What’s In It For Me? – Using Triathlon Training Technology

Associate Coach Mike Mahoney on Superflag, The Boulder Experience 2013

by Mike Mahoney


There’s a lot of endurance sport and triathlon training technology out there. There is a bewildering array of gadgets to supply you with an even more bewildering array of data on your training. If you’re a professional, elite, or top age group triathlete, you probably already know all that. You also most likely use several different technologies to record your speed, power, cadence, paces, strokes, heart rate and what-have-you; and record those metrics religiously using one of the online coaching tools I talked about in my last post. And if you’re doing all that you certainly know your reasons for taking the time.


But I don’t coach professionals. My clients want to get faster, but they’re fitting their triathlon training into a busy work week, with no monetary payoff to justify the time and expense of additional technology. For every elite or professional there are thousands of age groupers out there – doing the training, going to races, paying the fees that fund the sport – cheering on the pros and elites and looking for ways to improve themselves. My clients are asking not only what technology to invest in, but what improvement they can expect.


And when it comes to technology, there’s a lot of improvement to be had. This article is for age groupers: what technologies are the pros and elites using? How do they use technology to build fitness and speed? And most importantly, what can I learn from all this technology to drive my own improvement? In other words, what’s in it for me?


Reasons For Using Triathlon Training Technology

Keep in mind that I’m writing for athletes whose primary goal is to improve their performance in the sport of triathlon – some people (me) invest in technology for a load of other reasons, and don’t think for a second that that’s not okay. Because sometimes the technology’s just cool. Sometimes you just want to call out your friends on Strava. And I don’t know any type-A triathletes who find motivation in trying for a better number!


If you’re going to train more or better because you like the gadget, can compete online, or enjoy seeing your results, go ahead and buy the gear! Enjoy, and happy training – the gear can still improve your training and racing.


The above said, if you’re an age group triathlete asking whether it’s worthwhile to purchase this or that gadget, read on! I’m going to cover three of the most common technology purchases and what they can do for your performance. Then I’ll cover how to tell if the improvement is worthwhile – from a strictly performance perspective.


    Multisport GPS

  • The multisport GPS is usually one of the first purchases. It will track your swimming, cycling, and running and provide a plethora of data – from how many lengths you swam to your maximum cycling speed to the length of your run. There are many models but the de-facto standard is the Garmin 910XT, soon to be replaced by the 920XT.

    In terms of bang for the buck, this is the first thing to get. It’s expensive but not terribly so, works for multiple sports, and offers numerous conveniences such as counting your swim lengths for you and tracking your bikes and runs – so long, Google Maps! Also, this device serves as the platform for recording data from additional sensors like a power meter.


  • Power Meter

  • The power meter is a type of sensor for your bicycle only. It uses stress gauges to measure exactly how much energy you’re putting down, in watts. There are many models to choose from with more all the time. They’re generally more expensive than GPS units. People blow through a lot of time discussing the various models relative merits – I hope they’re just on work time and not good training time!

    Power meters are useful because they measure real energy output, objectively and in real time. Imagine pedaling along a nice flat road at a speed of 30 kph and a cadence of 90 rpm. You’re working steadily but not too hard. Now you come to a hill. People are often surprised just how different their perceived effort level is from their objectively measured power.

    Yes, your heart rate will reflect the fact that you’re working harder, but it’s subject to so many other factors. Power is a much cleaner measure, and is useful during racing and training to ensure you’re either working hard enough, or not too much. For measuring fitness, power is very exact – small improvements are evident.


  • Power Trainer

    DZ athletes participate in a functional threshold power test at DZ Stroke Improvement & Triathlon Clinic, Winter 2014
  • The power trainer – the best-known versions are Computrainer and KICKR – is also for the bicycle and also offers power measurement. The difference here is that you get a stationary trainer, and that trainer can be programmed to increase or decrease resistance according to a program. You can set it up to for just about any kind of bike workout, from making you keep up a specified power output regardless of cadence, to recreating a stage of the Tour de France.

    You get the benefits of power recording, at least when you’re cycling inside on the trainer, as well as the ability to build workouts and even simulate race courses. Training benefits are the same as for the power meter, plus the ability to program workouts but minus the ability to record power when racing or training outside.



Training Upsides

The training upsides to all the above are that you get objective data on your workouts. The bare-bones will get you speed, pace, time, distance, and a map in the swim, bike and run. Additional sensors add heart rate, bike cadence, run cadence, and power. Generally, you’ll use the data during your training, such as for pace setting, and upload your data to an online training log once you’re done your workout. During a race, it’s very, very useful to have access to information you can use to stay motivated and to make decisions about pacing.


There’s also some use in just recording, even if you don’t look at the data. Essentially, you’re keeping a training log. You might not care today, but sometime in the future that data could come in very handy for planning a future course of training.


When Workout Data Pays Off

The real benefits of all this technology come into play when you – or your coach – use the data you’ve collected to improve your future training. There are benefits to logging and certainly to racing with data, and motivation can be a big factor. All of these apply whether the data are used later or not. However, the big performance gains are to be made from analyzing workout data and using it to set future training.


Amid all the gadgets, meters and sensors; all the websites, analytics, and software; all the reviews, forums, and opinions; there is actually one clear, simple way to tell if a particular widget is worthwhile for you. Ready to hear what that is? It’s so simple some of you won’t believe me.


