, race on feel. If I really want to know what’s going on though,  I use data to show me.

I don’t however want to lose perspective on why I do triathlon. There are many reasons I love this sport; striving to improve, targeting season goals, the social side of a race weekend with friends. Put all my reasons together and they should still equal FUN; this is important to me, I don’t want to lose it and I certainly don’t want to be a slave to numbers and not enjoy what I do. An athlete can still be driven and enjoy their pastime. Getting to the point of hating pulling on your training gear just because you have to go out and punch in the numbers in your plan won’t lead to good results or a love for the sport in the long term.

Is technology there to help you improve ?

Since I started in triathlon in 1999 there have been significant improvements technology. There are now a multitude of companies providing tools and gadgets with claims on ways of speeding you up by using their products – the inference being by spending more you can buy speed. There are also millions of articles on the internet telling you how you should use this information. And yet there are many athletes who get by without any of the above and do very well. So, who is right ?

Me ? I like to use what I can to make my training interesting, gain a level of feedback that I will find useful to train smarter and then use in my racing.

Using this data shouldn’t fill you with dread, having to hit numbers in Zone 2 or Zone 3 can provide a purpose to each session, if I don’t come up to scratch I want to know why. I might want to see trends that lead to why I haven’t trained or raced so well and this can only be built up over time. It also helps to have a purpose each session – nothing aimless – which means it needs to be written down somewhere and at a level that I need.

Over the years I have built up a records of my training and racing. Some have been good years, a few bad and too many mediocre, but I can look back at this and find direct relationships in how I perform year in year out.

Technology – Service or Product ?

Using this technology in the right way will help you improve but what technology are we talking about? Technology can be classed as essential kit; a new bike, aero TT helmet, the lightest trainers. Some of my purchases have been made because it looked good, it was the ‘must have’ new training tool, or just as basic as being  shinier (no really! – those decisions haven’t gone down well at home in the past!) Let’s not emphasize a stereotype that certain sections of the racing population pick their bikes because of the colour or because it looks nice. My wife couldn’t give a rat’s **** what colour it is or if it’s a nice looking chassis, she wants to know how much it cost and what was wrong with the one I bought last year.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop me doing it !

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So, for purposes of technology definition, I am going to stay away from the ‘essentials’ – you can’t race a triathlon without a bike, trainers or, in open water, a wetsuit. You can obviously buy the best bike there is and yes, it will make you faster if the last bike you had was a 23lb steel Raleigh Equipe from 1986, that’s a given (unless you put on 8 stone since 1986!!) but I want to discuss the ‘extras’ that are available in our sport.

 

The Constant …

For one minute, let’s put the tech to one side. There is always a constant in the mix – I have been competing for around 15 years and it’s pretty clear one factor always present is me, the athlete. Every race I do, it’s me on the start line, it’s my body that’s the limiter. It doesn’t matter what kit you have, it’s you that has to swing the arms (OK – so that’s a definitive of my own swimming technique) push the pedals and put one foot in front of the other. Putting work into you will always bring the biggest benefits. There is no silver bullet (just ask Lance!)

So can these ‘extras’ add to your training or racing to get more out of the time you have and are they right for you ?

Gary wrote a great piece a few weeks ago which is here and I’m not aiming simply to refute his argument as it’s a personal one, however he makes valid points and maybe not-so valid ones for me, so I decided to pen this.

The reasons for ……

There is a key factor in the reason to use technology. You must use the data you have collected for a purpose, or why bother. If you want to get faster, (and thats the aim, right?) then how do you improve if the session you just recorded doesn’t somehow feed into an overall goal of improvement?

Take power meters for example. Using watts to measure the effort output in a session makes a pretty good graph but where does it start and end? The start comes with measuring a base level, something you can see a change from. This normally takes the form of a test of some sort at the start of the season. My current measurement of torture is a CP20. An all out 20 minute power test on my stationary bike where I will go as hard as I can for the set period and then record the average power I have generated.

