Data: Helpful or Hindering?
Data. It can be helpful, hindering and everything in between.
There are a lot of gadgets out there these days. Things that can test, measure, teach, guide, motivate, compare, record; you name it, there is a gadget out there that will do it.
When looking at all the options out there I find athletes tend to go one way or the other. They lean on extreme ends of the spectrum from: “I use no data at all” to “ I am a complete data-driven junkie and I know every single fitness marker out there.”
There is a right time and place for everything. The problem comes when an athlete begins to lean too heavily to one side or the other. We want to avoid the extreme ends of both; we do not want an athlete to find themselves in a state of “paralysis by analysis,” nor do we want to see them training blindly without any objective gauge of fitness.
The Garmin has become a hot topic. You have probably heard me mention that I do not like using the Garmin in the pool.
Let me clarify. I actually do not have a problem with an athlete using a Garmin in the pool. Anything that motivates, records and gives us information is good. I believe it becomes a problem when an athlete refuses to engage in their session and learn to use a pace clock. A huge part of becoming a good swimmer is about understanding what certain paces and efforts feel like and what that equates to in terms of performance times.
An athlete needs to be engaged in every single main set in order to learn this. Using a pace clock gives you direct feedback during the session with zero interference of pushing a button to mark your next interval. If an athlete is simultaneously recording the session with a Garmin in order to download it later, great. They now have a file that has recorded markers for the session, as well as having the direct feedback and the full engagement of your session while training.
What is problematic is when an athlete cannot tell me the times they are holding in a set and only respond with “I will see the times when I download the file later.” This reflects a lack of engagement during the session itself and I believe the athlete is not doing everything that needs to be done to improve.
Some people need data to stay on task; some need it to hold them back from making critical mistakes. Both are great for being sure you are executing your workout, or race, correctly. If an athlete has numbers they have consistently hit in training, they can use that data to help make a race plan. It can also help them determine early pacing errors and help keep an athlete focused on a tough effort over a long time. This a great use of data tools!
I believe data becomes a problem on the bike when an athlete lets it dictate their every move or they start chasing numbers without using other athletic markers. A good example would be riding a long downhill with a strong tail wind. An athlete can end up blowing themselves up by chasing a wattage number when there is little, to no, return on that effort.
Another example is when the temperatures begin to rise outside and the athlete does not account for the need to dial back the effort. They keep chasing watts, despite the heat, and ultimately find themselves blowing up.
The next pitfall of relying too heavily on a power meter is when the equipment malfunctions. I once saw a top male pro in one of the biggest prize purse races pull out because his SRM wasn’t working and he didn’t know how to ride without it. This male was in a position to win a lot of money that day, but felt he could not succeed without a power meter to guide him.
Data on the bike should be a helpful tool, but it should never be a permanent replacement for an athlete’s senses. Using data and understanding the feel of an effort are skills that should be fully developed as an athlete.
Understand your data and what it means for you at different times. Also know how to use it and when to not let it control you.
Using data on the run is very similar to using it on the bike. An athlete should know their running paces based on training. It is important to be able to correlate the data an athlete collects during training and how that effort feels simultaneously.
Data can help an athlete analyze what might be going wrong early while racing, as well as providing objective feedback for post-race analysis and future planning. Data is great for athletes who have a disconnect between what they feel and what is actually happening. However, similarly to the bike, the conditions need to be taken into account when using data. If an athlete sets out at a pace they refuse to adjust based on conditions, then they might be setting themselves up for disaster.
Collecting data and understanding its purpose, and use, is important. However, understand when you are going overboard with it, hindering your ability to just let loose and be an athlete. There is a use for data and for feel. You are best to be fully practiced and educated on both ends of the spectrum. There may even be times in the year where your level of data use is different. I encourage all my athletes to spend periods of the year and certain sessions with little, to no, data at all. Then there are periods of the year where collecting data on most sessions is much more important.
Different periods of development and different athletes require varying levels of data. Be sure you know when to use it regularly and when to go without it. Be willing to try both, as both skills lead to being a better athlete.