Ask yourself what you’re going to do with the data.


That’s it. Simple, eh? The fact is that to get the most out of this metric-gathering technology in improving your performance, it has to drive future training. There has to be a feedback loop – train, get data, learn something, apply that to future workouts. (The fact that the tech itself is very, very cool does not actually make one go faster. Unfortunately.) If all that data doesn’t get used for anything, it’s just cool.


If you’re recording a training log for future use, uploading to compete with friends, or find uploading your completed workouts motivating, that’s worthwhile in itself. That’s one rung on my notional “Ladder Of Triathlon Seriousness” (TM): is all that data being recorded? On the next rung up ask: what’s getting done with it?


When Not To Use Technology

Athletes are a diverse bunch and some of us just aren’t going to put in the additional work to make the data pay. I don’t recommend major technology purchases in the following circumstances:


    Beginner Triathletes

  • If an athlete’s at the level of just trying to get most of their workouts done, I advise that spending money on sensors and time on uploading isn’t the best use of resources – unless having that gadget is what’s going to make someone get on the bike, they should use the time to get in an extra workout instead.

  • Not Gonna Do It

  • Some athletes love to train, but just can’t bring themselves to spend the time in front of the computer to record the resulting data. Whether it’s a busy life or just personality, if the data isn’t even going to be recorded, there might be a point in buying and maintaining a bunch of gadgets, but it’.

  • Coachless

  • It’s also no use to record data – no matter how accurate and meticulously recorded – if it can’t be used. It’s fun to do a Functional Threshold Power test, but is knowing an FTP number going to help – other than cool bragging rights – if the athlete can’t apply that knowledge to future workouts? This applies to using data during training and racing too – what use to know one’s power without knowing if it’s too high or too low? Fortunately, a good coach will help with this one.

  • Racing Ain’t Everything

  • Finally, I don’t recommend investing in the above technologies for athletes who aren’t working toward performance goals. Sometimes as coaches we forget that many, if not most athletes simply don’t much care about race time. Athletes train and race for all kinds of reasons. Health and fitness, adventure, a bucket list challenge, social time, and simple enjoyment being only some of the best. Training overhead is bad enough as it is, why add more? Some athletes find that, especially cycling in the summer season, that doing a ride as a workout or trying to hit a specific metric just ruins the experience.


When To Use Technology

Triathlon is an expensive sport, both in time and money. Like so many other decisions in triathlon, when to get the technology is a call to make based on how serious you are. Here are some of the reasons athletes give for taking the technology plunge:


    Big Goal Race

  • Athletes often have a big goal race, and are willing to put their resources into achieving the best performance possible. Sometimes they’re spending thousands of dollars and significant time on equipment, and the additional cost of technology is minimized when buying all at once. Athletes might train at a much higher level than usual for a particular event, and be willing to put forward the time and effort to make it worthwhile. If technology can help and the goal is significant, it can be the right investment.

  • I’m Trying To Qualify

  • How much triathlon equipment – bicycles in particular – are sold each year to athletes who are attempting to qualify for a particular event? Making the leap from recreational racing to competition means that minutes and seconds suddenly matter. Whether the goal is Age Group World Championships or a Kona slot, when going for a concrete time goal technology can help.

  • Better Coaching

  • As a coach, I can be much more effective given good solid data. For many athletes, good recording of completed workouts and regular coach contact by phone or Skype are all that are needed. Complete power data would be overkill. Depending on the athlete and their goals, however, there is absolutely a place for complete power, heart rate, and other metrics; and as the athlete gets faster and the goals get loftier, the more likely it is that technology can make a difference.


Why Use Technology?

It’s expensive, comes with a time cost, and adds training overhead. There’s a learning curve and it isn’t for everyone. So why use technology to collect all this training data? What is the performance upside? Absent a fascination for technology for it’s own sake or the cool factor, a motivated age-grouper would be completely right to pithily ask, “What’s in it for me?”


The answer is that as an triathlete’s training level increases, further improvement becomes more like walking a tightrope. At very high levels, athletes are training to the very edge of what their bodies can take. As we push ourselves further, we try to train as hard as we can without overtraining, and without causing injury. Whether a world champion going for a repeat title, or an age-grouper training harder than ever before, we try to improve as much as possible without setting ourselves back.


Good data helps tell us how to train more efficiently. More importantly, it helps us understand when not to train, or when not to train so hard. As we work harder, longer, and closer to that invisible line, objective and accurate data becomes more important.


High-performance coaches have written volumes about interpreting data to find out exactly how much to train, to the point of taking different heart rates several times a day and modifying training in a very tight loop based on that data. There’s no question that at higher levels, technology is the next best thing to indispensable.

But what about recreational triathletes, training for fitness, racing for fun, and recovering at work? The answer is different for every athlete and every race.


I’ve covered a few of the most common technology purchases for triathletes, along with their advantages and disadvantages, and a few recommendations for which athletes should – and which shouldn’t – consider a purchase. I hope the above sheds some light and provides a guide for the athlete.


Mike



Before his first Marine Corps Marathon, Mike Mahoney’s idea of running was something a sergeant forced you to do in a rucksack and boots. Triathlon just kind of happened from there. His proudest moment is being talked into a 50k at 9pm the night before. Mike is an Associate Coach with Discomfort Zone and is currently training towards IRONMAN Muskoka 2015.

Bear