What Am I Looking At?

Technology has pervaded nearly every aspect of our lives. We constantly have our phones, tablets, computers and a variety of other accessories--and all the information they contain--right at our fingertips. As has been the case for the past several years, the same is true for athletics and more and more athletes, from beginning to experienced, are adopting technology as part of their training.

It’s important to distinguish the fact that training itself really isn’t any different regardless of how much or how little technology you have strapped to your bike or body. Ultimately, you still want to train the long endurance systems as well as include a mix of short and long intervals. What the different devices do offer are improved ways to target these efforts and measure progress over time. There is no doubt that the most systematic way to dial in your training is with a power meter on your bike and a GPS for your runs. But it’s easy to get lost in the wealth of information available through these devices and it can quickly become overwhelming.

The best way to get started is to focus on a few key data points and see how these change over time. Once you’ve mastered these first few elements, you can expand your inquiries to some of the other areas available for analysis. Below are the three key areas that every athlete should be keeping track of in training.

  1. Effort over time: the most fundamental illustration of progress is the ability to sustain greater effort over a given period. On the bike, you’ll be looking at power output over key durations that correspond to your chosen race distance. For the run, average pace over a given distance/duration is equivalent to power output since there are fewer variables that affect speed on the run as compared to the bike. Those targeting shorter events should focus on shorter durations such as 1, 5 and 20 minutes, while those looking at longer durations may be more concerned with longer windows like 20, 60 and 180 minutes.
  2. Training load: the only way to increase fitness over time is through a gradual increase in training load that includes changes in both volume and intensity. If you’re familiar with the idea of Training Stress Score (TSS or rTSS for running) you’ve got a great data point to keep track of. This score provides a normalized value of training load for a given session that is comparable across athletes. It is always based on the idea that 100 TSS = 1 hour of threshold. In the same way, 2 hours of less intense work may also yield 100 TSS points. Keeping track of weekly and monthly TSS totals provides a clear indication of how much you’re actually increasing your training load.
  3. Training content: As noted above, TSS includes elements of both volume and intensity. However, those two are not necessarily created equal. The demand of intense efforts above threshold is much greater than more aerobic efforts, making it difficult or impossible to sustain high training volumes. Intensity Factor (IF) is a quick reference for just how hard a given workout was. IF compares your normalized power or pace to your threshold power or pace and yields a percentage, for example 0.83. A value of 1.0 would be equivalent to threshold effort, while values <1.0 indicate easier workloads. It is possible to see IF >1.0 (above threshold), but this would only occur over a relatively short duration.

If you’re watching these three elements consistently, you should have a nice view into what’s going on within your body, both on a daily basis and over time. Only a few devices currently display this information in real-time, but it is easily tracked through software such as TrainingPeaks.com and their desktop-based WKO Plus. Both also generate a wide variety of graphs that make it quite convenient to take a quick peek and know exactly what is going on. A wise coach once said the proper way to train is with the least amount that produces the desired results. Knowing sustainable effort, training load and training content will put you well on your way to achieving your own bests.