A Case for Mindful Data-Based Training

Today's guest post comes from pro-triathlete Calah Schlabach. You can find her delightful writing over at her blog. In the era of ever-evolving technology and, especially, a dearth of fitness trackers, Calah makes the case for training the old fashioned way: by feel. 

I once read a competitor’s race report and was shocked to read that she hadn’t had a great bike leg of her race because heart rate monitor malfunctioned, so she didn’t know how to pace herself.

At the time I was still new to, and not entirely sold on, the various data-monitoring gadgets so prevalent in endurance sport. I immediately judged her and thought, “Why didn’t she just ride really hard? Shouldn’t she know what riding hard is, even without her data--how can she be that dependent on it?”

Since that time, I got a power meter of my own and am sold on the benefits of this type of data. I even (grudgingly) admit the benefits of heart rate data, even though I complain to no end about how annoying it is to have a permanent abrasion in the middle of my chest where my monitor chafes me.

There are probably hundreds of articles out there about the benefits of heart-rate- and power-based training. I agree with them. That being said, this is my treatise in support of (sometimes) running and biking free of data, and (always) using data devices mindfully.

I am a runner from the era just before heart rate monitors and GPS watches became the norm. My college coaches were all about running by “feel,” and even had a scale for feel-based pace that ranged from “Sprint” to “Walk the Dog.”

Since starting triathlon, I have converted to wearing a Garmin and a heart-rate monitor for most of my training, but still prefer to go free, leaving all the gadgets at home when I can. However, I have found myself to be a loner among triathletes in this respect. Triathletes love their gadgets, and there is no harm in this. The problem comes, I believe, when we become so attached to our gadgets that we can’t live, train, or race without them.

There are two different problems here, I think. The first is fixation:

It’s easy to get so fixated on our goal paces/powers/etcetera, that we strive after them all the time, every workout, even when we shouldn’t be (and think we aren’t). In other words, easy days should be easy, but sometimes it is tempting to run the pace I think  should be my easy pace, based on my Garmin and my goals, rather than the pace my body is screaming at me that it needs that day.

So, on days I know are meant to be easy or active recovery--and especially when my body is telling me it is particularly tired--I often run without my Garmin and slog along as slowly as my body wants/needs to. This way I’m not tempted to average a certain pace, and I won’t even know my pace; thus I can’t judge myself for it.

The other problem is a lack of feel due to not making the connection between your data and how your body feels when you achieve specific numbers.

Heart-rate monitors were made to help athletes dial in Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). However, they have instead developed into effort dictators. To fix this problem, it is imperative to use devices, but to be aware enough to match RPE with actual training ranges.

In other words, I shouldn’t check out mentally and focus solely on hitting a certain number. By taking note of how quick my breathing is and what my legs feel like when I am riding at threshold power, for example, I will have another method to gauge my effort if my power meter konks out during a race.

Furthermore, even if my power meter never ever malfunctions, I know that mindful training will make me a better athlete. At the same time, sometimes I need a break from the numbers, and those are the times when running free can give my body and mind the break it needs to come back and hit the right numbers on a quality workout.