Gadgets like the GPS watch, heart rate monitor, and power meter enable us to quantify our performance according to training targets, and they can help push and motivate us further and faster.
Just recently one of my friends bought himself a new GPS watch that came with two different heart rate straps. He also mulled whether or not to get himself a foot pod so he could more accurately ascertain his run efficiency. We had a good laugh at his tendency to become an Inspector Gadget-type character with all sorts of things strapped to his body.
These are tools we employ to help us improve, depending on what we are working on. But they are also just tools that provide numbers. Sometimes we allow these gadgets too much power over our performances.
Coach Sergio Borges, head of SBX Coaching based out of Phuket, says, “I have seen athletes that are so dependent on their gadgets that if they forget to bring their heart rate monitors or GPS to the local group run, or they forget to charge their power meters before the ride, they turn around and go home! Is it impossible to train without these tools? Of course not! They may actually be better off without them.”
Coach Sergio is a big believer in developing body awareness so you have a sense of pacing and effort without having to look at the numbers. Even if it means sometimes keeping the watch in the bag instead of on your wrist, learning how your body feels will allow you to decide how hard or how easy to train.
When training exclusively using gadgets, one can fall into the error of ignoring what your body is feeling. Have you ever tried listening to your body during training — getting to know how it normally runs and what its rhythms and patterns are? It’s what is called training on perceived effort or feel. Due to our millennial obsession with gadgets, it’s something we don’t do often enough.
(I know I obsessively track every swim, bike, and run session I do on Strava…)
If you’re too busy looking at that little screen obsessing about heart rate, pace, or power, you may not be able to pick up on other things happening during the session, such as your form or physiological changes in your breathing and heart beat. Coach Sergio notes, “For example, your body may feel great on a run so you pick up the speed a little. Then you look at your HR monitor and notice that your HR is way above your training zone so you slow it down. Your body was telling you that you are adapting to the training well and you are getting stronger, but because your HR was too high, you wasted what could have been a really good training session. This is how numbers just get in the way.”
Trying to hit certain numbers regardless of how you’re actually feeling during a training session may even do more harm than good, as you may end up under- or over-training. The 2014 Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kienle famously never rides with a power meter because of his tendency to try hitting even higher power readings.
Doing some of your training on perceived effort (note that I said some, not all) allows you to become attuned to your body’s signals. Perceived effort provides context for the numbers you’re logging. For instance, there’s a difference in the perceived effort holding a 250-watt effort when unfit versus when you’re fit. Heart rate and pace can vary depending on how much rest you’ve gotten and on external factors such as heat or cold.
Experienced swimmers know what easy, moderate, and hard feel like and what their corresponding paces are at those effort levels. They know this instinctively through hours and hours of practice feeling themselves swim. Coach Sergio surmises it might be because you can’t look at your Garmin while swimming a lap (at least, not if you’re performing the stroke properly); you only find out how fast you were going when you stop at the wall and check the clock.
If, for each of the three disciplines, you know what different effort levels feel like and how long you can keep going at those efforts, you’ll be able to pace yourself better on race day even without looking at a watch. Some of my triathlete friends set their personal bests when their watches were kicked off their quick releases during the swim. I’ve set my 10K PR’s by trying to hang onto the lead pack for as long as I could.
When you know how you perform based on feel, you set yourself free from being a slave to your own gadgets.
We shouldn’t get so locked into what our expected paces, heart rates, and efforts should be that we miss out on really pushing our limits and producing breakthrough performances.
Of course, we don’t discount the use of numbers in the proper context. They provide concrete targets to hit, give you a basis to measure improvement (or non-improvement), and when used in the right way are great at motivating you to do better.
Just don’t forget to learn what your body is telling you as well.