Making Your Data Mean Something
I remember when the first GPS watch came out. I was in college and my dad gave it to me as a gift. It was brick-sized and I used it to track my epic two to three mile jogs. I loved it and thought it was the coolest thing around. Fast forward a dozen years later and now it’s almost data overload.
I talk to athletes all the time who are overly focused on the minor details of ground contact time or thier SWOLF (swim golf) score when they should be worried about getting to the pool three times a week and working up to consistent running first.
So let’s get back to basics. With all the metrics available, let’s explore a few key things to keep in mind as far as generating meaningful data for both you as an athlete and for a coach you may report to.
Building Your History
You need data to build an honest history, otherwise that history can morph into remembering your marathon as ‘under three hours’ when it was really an hour slower. How does this happen? Our memories are fallible and not correctly remembering your past times will color your future training and define your expectations in an unhealthy way. If you incorrectly remember your fastest time for a marathon, when you aim for a new Personal Record, you will be using a false time as a benchmark.
Honest data also shows when you have made true progress in your training and racing. After working hard to set new PR, you will want to be able to look at an accurate training log to see how you got there. You can then use your data to replicate and tweak your training to continue improving.
This also applies if you’re not in a position to analyze your data now. Maybe you’re planning on getting serious for a big goal race next year and are just training for general fitness this year. It will still help your future self to reference this year’s efforts.
Use Data for Good
Use your data in a way that doesn’t drag you into a negative emotional state. For example, if you have trouble running easy when it's called for, then you might consider ditching the watch for and only using it for tempo and interval efforts. Otherwise, you can become obsessed that this week your ‘easy’ effort is a 10 minute mile and last week it was a 9 minute mile. This may sound crazy, but it is more common than you think.
While being obsessed with data can be negative, one exception is testing. You must test in order to know if you are improving, but you do not want it to have a negative impact. The solution is to set yourself up so that your test will be a successful one. There are two components that aid in successful testing. First is to not test when you’re exhausted. This is relatively simple to achieve. The second component is not to set unrealistic expectations. An example situation would be harboring an unconscious belief that if you don’t achieve 'X' goal you are not improving fast enough or that you should give up.
What to Track in Each Sport
Every endurance sport has it’s own unique set of metrics and numbers that can be useful. Let’s look at how to make data mean something in all three sports.
In cycling, the gold standard of measurement is power, which is objective. Secondary, or ideally in conjunction with this metric is heart rate. Input and output will show you the work and how you’re responding. Speed is a terrible metric to use. There is little reason for a triathlete to look at speed unless they have some sort of bet riding on the line.
Use power and heart rate during training. During your race, go primarily by heart rate and have a power range your will seek to adhere to instead of an arbitrary magical number.
There are also a few practical details to adhere to in order to make sure you can trust your data:
Always zero your power meter. Failing to do so will make your data invalid and invariably lead to the aforementioned, “I once did something I didn’t really do” scenario.
Select "include zeros" in your measuring device. Sure, it looks cooler to have a higher number without zeros but the fact is you did coast, so it’s telling you a white lie.
“Keep your power curve clean” by only including data from one recording device over the same conditions. Many devices are precise to themselves but their accuracy from one to another varies. It does you no good to hit 200 watts on a 20 minute benchmark effort outdoors, then hit 220 watts for the same effort on your indoor trainer. With two separate scenarios, it will be hard to tell which is the truly accurate number.
While the technology exists to track every lap of your swim, to utilize drill mode, to play swim golf with reckless abandon without having to count strokes, and a myriad of other functions, the question is, do you really need it? Let’s be honest, it’s almost an insult to suggest to a ‘real’ swimmer that they use a swim watch. I don’t usually push using a watch to a former high school or college swimmer who can lap me on a 200. But using the basic functions of a swim watch can help you drive yourself to work towards continuous improvement.
If you swim alone and tend to be the type of person who rounds off their swim times after gazing at a distant wall clock with foggy goggles, then you could probably benefit from a swim watch. If you swam as a kid and can recite your lifetime PRs in different age groups and regularly swim in a masters or other structured program with other motivated adults, then it might not be necessary.
Running watches have come a long way since the original Garmin and are a pretty common technology for runners whether they consider themselves ‘serious’ or not. I typically advise competitive people to ditch the watch if they tend to worry about hitting a certain pace on their easy runs. Don't be afraid to run easy. You shouldn't try to be hitting race pace when your workout calls for an easy day.
So while the technology is out there to literally track every step, stroke, heartbeat, or mile, it’s not of equal importance. Take the time to truly look at what data is important, and how you mentally and physically respond to using data. Meaningful data collection and analysis can drive your performance to a new level.