Training by feel or by numbers?

I’ve spent the week without a power meter. Jittery rear braking drew my attention to some small cracks in the rear rim immediately taking it out of action. Whilst it was being repaired I had to take a step back, abandoning wattage and looking at heart rate and speed if I wanted numbers. Both were alien to me, I’ve vague notions of their relationship with power, but little concern for the details – they’ve never mattered. Over the week I became convinced I was working harder in the absence of power.

Without my Powertap I had no way to know how hard I was training, but it felt like more. Perceived exertion was higher, I might be tired or I might be training harder. Speed seemed high too, but that’s so dependent on conditions, it wasn’t a useful guide. I would never know and as I considered the potential to test the theory I realised I could never find out – were I to ride blind to power, but record it, then aware it was a test I might ride harder!

What interested me was that left to train by feel I worked harder. I’ve observed the phenomenon before; the occasions I’ve been without a power meter have felt the hardest. They’re often followed by strong riding when power is returned as I attempt to prove that I was indeed working more. This coming week in the Pyrenees is going to be interesting – I’ve already set new peak powers over the first two days!

There has recently been a lot of discussion of training by feel versus training to numbers. Many coaches and athletes expressing good arguments for both sides. Spending a week purely training to feel and noticing a difference to training with numbers made me consider my own approach.

I don’t see the need to divide into camps – those who prefer to train by feel and those who like to analyse data. I collect data, as much as I can, on the principle you can only make use of it if you have it. Whilst I collect that data I mostly train according to feel, choosing intensity and pace to suit the day. If I feel strong on the bike I’ll push, but If I feel flat I’ll abandon any plans to test myself. I’ll revisit the harder set another day when I’m better able to complete it.

But I download data from every workout, I log details and keep notes on how it felt. I plot Performance Management Charts and compare the development with previous seasons. In this respect I am analytical; everything is studied – work load and intensities assessed, compared and checked for progress. At times it may influence my plans, but mostly how I feel on a given day says a lot. Plans and performance goals are tweaked according to how I’m responding to the training so far.

Most weeks my goal is to perform certain sessions across the disciplines – long rides, threshold work, long runs, speed work in the pool. A variety of workouts focussed on differing areas of fitness. I have overall performance goals I’m working towards and I focus my attention on races as they approach, but mostly I look to the margins for improvement. When I couldn’t run I put my attention on cycling and helped to transform my abilities there.

Spending a week without power didn’t change the nature of my workouts, though it seemed to increase my effort. Each day I trained by feel and was then mildly frustrated not to be able to download data and quantify the work done. I was stuck with gross estimations based upon heart rate, but I trained and estimated and my methods remained the same.

There’s much to be gained on both sides – planning and looking at the details of how you train, but being adaptable and responsive to how you feel. The important thing is that you do train, you do put the work in – this is what makes the difference. Whether you go by feel like many or you record every second of every session doesn’t matter if the right work is being done.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.