In cycling, accurate data can maximize your training efficiency, help you plot out specific race strategy, or give you something to mull over during a slow day at work. Heart rate, normalized power, left-right balance, gear selection; the list of real-time data streams expands every year. Data is here to stay, but how much is too much?
Data is awesome, but the more of it you see, the harder it becomes to meaningfully process. While I’m not one to wax nostalgically about the “good ole’ days” before GPS and Strava, there are advantages to knowing when to unplug.
In this article we’ll focus specifically on the data stream with the biggest footprint in our sport, power.
Power holds us accountable like no other metric. The Garmin beeps, the power meter is detected, and we punch the clock. Wattage has the tendency to incessantly demand our attention.
Power can be beautiful and frustrating in the span of one day. It faithfully reports how hard we’re pushing on the pedals but is miserable at offering any context.
What about life context?
Objectivity is why we love power but also why it can be dangerous. The number on your screen doesn’t tell the story of a challenging day at work, a few sleepless nights, a dramatic swing in temperature, or multiple days of training.
Without “life-context” it’s easy to view power as the end-all in defining our progress as athletes. A fatalistic interpretation of power data is why it’s important to know when to ignore it.
Periodically ignoring power gives us the space to appreciate that the human body is complex. The best theory we have is that exercise performance is regulated by complicated systems in the central nervous system that serve to keep us from destroying ourselves .
As a metric, power fails to capture human complexity. Sometimes a bad ride/race can’t be explained. You’re better off enjoying a classic YouTube video than dragging yourself through the mud. An even better option is to practice positive self-talk, as it can actually improve your performance [2, 3].
As a general rule, endurance athletes are incredibly hard on themselves. Honest, self-criticism is a big part of what pushes us. We hold ourselves to high standards that are more objective than ever.
But as cycling becomes more measurable, don’t forget context. Knowing when to ignore your power meter is an increasingly important training skill, one that has to be practiced. Here are a few suggestions…
- Program multiple screens into your head unit. Sometimes the time of day is all you need.
- Be conservative scheduling demanding workouts on days after racing or during other life stressors. Don’t expect to hit power PR’s if you’re not rested physically and mentally.
- Utilize different layers of power feedback. Some rides might require a view of instantaneous power. On others the “big picture” metrics like kilojoules or TSS might be a better fit.
- Periodically skip the Garmin all together.
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1. Noakes, T.D., Time to move beyond a brainless exercise physiology: the evidence for complex regulation of human exercise performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2011. 36(1): p. 23-35.
2. Blanchfield, A.W., et al., Talking Yourself out of Exhaustion: The Effects of Self-Talk on Endurance Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013.
3. Tod, D., J. Hardy, and E. Oliver, Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2011. 33(5): p. 666-87.