*** many thanks to Paul Miles for this blog post ***
Power, speed, cadence, heart rate, distance, duration can be called the six dimensions of training. They are the parameters we are recommended to monitor and record during our training sessions; you can find hundreds of articles that tell you the best way to plan, monitor, record, evaluate and assess all this data.
I agree that these measurements are very useful and can form the back bone of a serious and focused training plan. Indeed a power meter is a great addition to measure your performance on you bike because it quantifies your input and allows you to track it, adapt your training and hopefully keep improving.
But has the power and data revolution gone too far? Some coaches preach about power meters; some athletes say there is no point riding without a power meter but are they (and all the other measuring gadgets) so essential? Let's really go "off piste" and question if they actually limit our performance???
Think of the scenario where you go out and you are training hard in a group, been out for 2 hrs and starting to feel tired. You've been constantly monitoring your Garmin and it shows your heart rate is high, power and speed are now in your threshold zone. Someone in the group pushes hard and you try to keep with them so your heart rate/power climb and it starts to feel uncomfortable. You see your power go over your threshold and you start to hope this won't go on too long as you will not be able to keep this level up. Your Garmin shows your elevated values and this affirms why you are starting to feel tired so you drop off the pace to plod home but you make the distance and time you aimed for. Job done, pat on the back by your coach! But did you drop off and feel tired because your muscles are fatigued and your energy is low..........or are you sub consciously limiting yourself and feeling tired by re-assuring yourself that your training is working because you are making the numbers you should. Are you tired because that is what a few hours of 'hard' training is supposed to do? Is the data just affirming what you mind wants you to believe and justifying your tiredness or performance limits?
There has been controversial research that concluded endurance is not limited by energy or physical/muscle limitation but perception of effort. Simply put, your speed/pace/power are not limited solely by your muscles or energy but also by your mind and how hard you perceive you are working/exerting yourself. Are your power meter and measuring gadgets distorting your perception???
For instance, you often hear athletes say I was racing/training "on my limit and couldn't go any faster/further" but once they get to the end, they rest for a few minutes, have a drink of water and then jog/cycle off as a cool down! If they really were on their limit they should be collapsed on the floor and need help to stand up. What was actually limiting them? Maybe it was their power meter showing 300 watts which they adopted as their limit, or a self induced performance ceiling because it was feeling uncomfortable, or both?
Who has experienced 'second wind' where you are riding or running and you reach a low during your training/racing where you feel slower, less energy, less motivated and it's tougher continuing? However, as you get closer to the end you perk up and speed/power increases, energy feels better, generally less fatigued and you surge to the end. What explains this? It's all in your mind because your muscles must be more fatigued at the end of a ride than 2/3rds through it.
Similarly, who has found training in a group provides better results? Peer pressure, combined motivation, distraction etc all help to dumb down your perceived exertion level which enables you to push yourself more and harder.
Power meters and GPS can be huge motivational training devices but exploit their benefits and be conscious of their drawbacks in that they can affirm an exertion state you want to see/believe, and consequently distort your perception. With this in mind I would recommend that at least once per month you train on "feel" alone.
Even better, check if your power meter (or HR monitor) is your friend or foe: put your perception to test by placing masking tape over your display of your Garmin. Go out to train while being in tune with your exertion level - do some max intervals on "feel" and then get home and download your data. Compare how long and far you felt you went with the actuals, then see if your intervals on feel alone are higher/harder/longer than your normal "with data" intervals, in which case your gadget is restricting your performance; whereas if they are lower then your gadget is a motivator!
With your mind playing such a fundamental role in your physical performance, think back over your last season of racing and evaluate if this could have affected your performance. Take my race at Abu Dhabi Tri as an example: I had a plan which set target power (for bike) and pace (for swim and run) which I knew I could achieve and maintain as my training and testing had proven this. I maintained the targets, raced to plan and achieved the time I predicted......but what was limiting my performance? There were numerous times on the bike I could have pushed an extra 20-30 watts but didn't because I had a plan to stick to. I had convinced myself I needed to hold back to save myself for the run, and consequently I finished strong, but partially unfulfilled. Perhaps playing out such a plan keeps exertion levels in a comfort zone and therefore should put the focus on efficiency; in my case I gained a good result but left the race feeling it was a well rehearsed, long training session as I had not really elevated any mental or physical boundaries, and there was no racing spontaneity. Maybe next year will be different...... but ask yourself if you will choose to do training rehearsals in races or really make a break through.....
We all have different aims when we do triathlons; some like to go long, some short, some fast, some steady, some participate and some race. Regardless of your targets, don't be a slave to your data gadgets, also race on "feel". I guarantee the races you will remember most will be those that you battled with yourself or against others; those that you had to go 'beyond yourself' as these push your boundaries, re-calibrate your perception and most importantly, re-adjust your exertion level to a new peak. Keep the gadgets but make "feel" your seventh training dimension and you will become a better athlete and racer.