If you read page 1 of most ‘coaching books’ it will start with ‘monitoring progress’. If you keep a training diary, you will hopefully see your power output or running speed progressing on a weekly basis, throughout the training plan. There’s a general view that when you train, you should ‘progress’ from week to week and you can ‘track your progress’ by recording metrics.
I’ve got to be honest… I’ve never started a training program and watched my power output increase week on week in a progressive, linear fashion. Generally I have good days and bad days, some weeks I feel like I’m going backwards and some weeks I feel like I nailed it.
Many of my sessions are based on ‘just get it done’ as I fail to hit yet another specified power output on an interval session or slog my way home on another long ride, trying to hold someones back wheel whilst suffering like a dog.
Sometimes I can go through a full 16 week block and feel like I’ve made no progress at all, then I rest for a race and have an absolute blinder…
So here’s the key thing… in years gone by, athletes would train each day, sometimes feeling great and sometimes not so good. Irrelevant of how they felt, it was ‘another brick in the wall’ or ‘another session banked’. As race day approached, they would rest… become energised and then reap their rewards. The key thing to understand is that ‘performance in training’ was irrelevant, the only measurement of performance was race day. In recent years, there has been a shift towards ‘output based training’ and as a coach, my experience is that it’s messing with a lot of people’s heads…
Intensity V Output
Intensity refers to how hard you are physically and mentally working in a session, whereas output is what you produce as a consequence. So, for example, you might complete a bike session and your heart rate is 165 beats per minute and you rate the session (perceived effort) as an 8 out of 10. Heart rate and perceived effort are measurements of intensity (how hard the session is) and they can be influenced by lots of things. If you’ve had a stressful day (even if you’ve been sitting down) your perceived effort may well be higher and the session just feels harder, so it isn’t just ‘physical’…. mental fatigue is a real thing.
The power output you produced during the session is the ‘output measurement’. Power doesn’t tell you how hard you are physically working, it’s simply what you’re producing, the same can be said for ‘run pace’ or lap times on the track. For example, if you told me you rode at 200 watts today, I have no idea if that’s easy or hard for you. If you tell me that your effort was 10 out of 10, then I know you were working as hard as you can.
Let’s look at an other example…
An athlete does a workout of 10 x 1 minute intervals on the watt bike, with a 2 minute recovery. The aim is to ride those intervals as hard as possible. Following the warm up, the athlete really ‘nails’ the session. They feel as though they are giving 10 out of 10 in terms of effort and finish feeling as though they couldn’t have given any more.
Following the sessions they check the power scores to see that they are 5% lower than the previous week, immediately they are disappointed with the result.
*For reference, if you’re not a cyclist, you could replace ‘power output on the bike’ with ‘running speed on a track workout… this week they were 2 seconds per lap slower’
Things to consider:
1. If the athlete above didn’t have the means to measure power, they would have gone to bed that evening believing it was a ‘great session’. But as they did have the means to measure power… they went to bed disappointed. So just to clarify.. 15 years ago, we all went to bed happy, now many don’t.
2. The session objective was to work as hard as possible and they achieved that, feeling as though they couldn’t have given any more. But despite achieving the objective, they’re still disappointed having seen the power output.
3. There is no evidence to suggest that an athlete who works really hard, but fails to hit the previous week’s power (perhaps as their legs are a little tired, or they missed some sleep) has failed the objective or completed a ‘worse quality session’. To suggest the benefits are not as great, is simply not true and cannot be supported by research. If you are hung up on the number, believing your session quality was poor, you need to question why.
But power is far more accurate!!
The power fans will say it’s all about the power, that’s where the quality lies. After all, it’s the power ultimately which decides how fast you go. Irrelevant of heart rate, or any other physical measurement, your speed on race day is simply determined by how much power you produce.
Yes, you’re correct, power output is a measurement of performance and therein lies the problem, it is not a measurement off training stress. If you train using power for every cycling session, or running speed for every run session, you are in effect ‘testing yourself’ every single session. If you are testing or assessing yourself for every single workout, it can only end in disappointment on many days, when the watts number or run speed is lower than you’d hoped. It is not mentally healthy to become obsessed with ‘output figures’ as it’s just TRAINING… and you cannot perform at your best in every single training session.
Things to consider
1. Athletes are becoming obsessed with output measurements, such as power and speed and feeling as though they have to perform at their best in every session.
2. This can have a significant mental impact on athletes as they are obsessed with looking at their watches and trying to match or beat the previous week. They are then feeling disappointed when they don’t beat or match the previous week.
3. There is no evidence to suggest that if the ‘output is down’ on any particular session, the training quality or benefit is worse.
4. Social media exaggerates the issue as people will see how fast you’re running or how much power you are producing. Not only are people feeling pressurised to beat their own figures from the previous week, they now know that everyone else will see it too. As a result there is common manipulation of strava data to only show moving times, rarely showing recovery times, only showing the important / impressive number.
4. People who train less frequently are often fresh and able to hit higher numbers, some are resting for that sole purpose. Therefore their training is impacted as they are concerned about the ‘result’. Those training harder may not show impressive daily training figures due to fatigue, but when they taper for an event… the difference in performance is far more significant.
5. The process of hitting high ‘output numbers’ in training and the credibility gained from doing so on social media etc, is perhaps replacing the gratification of race results. In some ways ‘sharing / showing data’ has replaced race results as a means of gaining kudos.
6. Athletes looking in (seeing other people’s data) are also becoming obsessed with what they see… They’re concerned that other people are hitting higher number than they are and incorrectly assuming that they are therefore performing better. This is turn starts to mentally impact on their own confidence. Stop looking at other people’s data, it’s damaging you before you even reach the start line.
Last week a friend was chatting to me about the ‘mental health epidemic’ he believed was about to swamp the UK. As usual, when mental health is discussed, he attributed some blame to social media..
He commented on how people are constantly posting fake images, creating an illusion of a ‘fake life’ in which they’re are always happy, using filters and craving likes. In return, other people are looking at those same photos, thinking everyone else’s life is better than theirs and wishing their life was just as good as the life in the pictures they see…
I’ve heard similar comments many times from other people and whether you believe it to be true or not, there are striking similarities with Strava and training data. Stop stressing about the need to perform in every single workout and don’t stress that other people might think less of you if your times are slower on Strava. If you’re following other people, stop worrying that you’re not as good as they are, just because they’re posting better stats. Great performances on race day don’t start with numbers, they start with your head.
Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner. He also has a dog with a wonky leg. To read more about our coaching services, open water swimming, sports testing and bike fitting GO HERE