In today’s Journal Club we’ll check out a fascinating new study that examines whether looking at too much feedback during a time trial makes you slower on the bike. Is it possible to improve your cycling performance by limiting the amount of data you focus on during a race? Let’s find out.
Bayne, F., et al., Less Is More—Cyclists-Triathlete’s 30 min Cycling Time-Trial Performance Is Impaired With Multiple Feedback Compared to a Single Feedback. Frontiers in Psychology, 2020. 11.
It’s hard to run into a cyclist these days who isn’t aware of their power output on the bike. Racing, training, fitness, there aren’t many cycling contexts that aren’t surrounded by numerous channels of data.
I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of all this extra data on the performance of the cyclists I work with for the past five years or so.
One strategy I’ve tried to use is to get cyclists to simplify the screens on their Garmin or Wahoo. I’ve written about that process in a recent post, as well as throughout our free Cycling Workout Guide.
At any rate, my interest in simplifying data on the bike is the primary reason this new study caught my attention.
Let’s take a look at a few of the basics of the study design.
1. Evaluate how feedback impacts TT performance
Researchers compared how cyclists performed when exposed to different feedback scenarios during an indoor 30k TT
2. Participants rode with either one or seven channels of feedback
The single feedback condition included one stream of data. “Multiple feedback” included seven streams of cycling data.
3. Researchers noted that “single feedback” cyclists were faster than “multiple feedback” cyclists.
The “single feedback” group covered a greater distance during the 30k TT than the “multiple feedback” group.
Now that we have a basic overview of the study design, let’s jump in for further details.
Q – Can you explain a bit more about the participants in the study?
Researchers used 20 participants split into two different groups. The first group (10 participants) was considered to be “non-cyclists” who had no prior experience with cycling. The second group (10 participants) was comprised of cyclists and triathletes who had on average 10 years of cycling experience.
Q – Can you expand more on the two different experimental conditions?
During the TT, feedback data was displayed for the cyclist to observe. In the “single feedback” condition only the elapsed time was displayed on a monitor. In the “multiple feedback” condition riders saw their real time, speed, elapsed distance, elapsed time, power output, cadence, and heart rate.
Q -What’s with the headset things in the picture above?
Researchers in this study also used eye-tracking technology to investigate which channels of data the cyclist was most often glancing at while riding. What you see in the picture is a headset used to identify where cyclists were most often glancing during the TT.
Unsurprisingly, most cyclists spent the majority of their time looking at power as you can see in the image below. After power came time, heart rate, speed distance, then lastly cadence.
Q – Can you expand more on the TT that was used as a performance trial.
After a standard warmup, indoor TT’s were conducted individually to avoid competition with others, and each participant was asked to cover as much distance as possible during the 30 minutes. Five days after their first TT a participant would return to complete the other TT condition (either multiple or single feedback).
Q – What were the performance differences between the single and multiple feedback groups?
The “non-cyclists” performance did not differ between the single or multiple feedback conditions.
In the cyclist’s group, those racing with single feedback covered a greater distance during the TT (≈8.7k vs. ≈8.1k) than those exposed to multiple feedback.
There was also a significantly greater increase in power output during minutes 24 through 30 for the single feedback condition. You can see these differences in power output highlighted below.
Q – Did researchers offer a rationale for why the single feedback condition seemed to drive greater performance?
Researchers suggested that multiple feedback channels might contribute to mental overload during the effort, subsequently impairing performance.
Q – Are there any other interesting points of discussion from the study?
One interesting question I have after reading through the study is whether or not the differences in performance in the two feedback conditions were driven by the type of feedback drawing focus or the reduction in the total number of feedback channels. Let me explain.
The single feedback condition had cyclists focusing on the most relevant performance variable (elapsed time).
What would the comparison look like if you mixed things up with a more typical outdoor TT? Let’s say the single feedback condition focused on power, with the multiple feedback condition remaining the same?
I have a hunch, that for most cyclists who regularly train with power, spending the bulk of your attention (like riders did in the study) zeroed in on your power output during a TT might be hurting your performance.
Power tells you how hard you’re going, but it can’t be tied directly to what you’re trying to achieve (to either cover as much distance as possible such as this indoor TT, or to complete a specific distance as fast as possible (like you would in an outdoor TT).
Q – What do you see as the main takeaway from this study for me as a cyclist?
If were to take away one thing from this study it would be this.
It makes sense to experiment with limiting the number of feedback variables you regularly absorb while riding a bike, especially during maximal efforts like TT’s, race-paced climbs, or most race scenarios.
Furthermore, it makes sense to come up with a few context specific singular variables to focus on based on the type of cycling effort. Here are a few examples.
- If your goal is to follow the leaders on a climb, there’s only one feedback variable that matters: that’s the distance between your front wheel and the back wheel of the last rider in the lead group. Power doesn’t matter, HR doesn’t matter, cadence doesn’t matter. The distance between wheels is the only piece of feedback that should be drawing your attention.
- If you’re riding by yourself going for a new PR on a climb, the most important feedback variable to consider is probably elapsed time to the top. It might be helpful to break down different segments of the climb to benchmark your climbing time throughout an effort. Another higher-tech option is to use a real-time segment tracking feature to “chase” a specific time on the climb.
- For a time trial, perhaps a flexible feedback strategy would be best. This might see you utilize a focus on power in the early stages of the TT, followed by a shift toward RPE, or distance covered in the later stages of the TT.
Q – Any final thoughts?
If you loop back to the image from the study comparing power output in the two different feedback conditions, one thing jumps out at me.
Cyclists in the “single feedback” condition started out going harder and finished going harder. In other words, they didn’t allow their preconceived notion of how hard they thought they thought they should go, limit their performance.
In other words, don’t allow your power meter to set an artificial limit on your performance. Build space into your pacing or race strategy to surprise yourself. No matter how much experience you have with training with power, racing and competing is special. Be open to surprise.
- Bayne, F., et al., Less Is More—Cyclists-Triathlete’s 30 min Cycling Time-Trial Performance Is Impaired With Multiple Feedback Compared to a Single Feedback. Frontiers in Psychology, 2020. 11.