Chasing the Right Numbers

Finish training, download the data and study the workout. Look for signs of improvements; checking averages, patterns and intervals. All immediate post-workout activity for the data obsessed triathlete. I consider myself a member of those ranks – I’ve tracked every training metric I can, right down to recording weight fluctuations and hours of sleep. There are many relevant metrics and I know I’m not alone in religiously recording them.

The ability to monitor performance and identify patterns has been invaluable for my progress as an athlete. I’ve learnt what the numbers mean for me; what the levels of fitness (CTL), fatigue (ATL) and form (TSB) in a Performance Management Chart (PMC) tell me about how well I’ll train or race. What weight works on race day and what weight works in training. I know when I’m ready to train harder and when I’ve gone too far. I recognise how these feel, but the data backs me up and warns me in advance.

Building numbers is a strong motivator. Each workout contributes to performance – developing fitness or setting new power benchmarks. Every session is a step towards faster racing. Numbers become targets. Can I push out a few more watts? How quickly can I reach race weight? Raising race power and improving race pace are aims of training, but it’s easy to become obsessed with those numbers; chasing targets every session.

Working hard is good, but it’s a matter of timing. Within a training block there is a mix of intensities, you can’t continuously push your limits. Hard sessions are hard and easy sessions are easy. I appreciate the motivation to do more, more must be better. But if raising the effort of one session negatively impacts another we’re not necessarily making the gains we think. Push for higher numbers when the session calls for it, conserve you energy otherwise.

Focussing on a single piece of data blinds us to the other factors that influence performance. Balance is better. I know what CTL I need to reach in the PMC to be training and performing well, but I’m also learning what level is too far. Beyond a certain CTL I struggle, performance starts to stagnate and training becomes erratic. Besides issues of scheduling and free time, the training load required is unsustainable.

I’m at that point now – Lanzarote pushed CTL beyond a sustainable level. Already fit and in an environment with few distractions building higher CTL was easy. I’d planned more, but even there lacked the capacity to ramp that hard. At home with training plan deadlines and other projects to work on it’s untenable; I cannot deliver the recovery to manage the load. My PMC tells me I’m fit and CTL remains high, but my performance struggles and progress falters. A clear sign I need to control my work load.

I’ve learnt to appreciate the PMC in terms of how I respond to its numbers. Higher isn’t always better, performances matter not the values in a chart. At higher CTLs I can work harder each session, it enables the training that pushes performance. Until maintaining CTL dominates over effective training, then it’s gone too far. I can anticipate performance from fitness and form, but it’s not a perfect mathematical relationship. My Two Day Rule is a guideline rather than an equation.

A number of athletes I’ve worked with had concerns about the growth of their CTL. Chasing higher numbers in preference to higher performance; unwilling to slow progress in a fitness metric to allow better training and racing. We want a high CTL as a platform to improve, we grow it to keep training well and making progress. Finding a point we can sustain is the objective. It may not be the highest number we can achieve, but if it allows us to improve as an athlete it’s perfect.

For those who don’t plot charts and track every metric of their sessions improving performance isn’t a matter of simply training more and harder, it’s about managing training. It comes back to the important of sustainability and consistency as a basis for progress. Chasing hours or mileage doesn’t lead to better results, it’s how you use that time or distance. Sufficient training load and level of fitness is required to progress, but the balance of work and recovery matters.

Whatever hours of training or charts of fitness suggest always ask, am I working towards my goals? That’s what counts. A CTL of 130 sounds more impressive than one of 90, just as a 35 hour training week sounds more impressive than a 25 hour one. But if I train better and improve race performance more on lower numbers why aim higher? Train hard as much as you can, but focus on the right numbers for results.

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