Photo by Doug Shick
Athletes in our sport typically take one of two very different approaches to training and racing: quantitative or qualitative. Each has its pros and cons. As the founder of QT2 Systems (Quantitative Triathlon Training Systems), I’ll let you guess which approach I promote … for the most part.
The qualitative athlete trains and races purely by feel. Their season is usually set up as blocks of aerobic development, intensity building, strength endurance, and speed, depending upon the time of year. Weekly workouts are scheduled as a series of hard, easy, or moderate efforts. They may wear a heart rate monitor or use a power meter, though not within any particular parameters.
An athlete’s overall finish time isn’t a valid measure of their training program.
The quantitative athlete, besides the permanent indentation on their chest from their heart rate monitor strap, typically has a more structured plan outlining their entire season. While this plan acts as a working document, it defines the logic of the season. Training is done with a HR monitor and a power meter, whenever possible. The athlete focuses on specific training and racing zones, initially defined through testing and adjusted throughout training.
Either approach can be successful in creating a healthy, well-tuned athlete who makes progress year after year. But how can we measure which approach is more successful?
I like to assess two primary qualities. First, I look at the athlete’s relative improvement from one season to the next. Are they making progress every year in their race results? And how about consistency … are their amazing races followed by ones where they’re just way behind? After many years of coaching athletes of all levels, I can confidently say that these are two of the most difficult items to master. The success of these may depend more on an athlete’s ability to execute the training program than the program itself. Regardless of how you slice it, the coach is the one who is ultimately judged by the athlete’s performances, and rightfully so. I call this the “one metric” assessment—it’s what most outsiders use to judge coaches, and rightfully so.
There is a danger, especially among self-coached athletes, in looking at the training programs of those who are currently having high rates of success. These metrics can be greatly influenced by the successful athlete’s genetics and therefore the result itself may act as a mask for an otherwise poorly-developed training program. For this reason, when evaluating the training program of a fellow racer, I encourage athletes to look to long-term progress in year-to-year race results and consistency in race results over the short term. These are good indicators of both a solid training program and an athlete who executes it well. More importantly, these qualities can be found in both the 8:15 and 12:00 Ironman finishers alike. An athlete’s overall finish time isn’t a valid measure of their training program.
Are you, or should you be, a metrics tracker? Here are the three biggest factors in the argument for or against metric tracking.
Qualitative athletes never really know what their training load is. Even if they are very aware of their body and its telltale signs, the qualitative athlete tends to either over- or under-do particular workouts. This type of inconsistency will typically result in very similar racing inconsistencies. Some results will be remarkable, while others leave you scratching your head wondering what went wrong. Why? Because the actual build-up to each race ends up being very different from event to event. As a result, the athlete will load and unload training stress in very different ways leading into races.
When used together, numbers and perceived exertion are a powerful combination.
Conversely, the quantitative athlete on the other hand is better able to plan and execute the appropriate training stress, because they know exactly what’s going into their training stew, so to speak, at the beginning of every day, block, and season. But, just as a stew is only as good as the ingredients that go into it, a season plan is only as good as the information on which it’s based. That said, it’s still very easy to over- or under-do the planning aspect of a training session. Even if perfectly executed, any workout can lead to an inappropriate training load for that point in the season.
Race Day Execution
Qualitative athletes go out on race day and rely on experience to guide them. In many cases this is a fantastic approach, and can lead to breakthrough performances. Leaving the gadgets at home can be very freeing and allow the athlete to push harder than otherwise thought possible. However, for newer athletes and even seasoned veterans moving up in race distance, racing by feel may result in a bit of trial and error. It requires a tremendous amount of practice. In long- course racing, and especially Ironman, where the opportunities are relatively infrequent, this can lead to a disappointment with the possibility of redemption a long way off.
The quantitative athlete approaches their races with a clear pacing plan, developed around very specific wattage and pace, or heart rate targets, which are always derived from recent training data. Initially, the athlete may feel a bit handcuffed by the pacing strategy, feeling as though it’s holding them back. Most well developed pacing strategies will feel much too easy early on, causing doubt to creep into the athlete’s mind. But if executed properly, the pacing will result in a “slow bleed,” where the athlete crosses the finish line in utter exhaustion, not a moment before nor a moment later. This type of pacing and execution results in the fastest possible triathlon times. Despite racing by the numbers, quantitative athletes must also have an eye on how they feel. It’s never wise to race solely on data. When used together, numbers and perceived exertion are a powerful combination.
Believers in qualitative analysis have an advantage in this part of the argument. Reduced stress—from a lack of constant benchmarks and numbers staring them in the face—are a pretty strong selling point. Quantitative athletes, on the other hand, have gadgets monitor dictating every step that they take. When a workout isn’t going as well as planned, that (insert expletive) device reminds them of it!
Quantitative athletes, however, are able to see real-time validation of their hard work. Naturally they don’t see this type of training as lacking in freedom but as defining purpose. They know exactly what they are supposed to do each and every day, and most importantly, why. Many find a great deal of solace in that.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I’m a quantitative guy. After years and years of tracking athlete data, I’ve found that it’s the most efficient and accurate way to ensure long-term progress. When all is said and done, your ability to “feel” your effort on race day can be greatly enhanced by training tools. Many very talented professionals and age-groupers toe the starting line in Kona each year, only to achieve a result that in no way represents their fitness. There are others who, because of several fails, know exactly what the race should feel like. These are the same athletes who know what it feels like to overheat, to suffer dehydration, or to over pace the early portion of the bike. They know because they have lived them. Had these same athletes been a bit more quantitative in their training and racing early on, perhaps they would have more quickly developed the feel and suffered fewer setbacks.
Time is of the essence in the sport of triathlon, and anything that can be done to speed the learning curve should be taken seriously. I’m a big advocate of using metrics very early in an athlete’s career, as teaching tools. This allows the athlete to learn quickly, and then be able to use their own sense, as they gain experience and see the opportunities to perform at surprising levels. Many beginner athletes see very experienced and successful professionals not using metrics in their training and racing, and believe it’s the way to go. What they don’t see is the road that it took to get there.
Whether I’ve already converted you over to measuring all that you do, or you are still skeptical, it’s a great idea to at least record race day data. This will allow you to review and learn from what went well and what could have been better. This learning experience will help you to approach your next event with a more accurate feel for the race. It doesn’t take too many iterations of this for the increasingly well-informed athlete to hone in on feel. Once this is done, feel becomes a metric just as valuable as any power meter or heart rate monitor.
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, as well as TheCoreDiet.com a leading provider of sports nutrition. He coaches professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown, and Tim Snow, among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.