One of my early coaches was fond of encouraging me to “just do the work”. The phrase became a personal mantra that continues to echo in my consciousness, to this day. 5 intervals into a 20 interval set and I was starting to feel uncomfortable; “just do the work”. 3 days into a 5 day block of 4-6 hours rides during a training camp; “just do the work”. The steady accumulation of training load from year to year; “just do the work”.
I’m a passionate proponent of the use of science and technology in cycling; power meters in particular. However, as this technology has become more widely available and spoken about, I’ve observed a number of riders developing less than healthy relationships which the read-outs from their power measurement systems. Specifically, I’ve had to encourage a number of riders I coach to learn to listen to their body again, rather than being a slave to % FTP (Functional Threshold Power).
Can Perception Beat Technology?
As a coach and sports scientist, I’m always interested to understand more about athletes: how hard are they working during training; are they ‘ready’ to do a particular session. For many years, I’ve used a variety of tools and gadgets to achieve this: power meters, portable blood lactate analysers, metabolic carts to measure inspired and expired gases. However, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that self-report measures, using our own perception, can be as, if not more, effective than many objective, technological approaches. For example, in 2015, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a systematic review which analysed 56 original studies. These studies concurrently measured subjective and objective parameters of acute (short term) and chronic (medium to long-term) training loads. The review suggests that subjective self-report measures frequently surpass commonly used objective measures:
“Subjective measures reflected acute and chronic training loads with superior sensitivity and consistency than objective measures”. (Saw, et al., 2015)
Don’t Throw Away Your Power-Meter
Whilst I certainly don’t think we should be throwing away our power meters, this study reinforces the value of paying attention to the way we feel, as well as our watts. Cycling is a sport which rewards turning up and putting in the hours. If you want to reach the peak of endurance performance, there is no substitute for a carefully managed progression in the work you do on the bike. However, power meters can be a blessing and a curse in this regard. Human minds and physiology do not operate like machines. Sometimes, seeing an interval’s average power drop just below what we think we should be achieving can negatively influence our perception of how we’re feeling. This, in turn, may cause us to terminate a training session prematurely, rather than pushing through. The session may not have turned out to be statistically perfect, but may still represent valuable training load, which may be more important than a perfect graph in our coaching software.
Of course, rest and recovery is vital, but the wisdom of the coach and the athlete is knowing when to rest and when to push through fatigue, and that decision should not be based entirely on objective measures.
Success And Showing Up
I was interested to read another recent research paper, from a group of scientists in Australia (2). Their study set out to investigate the impact of training modification (missing sessions, for example) on achieving performance goals. Previous research has demonstrated an inverse relationship between injury burden and success in team sports. That is to say, if players are injured more often, team success in competition is reduced. However, up until now, this relationship has not been investigated within individual sports.
The study followed a group of Australian track and field athletes over 5 years and concluded that training availability – showing up and doing the work – during preparation periods for competition, was the major determinant of an athlete’s chance of success or failure. It’s a message that is worth considering. In a time when we’re overwhelmed with data, sometimes we need to remember that our best chance of success may not rest in technology, but in listening to our body, showing up and just doing the work.
1) SAW, A. E., LUANA, C.M., GASTIN, P.B. (2015) Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
2) RAYSMITH, B.P. & DREW, M.K. (2016) Performance success or failure is influenced by weeks lost to injury and illness in elite Australian track and field athletes: A 5-year prospective study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.