Feel the Rhythm

The increased amount of data athletes can collect about their training has helped to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible. However, this has come at a price.  Some athletes are too dependent on data when they race.  While post-race data analysis is key for improving performance, real-time data analysis can actually hurt performance. 

The most obvious example I see of this is in time trials.  Athletes will have a power (or heart rate) number they are aiming for and will plan their whole pacing strategy around that number.  However, a number of factors can influence that power or heart rate goal:

  • Altitude – Traveling to different altitudes will alter your ability to sustain a given power output (with higher altitudes resulting in lower power outputs).  Altitude will also alter heart rate. 

  • Stage Races – A time trial in the middle of a stage race means you’ll be racing with some fatigue.  How much this fatigue influences your heart rate and power output depends on the previous races.  It can also depend on how well you’ve slept and ate the previous days which only further complicates things. 

  • Weather – A scorching summer day can reduce your ability to sustain a power output or heart rate over a prolonged time.  Producing power also produces heat.  If you produce more heat than you can lose, your body will eventually start to shut down. 

  • Power Meter Variability – 300W is not 300W on every power meter.  The offset between two power meters is not always linear either.  So swapping gear between races/seasons can create a guessing game with expected power outputs.

  • Competition Knowledge – If you know what power output your competitors will race at, you may think you need to alter your power goal to beat them.  However, aerodynamics influences performance and you may not need to race at a similar power to beat a less aerodynamic competitor.  A race situation will also (typically) increase your heart rate.

  • Nutrition – Caffeine can be great for improving performance.  But it’ll also impact heart rate and influence your target for the race.

Misjudging any one of the above factors can greatly impact performance.  Aiming for a heart rate or power output that’s too high can cause you to start too hard and blow up.  Aiming for a heart rate or power output that’s too low can result in a time that was slower than you were actually capable of. 

So, what can you do?  Learn how to race by feel.  This doesn’t mean you are not collecting data – knowing the data is a key part of improving in time trials.  Instead, just hide the data.  If you can program your computer’s display, hide power and heart rate.  If you can’t program your computer, put a piece of electrical tape over that data. 

Now you may have noticed that I specifically said to hide power/heart rate and not to hide all of the data.  Time and distance are important to know for executing a pacing plan.  Even if you don’t have these variables though, you should be able to properly pace.  In creating your pre-race pacing plan, you should know some of the course profile and markers (i.e. last climb is 10k from the finish, after making a left turn there is 3k to go, etc.). 

The ability to pace by feel isn’t going to happen overnight.  You need to get some practice.  This can be done during training.  If you’ve got a threshold interval set planned, try pacing the first half on data.  For the second half, try pacing by feel.  This will help you develop the ability to pace.

And as I hinted at above, reviewing the data after a race is key to improving.  Record how you felt and compare that to your power profile.  Did the power dramatically decrease throughout the time trial?  Then you started too hard.  If you’ve got a coach, this is where it’s vital to share comments about the race so that he or she can provide feedback on how to prepare for the next race. 

Technology is great but when it comes to racing, we don’t want to be overly dependent on it.  So, to optimize your performance, sometimes it’s best to be “old school” and race by feel. You might even find yourself having fun… Thanks for reading!