Don’t Be a Slave to the Numbers

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 by admin

In most training circles, almost every person is training by heart rate, pace, speed, or power. All of these metrics are very important to the design of a training plan and periodizing your season. Most coaches use these metrics as a measure of their athlete’s performance, failures, successes or even as a method of preventing the athlete from going too hard.


Some folks live and die by the numbers they put up for each of their workouts, comparing themselves to other athletes and even professionals. Let me be the first to say that, as a coach, these numbers are critical to an athlete’s success but sometimes focusing too much on the numbers can hurt you and hold you back. Here are some items to consider if you find yourself in a place where all you think about before, during and after a workout is what kind of pace / power / heart rate you are going to log into the training book.


  1. Devices Fail. Despite the advent of all of these fancy devices we can’t live without, they all ultimately rely on batteries, ANT+, Bluetooth, GPS satellites, strain gauges, etc. Eventually, you will have some days where you heart rate strap dies, power meter stops working, and GPS craps out on you. When this happens, you need to be able to know what to do. Think about these scenarios. If you rely too heavily on the devices, it may be time to start listening to other things during your training.
  2. The first item brings us to our second. Learning to understand your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and breathing is critical to success for any athlete. The best way to understand your RPE is thru testing with all of the above named devices. With your coach, you can perform lab or field tests to determine training zones. Once you have established your zones, go out and train, but one day change your displays so you can’t see your power and only HR, then ride how you feel and observe the data afterwards. Same goes for a run, remove your pace from the watch display and go for a run. Analyze the data after the workout. One game I like to play during my runs is to run for say 1 song 3 – 5 min and get in a nice groove at the end of that song try to guess what pace and HR you have been running for the past 3 – 5 min. If you do this often enough, you will get really good at listening to your body and understanding what it feels like to run steady vs. hard. This can prove extremely valuable during a race when at mile 3 of an Ironman marathon, the HR strap stops working and the watch battery dies. You know what it feels like to run steady and you can avoid blowing yourself up.
  3. One of my coaching philosophies is all about being consistent in your training. I don’t like athletes to take zeroes. I much prefer active recovery. I have written about this in my previous posts on off season training. A short 20 min. easy swim is always better than laying on the couch. The challenge of this type of coaching is with athletes who love to look at the numbers they post in the training logs. Many times they want to go, go, go when they really need to be slowing themselves down and going easy. By learning to listen to your body and taking it easy on your easy days, you will ultimately save yourself from injury and burn out. If you always try to post the best numbers, most likely you are going to burn out and get injured. I always say to athletes that I would rather run 10:00/mi on every run for the next 5 months than to be sitting on the side lines with an overuse injury. High intensity efforts take their toll on the body. There is no way around it, even for the best athletes. These efforts should be placed strategically in your schedule and periodized within your season.
  4. The last item is the most important and took me a while to learn when it comes to training by the numbers. The bottom line is that you can’t be afraid to fail. When athletes are going for a new personal record, many times they have a plan or strategy that involves racing by certain numbers. Sometimes, by the time the athlete gets to the run leg of the race, they are quickly approaching their PR time and keep looking at the watch and wondering, “If I keep holding my HR under 160 and pace at 8:00/mi, will I make my PR?” At this point, the athlete has to make a decision to race by the numbers or go for it. Sometimes, the athlete may fail going for it and running faster than they should or they might have success. If they have success, then they just set a PR and learned a little bit more about what they can handle. If they fail, then they at least know that for next time.

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