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Triathlete Blog

D is for Data

D is for data. The number, the graphs, the downloads. You can gather information and numbers on just about everything – your heart rate, cadence, power, oxygen saturation, vertical oscillation. There are websites, apps and tools not just capture but analyze all of this data. Training Peaks and Best Bike Split just announced The Pacing Project – a useful tool for predicting your race day, course-specific run paces.  The amount of data available to gather and interpret is amazing – if not overwhelming!  What is important to track?  What does it all mean?

Some coaches coach entirely by data, others completely disregard it. Which approach is right? The more important question is which works best for you. Having been coached with data, by data and without data, I assure you that each has benefits.

Coaching by data means that decisions are made, day to day, based on what the numbers are saying. Specific paces and watts are prescribed. Patterns over time are observed and predictions about races are made. The benefit of this approach? It’s highly personal, timely, honest and very clear. There is no guesswork – you know what to do and when to do it. It is simple, measurable and reinforcing. You see the progress. You know exactly what you’re capable of. The drawback of this approach is that athletes are human and always subject to change. What might be our easy pace or wattage one day can feel difficult another day due to life stress, dehydration or cumulative fatigue. Athletes can also get too obsessed with the execution or the chase – burying your head in a power meter or incessantly checking your Garmin can become an additional stressor or pressure that leads to distraction and overthinking.  Overachievers are prone to adding work just to simply see their “blue line” rising on a performance chart. Data can also become a burden of measuring yourself day to day.

Coaching without data means training by how you feel. Feeling good? Consider a harder training day. Feeling not so good? Take it easy. The benefit of this approach is that it’s very responsive. It tends to work well with highly self-aware and advanced athletes. Athletes who have an intuitive sense of their pacing and abilities. Surprisingly, this is often developed through years of first following a data-driven approach! This approach also works well with athletes who, for lack of a better way to put it, get all up in their head. The athlete who’s analyzing the session within the session – creating even more stress. Stripping away the technology and encouraging them to go by feel can be very freeing and rewarding. Tremendous confidence can be built from the feel of nailing a session without analyzing the exact paces you hit. Yet at times, this approach can be too wishy washy. This is where athletes risk going too hard on their easy days and too easy on their hard days. Some need data to stay honest – slowing them down or giving them that nudge to show there’s more in there. Moreover, how do we know our training plan is doing what it’s supposed to be doing? How do we know that we’re on track?

Coaching with data uses the data to supplement an athlete’s subjective feedback. Understanding that numbers aren’t everything but are definitely part of something. This is the approach that I embrace. It is very fluid, using data to assess patterns over time and supplement how an athlete feels day to day. Data gives me proof – to tell them they need to eat more, drink more or slow down. Data also helps me to develop an athlete’s perception. At times, what feels easy may not actually be easy based on our current fitness. And other times, what feels hard actually indicates that we have more in the tank.  This approach develops the whole athlete – the one who can look up from their device and make real-time decisions based on how they’re feeling, how the race is unfolding or what they want to accomplish. Using data support what we’re doing but ultimately teaching the athlete to learn to trust themselves and their abilities.

As for myself, over the years I’ve performed many self-experiments. I’ve had some of my best races being coached by data and others going completely by feel. To me, what matters most, is following the plan you trust the most. This might even change year to year based on what you’re looking to achieve or how you’ve changed as an athlete.

My experience? My first ten years in triathlon, I raced without data and achieved many incredible performances. Some of my best. Part due to age but bigger part likely due to the fact that I was totally plugged into what was going on in the moment, with my body and in the race. Same went for training. I had built up the mental toughness, awareness and grit to know what it looked like to really go hard and respected what my body gave me for sessions where I went easy. I didn’t push the pace at a time when I felt heavy and slow – I let myself be slow. I learned how to mentally dig myself out of energy and confidence crises. I learned pacing in odd ways – I used to do “mile repeats” on a loop that started and ended at a hickory tree. I learned how much I had to push into and out of the turns, the turnover in the last stretch, the sound of my breathing to hit 6:xx pace and to hit sub 6s. No track involved. No GPS. Just a tree. It wasn’t until years later that I finally measured the loop only to realize that my mile was short a tenth of a mile! To think, I wasn’t as fast as I thought I was – but at the time, you could have fooled me!  I had built an amazing confidence in my running ability. I went into every race thinking catch me! At the same time, I’ve ridden thousands of miles with my eyes checking in on the power meter to be sure I’m going hard enough or easy enough, to be sure all of that is lining up with cadence and heart rate – adjusting my pacing, fueling, hydrating based on what I’m seeing. Both approaches were valuable. Both approaches delivered me to overall wins and personal bests.

But if I had to pick one, well, that’s tricky. For the less experienced athlete or those who struggle with pacing, technology serves as a leash to hold them back when their tendency is to go too fast or a guide of what to do when. But after a few races under your race belt – don’t be afraid to trust your stuff and go dataless (or cover it up for review afterwards). You see, when it comes to peak performance, there is so much more than data and numbers. If it was that easy, we’d all go to a website, enter our training data and not even bother showing up for the races. We’d collect our medals from behind our laptops and then go back to training. Instead, the good stuff, the reason I keep racing is to find out. To answer my questions: if my body is this fit, this ready – what can happen? If the conditions are this challenging, how far will I rise above? What will my mind allow my body to do when it is fighting the other way? When everything is on the line and someone runs up on my shoulder – what action will I take? Some call that mental toughness, grit or drive. I call it the immeasurables.

You can quantify everything except what might be argued as the most important thing: the immeasurables. Show me any successful athlete and I will show you someone with commitment, heart, self-awareness and drive. These things can take an athlete who lacks in “talent” and place them in a position to go further than they’re physiologically designed to go or what the formula predicts they’ll do in racing. There needs to be a place for these things in training and racing. The risk of the data-driven athlete is that they become a robot. Robots do not win races. Athletes do; intuitive, dialed in, driven and hungry athletes who want the win. Who know what is realistic based on data in training but on race day are not just prepared to execute based on their current fitness but to always be open to the possibilities.