Technology for Training Part 2: Technology v Zen
Author: Mike Hamberger
Technology vs. Psychology. Garmin vs. Zen. Pace vs. Intensity. Do you know the differences? There is a difference between pace and intensity, with intensity being much more important for triathletes due to the myriad of factors that affect pace on the course. Trying to hold yourself to a given (numerical) pace without accounting for temperature, humidity, terrain, wind, hydration/ fueling status, energy levels, clothing selection (ability to sweat), and race experience may do you more harm than good in a race. It's very possible that holding yourself to a given intensity will bring you to your predicted- or goal-pace (and vice versa), but always consider the race conditions and your body's real-time status first.
Race based on feel. GPS watches, power meters, and heart rate monitors will not always guide you when you want to actually race someone, or when you're attempting to judge if your speed is too fast or slow at the moment. You need to know your limits and what you're capable of achieving based on how your body feels and which body parts are speaking to you. For instance, a GPS watch should not be telling you how fast to run during the middle of a race, it should merely be satisfying your curiosity.
Using Perceived Exertion in Races
Consistent pacing is related to the phrase "staying in your element." Suppose you exit transition and hit the run course ahead of PR pace after the opening mile, how do you know if you can maintain that pace? Your element is your stride length, cadence, posture, amount of tension in your body, the nature of your thoughts (positive vs. negative), and your breathing, which are all of the things we hopefully tune-in to occasionally during training. Knowing exactly how your rhythmic breathing feels and exactly what your stride sounds like will enable you to know whether or not your effort can be sustained. Moreover, knowing how your body is reacting in real-time is more important than the actual pace you are holding. The pace is merely a byproduct of the course conditions and shouldn't dominate your thoughts.
Heart Rate Monitors
If you train with a heart rate (HR) monitor, then you may have an advantage. HR monitors can offer more specific, immediate feedback compared to breathing patterns, and can also help you adjust for your target HR zone. However, I have never been a huge proponent of racing with HR monitors. The time I chatted briefly with Peter Reid (3x Hawaii Ironman World Champion) about HR monitors he said what I thought he would—that he rarely raced with them because on race day it’s better to race based on perceived effort (intensity). On race day, the HR monitor stays at home, so it does not distract you. Race-pace is then based on intensity and/or perhaps jockeying for overall placing. However, you can only afford to do this if you are totally dialed in to your body during actual training, for which Garmin watches and earphones may be distracting.
Having stated the above, there are other factors that affect your HR, such as temperature, hydration status, mood (anxiety and adrenaline), and the physiology involved in long distance events that may not make HR monitors spot-on during a race. It is best to be able to push when you like (and push through barriers) and not be limited by a number derived from a lab test. Admittedly, they can be good for athletes with health problems, preventing them from pushing too hard into a danger zone, but otherwise race day is all about racing!
Turn It Off and Tune-In
For your long workouts, as gruesome as it may sound, try not to wear the iPod/earphones. Music distracts from monitoring your stride, posture and breathing, but I also believe it doesn't allow you to successfully master positive self-talk. Earphones are illegal in triathlon races to begin with (and most road races), and if you don't have experience in how to cope with your own thoughts during hard efforts you're more likely to think negatively or focus on the wrong cues on race day.
Positive self-talk is a skill that requires practice (much like muscle relaxation and imagery) and earphones hamper learning. Composure is attention to task-relevant cues over time. Anyone can be focused for the first two minutes of any race, but how long does focus last? I once heard Ryan Hall give his account of the NYC Marathon and I noticed he alluded to positive vs. negative thoughts late in the race when he wasn't feeling great. He said his self-talk during races is simply the same thoughts he has during training (I'm going to go out on a limb and say Ryan doesn't train with an iPod) and this allows him to keep the self-talk positive.
For those that claim the music "pumps them up", check out the finish line at your next local 10k and count how many runners in the top-10, or top-50, are wearing headphones, and then compare that percentage to the final 10 – 50 runners across the line. The point is that the experienced athletes are usually better in-tune with their bodies than the average athlete and when done consistently in training, the payoff is huge! Related to safety, we're all old enough to make our own decisions, but I offer a nice quote I picked up, "Can you be with your own thoughts and enjoy the company you keep?"
Take Home Message
Technological advances help us monitor our progress and keep the training consistent, but to be reliant on them and/or to engage in too much data crunching often detracts from our ability to make real-time adjustments when it counts most. Elite triathletes race in the moment; they rarely depend on data. The notions above aren't reserved for elite athletes; conversely, they offer a sense of what it takes for you to raise your game to the next level. Finally, I will note that warming-up with earphones can help get you into your optimal zone before the race, so of course there is an exception to every rule. Train hard and good luck!
Mike Hamberger, M.A., CSCS is the founder of DC Running Coach, LLC (www.DCRunningCoach.com) and The National Road Racing League (www.NRRL.org). Mike has coached all walks of athlete, from first-time 5k runner to Boston qualifiers to Ironman triathletes. He has been published multiple times in scientific journals and has been consulted on numerous occasions for articles on health and fitness. His part-time roles include teaching an undergraduate sport psychology course at Marymount University and working part-time for VIDA Fitness as a personal trainer and presenting at clinics. He vows to retire from triathlon one day to finally train exclusively for running to see how fast he can go. Contact: mike@DCRunningCoach.com
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