by Chris Bagg
By now, many of you have heard of “The Quantified Self,” a trend in personal fitness training that reduces your entire athletic process to a set of numbers. Athletes used to track their heart rates if they were at the leading edge of sports training. Today they track watts, yards, meters, beats, strides, calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, kilojoules, TSS, IF, EF, and even their blood values, sending those to companies for analysis and following the resulting diet and lifestyle recommendations so as to achieve optimum performance. The athletes I coach seek this kind of exactitude, too, hoping that their workouts will align precisely with the numbers prescribed ahead of time, imagining that—if you paint by the numbers—everything will come out perfectly.
Today I’m going to examine this particular approach, agree with some of it, and suggest a way forward that mixes quantitative analysis with something else, something I’m going to call “The Qualified Self.” I’m urging this change in approach because I feel as if the supremacy of numbers—so successful in professional baseball and basketball—applied to our own pursuit of speed and contentment is actually making us less happy, is actually alienating us from the sport we love. The symptom surfaces away from the competitive world, too—my wife works as a college counselor, helping high school kids navigate the ever-trickier waters of finding and then matriculating at selective institutions. The kids and their parents all want a simple equation, a set of numbers that will predict, exactly, which schools are possible and which are out of reach. They want to know before they go.
Unfortunately, both of these pursuits—athletic improvement, selective higher education—both essentially involve faith, that is, the belief that something will occur without proof of its possibility. When we begin our training for the new year, opening a calendar and penciling in races we’d like to do (or have already signed up for), we’re admitting, basically, that there is a gap between our present fitness and our future fitness—otherwise, we’d just rock up to the Ironman next weekend, tick the box, and go happily on our way. Since very few of us, however, carry that level of form year-round, preparation is important, and preparation means admitting that you don’t have, right now, the fitness you will have nine months from now. Got that? Admitted it? Good. You’ve taken the first step.
Now, every workout is a step along that path from A to B, and this is where the faith part comes in—believing that you are taking the right steps, that today’s seemingly too-slow run is an important block in that year’s pyramid of form. Sure, it’s crucial that first you trust the source of your workouts (a coach, a book, an online training program—any of these will do), but once you trust that source, you’ve put your faith to work. Once you believe, you’ll stop the second-guessing that comes from trying to make sure everything is perfect. Once you stop trying to make everything perfect, you’ll find yourself a little less stressed, a little happier in your training, a little more, well, faith-full.
I find that an over-reliance on numbers undermines faith. Athletes try to pin down—exactly!—what it is they are doing at that particular moment. They want to get it perfectly right the first time. I think they imagine that, as they come back to their computers to crunch all of those numbers into TrainingPeaks, or Workout Log, or into an Excel spreadsheet, that workouts, perfectly done, will mean perfect progression to their goals. Unfortunately, obsessing over getting things right the first time often leads to despair. I usually compare a swimmer’s stroke to hitting a golf ball properly—there are many things going on at once that have to be in sync for the ball to actually leave the ground and travel along the hoped-for path. Swimming is similar. The breath has to not inhibit body rotation, the feet have to remain together but not sink, the catch needs to occur properly; and all this has to happen in an organized fashion, each movement in its proper place! Arriving at that coordination takes years of practice and iteration. So many of my athletes, supposed to be working on one single aspect of stroke technique, begin asking questions about other aspects of the stroke. They are often literally putting the catch before the breath, and need to focus on only one part of the system for a while. They need to be willing, in short, to get it mostly wrong—and a little right—for a long time, so as to get it all right. The same stands for the bigger picture of training. Workouts are aspects of an athletic whole, not rehearsals for that future performance. A desire for them to be perfect, right away, with all the numbers in the right place, will only lead to frustration and disillusionment. Remember: the long run today is not your event! That is still months away, with months of preparation still to go! If you judge yourself now against your future, fitter self, you’re bound to come away disappointed!
On the other hand, there are so many tools presently available that can help us along the path to good performances and contentment! I’m not advocating an approach that relieves you of your watches, computers, websites, apps, and devices. But keeping those toys in their proper places (support structures, not tyrants) is an important step to improvement. I’ll discuss those in the second part of this article, but I’m going to leave you today with a few anecdotes that will suggest the future direction of this argument.
This past fall, at the Ironman World Championships, Sebastian Kienle stepped to the top of the triathlon world, borne there by a blistering bike split achieved without the use of a power meter. At the time, it seemed like anathema, but Kienle has been racing without one for years, saying, in a Slowtwitch interview in 2012 “I never ride with a power meter. I tried it out a couple of years earlier but I could not handle it. I only tried to shoot high scores instead of using it in an intelligent way.” Closer to home, my friend and sometimes training partner, Heather Jackson, has also opened a deliberate divorce from her power meter. A deeply intuitive athlete who raced on feel for years before adopting a power meter, Jackson felt that the numbers were starting to get in her head and affecting the way she raced. I’ve always been amazed at HJ’s way of finding—exactly—the line she could push to and then staying on the safe side of it until the last meter of the race. She’s like a jazz musician who’s learned all her chords and scales and progressions and can just…play. A power meter can be limiting in the hands of artists like Kienle and Jackson.
Last week, on a mid-week ride that called for longer Ironman-pace efforts, I decided to ignore my computer on the last 25-minute interval. I’d averaged in the mid-260s for the first two efforts, but was sick of looking down at my computer while the beautiful, grey, early-season Portland landscape rolled past. I started the final interval and resolved never to look down until I arrived at a stop light several miles distant. I figured that would get me most of the way through the 25 minutes.
At first it was very difficult keeping my head up, ignoring the constant affirmation of the numbers on my computer. But soon I fell into a rhythm that felt correct, and I kept my head on a swivel, looking around at birds, cars, clouds, and trees. My brain fell into that meditative state that endurance athletes, I believe, enjoy. Quite soon I was approaching the stop lights. Shoot, I thought.No way that’s close to 25 minutes. I rolled to a stop and put a foot down. My bike computer auto-paused, its little chime calling out.
23:02, it said. 264 average watts. How about that?
Now that I’ve convinced you this is a viable pursuit, the next installment will give you some tools to getting to this place yourself.