Why is this useful ? After a period of training has taken place I can retest and see if I have improved. I can also use this initial measurement to set levels (or “zones”) for my training. There are methods for setting zones for training once you have the initial data – one of them is here but you can find several number on the internet. This then enables me to target each session for a purpose, be that recovery, all out intervals or a steady ride. There is always a purpose to the session. We can lose sight of why we are training and racing and having this structure to my session leads to a stronger sense of purpose in my weekly plan and feeling of achievement if I complete the session as prescribed.

Heart rate training follows the same type of measuring and then retesting. Once you have baselined a maximal effort during a run, the sessions for the week can be structured to achieve a balance to get to that goal race faster and fitter than before. I know if I start the season being able to run 8 miles at 8 min pace with a HR of 150 and 3 months later I do the same session but have a HR of 140 I have improved my cardio ability, on the other side of that, I might have the same HR but be 30 seconds faster per mile; either way it’s an improvement I can track and look back on.

Using technology during training can also enable us to recover more effectively. Most athletes will simply not train easy and going too hard on an easy session is the simplest way to jump on the road to injury and potential overtraining. This is one of the hardest things to spot in our sport until it’s too late and even though the majority of us will never get to the overtraining stage it’s better to ensure we don’t before it’s too late.

Not going easy enough in the recovery sessions lends itself to not getting the harder sessions right either. If you haven’t gone easy enough, when you do have to go hard it will be a hit and miss scenario and you will likely end up with a lot of sessions in the middle ground, not hard/easy enough and therefore remaining stagnant or plateauing

In contrast I also find that newbies can get lost in the numbers and it can detract from the purpose of a session, so guidance is advised.

Lastly, the popular age grouper dilemma is a key factor. If I am to make the most out of a session due to time constraints how do I ensure I do this right first time? I have a family and work commitments to juggle and squeezing the time out of my day to get in 1 or 2 good sessions is key. I don’t want that 2 hours wasted, so key focus structure, guided by accurate information, works for me everytime.

The reasons against ….

I don’t have to elaborate too much here as Gary has already touched on his thoughts. I do believe his argument for training and racing by feel has merit but I also think that comes with experience.

For the experienced that ‘edge’ that we have gained from the years of racing can be lost if you rely on data being fed back to you instead of racing with your head. If you never obey the voice in your head and not on your wrist, you may be held back from racing to your potential and this ability to ‘feel the force’ can only be gained over time in the saddle (see what I did there :-))

Not everyone uses or needs technology during training and racing. If you’ve trained for long enough there is a thought around knowing what your body is doing and responding to it without the need for a watch to tell you you are running too fast. Is your head telling you to stop but your legs are telling you to keep going? This is something athletes gain over time. I am a believer that newer athletes will gain a level of improvement and body awareness by using technology to start their careers.

I also believe you would struggle to find many coaches nowadays that could train and guide an athlete if they weren’t wearing a watch or using a bike computer. There has to be a level of detail to work with and although the athlete themselves will know that, how do you translate this to a coach? This isn’t to say that the athlete has to be a slave to the numbers but the translation of RPE from the athlete to the structure the coach wants to prescribe, would be hard to match up if there wasn’t a very good long-standing relationship in place.

So, what next ?

Focus on what you want to get from the available technology. I have worked out over the years, a strategy that works for me. I like to see progression in training, so I use my Garmins for training and testing. I see improvement and can track consistency. I can also see absolute failure when I haven’t hit numbers and I have scratched my head trying to work out why and this is where experience plays a part. I don’t lose myself in a bad session, I learn from it. If, over time, I see this as a blip, I don’t lose any sleep over it.

As for racing, I have used technology but not relied on it. I have had a sensor on my power meter break at 75 miles during Ironman Wales and my Garmin watch failed at Challenge Roth 15 miles into the run meaning I lost my pace partner. On each of these occasions sole reliance on my technology could have led to a complete humour failure and even more serious a mental breakdown in a race. Not having the ability to know your own body and it’s feedback without your favourite HRM telling you this is poor preparation and all attempts in training should be made to simulate the ability to know yourself.

There needs to be a balance. On the one hand the numbers can represent improvement in training but during a race we need a mix of technology and heart. An Ironman day is long and setting out on a 112 mile bike feeling great and riding with your heart can lead to going out too hard and ruining the run. There is a time for technology and a place for using it. As in most things triathlon – practice, practice and practice some more.

Rosey

 

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