The Triathlete’s Obsession with Numbers

The last thing an athlete needs is additional stress. Training stress is a positive driving adaptation and building fitness. But you can have too much of a good thing. When you’re training hard and dealing with daily life it builds up. Stats are a prime culprit for adding unnecessary stress.

Beats per minute, Watts per kilogram, threshold pace. We can monitor and measure dozens of variables to quantify and qualify our training. They are a way to guide and improve our performance. We can use them to identify limiters, to address weaknesses and to train optimally. We can also use them to endlessly stress ourselves, to worry about progress and fear our season is already over.

I spent Monday’s post explaining how metrics like CTL and TSB can help guide the fine details of a plan. I’m not about to tell you to throw your heart rate monitor in the trash. I’ve invested far too much in my power meter to give it up. I encourage monitoring and tracking progress with these tools. Use them for motivation and to help you train effectively, but never let them rule you.

Obsessed we constantly watch and test our numbers. Identifying threshold pace, power or heart rate and using them as the basis for training. We chase higher values or longer periods at a given number. Every session trying for a little bit more. Who doesn’t like setting a new PB? It may only be a best average power for five minutes, but it is still new and still better than before.

Improvements take time, we can’t expect them every day we train. Sometimes our need to hit a target leads to disappointment. We test FTP and it’s lower than anticipated. We pushed hard, but never quite reached expectations. A set back. Training must be going wrong?

A single session rarely says much about an entire season. People have bad days. Whether they’re world champions or training for their first race. Nobody has a perfect record. What matters is the trend. When you’re consistently performing below par worry; when you’re plateaued and don’t seem to be shifting be concerned. One day or even a week doesn’t end a season. Look at the overall picture.

When you have an off day the question you need to ask is why. Don’t assume it’s a sign of poor fitness or training. It may be, but equally were you fatigued? Were you well fuelled and recovered? Pacing mistakes? Low motivation? There are many factors that influence how we perform. Don’t write your training off straight away.

It’s not all about how hard you work. It’s about preparing for when it matters: race day. Sometimes that means training hard; sometimes that means training long. A combination of intensity, volume and frequency is required. The mix of training will affect how your performance changes. As I build endurance and efficiency my threshold power may not improve much. If I test it I won’t be surprised by small changes. It’s not been my focus.

I’ve a principle that I listen to my body first and my training tools second. I track some sessions more closely than others, but never obsess. I’ve swum in pools with broken pace clocks, all I could do was make sure it felt right. I’ve spent hours chasing stronger cyclists wilfully ignoring my wattage. It didn’t matter I just needed to hang on. I track pace for my runs, but couldn’t tell you how to display it on my watch.

If I feel good I don’t hold back. If I’m struggling I do the best I can. Remember I wrote about following the intent of a session last week. Do that and over time the trend will move in the right direction. Fitness will improve as will your ability to deliver your desired race.

Whatever the numbers put the work in and on race day do your best. You may not be convinced. Training might not be what you imagined. There’s a tendency to focus on the negatives, the problems. Don’t miss the positives: the accumulated hours of work and the breakthrough sessions. Race day performance is the result of a lot of good and sometimes bad training.