February 18, 2011

Technology's role in your training

Guest post by Scott Jones, Head Coach of Boulder-based IMJ Coaching and 2010 Ironman Canada age group champion:

I have had some fantastic conversations with a few of my athletes on the role of heart rate meters (HRMs), power meters, pacing, and perceived exertion.  In one of these conversations, the question was basically, “Darn it, Scott—why won’t you just give me a number on my heart rate, a number on my power meter and I will race on that number.” 

Wow, if only racing were that easy. If that really worked, and was the most effective way to secure my absolute best effort, I would be on that program for sure.

The bad news, in my opinion, is it just isn’t that simple. Heart rate monitors, GPS devices and power meters all absolutely have their place in our sport.  They are data sources on performance that we can use both in our training and our racing.  What they are not, are sole race guidance that we can just plug in a number and stick to that number.

First, let us talk about heart rate monitors.  HRMs can be a useful and sometimes invaluable tool for our training and racing—as long as we know what we are looking at when we see those numbers.  If you have properly done some of your field tests, as well as know where your lactate threshold truly lies in terms of heart rate for both the bike and the run, the HRM can provide very useful feedback to your current effort.

What one has to remember is that there are a lot of things that factor into heart rate: heat, fatigue, hydration/dehydration and taper all have a vital role in what your heart rate monitor is reporting back to you.  This data taken in concert with pace, watts or, most importantly, perceived exertion can be absolutely invaluable information for you to know how things are going. 

It is critical that you treat this information as one data point among a few others, rather than the sole determinant of where you are in your effort, be it in training, or most importantly, in a race.
Bottom line: heart rate is a data point, not gospel.

So let us now talk about GPS devices. As far as tools for training and racing go, I would classify the Garmin, or other GPS devices, as a key piece of equipment for me on the run.  Knowing my pacing guidelines based on recent prior races or field tests is crucial. I say again, on recent races or field tests. 

For me to go out and use pacing guidance based on the data I have from last year’s training would not be as useful.  Last year was last year.  We need to make sure we link our data to what we are capable of now.  If you are coached by me, this is why you hear me say all the time as you head off to a race, bring me back some data! 

So how do you use this pacing guidance from your GPS device in a race? You know where you should be on race day.  In your training you know what pace you have been able to own. To go out and race at a pace that is nowhere near that will certainly raise issues for you during the day.  Using your pace guidelines along with heart rate and perceived exertion (how you feel) is the key to the castle.

Again, bottom line: pace is a data point, not gospel.

Power meters. Ah, power meters. Get talking about power meters on the bike and some dudes start to salivate. They love them that much—especially those types of cats who love logarithms, the backside of cable boxes and stereos, or any other contraption that takes hours to program and tweak.  I dismissed power meters for years as a tool for the pocket-protector types out there, but have become a believer. 

A properly calibrated power meter on your bike, alongside really good training and field test data—all together now: recent field test data—can be a little like cheating in some race scenarios. In 2005, I was riding along with a buddy of mine a week or so before Kona when he looked at me and said “Jonser, save it for race day, bro!” 

I had no idea what he was talking about.  He told me I was going way too hard.  I said, "How can that be?" My heart rate was hovering around 116 beats per minute.  He told me that I was driving in excess of 260 watts.  I was well rested on fresh, tapered legs and had no idea I was pushing that hard because I was so used to training tired.  That is the magic of a power meter.  It can save you from doing really stupid things. 

Here is the catch: it can also prevent you from going at a rate you are truly capable of if you are driving solely by the numbers.  One of my favorite athletes, Shawn, used to always drive around in races at 180-190 watts and would have bike splits that, while respectable, were not truly to the level of which he was capable. 

Getting him to race the race a little more, instead of just hawking watts, helped him to see he was stronger than he thought. He then started seeing watts well into the 200s during his bike splits.

So the bottom line with power meters: superb data points if used correctly, but not gospel! 

There it is folks: we have some wonderful tools out there that can really help us hold ourselves accountable, but just watching numbers is not racing.  You should absolutely use those tools in your training and racing, but, when racing, there is still no substitute for sticking your chin in your chest and going for it.

We use data points from the tools we talked about to keep ourselves in check and to prevent us from doing something that would shipwreck our effort.  Numbers will always be useful, but using those in concert with how we are feeling on race day and listening to our body will be the determinant for the kind of result we are able to achieve. 

Train with joy or not at all!

Head Coach, IMJ Coaching

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