Friday, May 11, 2012

Defense of a Data Geek

I keep a ridiculously detailed log of my training. Everything from net calories consumed to average cadence is logged and most of it tracked. All of that data forms charts that show me trends in my pace for each discipline of triathlon, total hours spent training and whether or not I’m hitting my goals.

It’s highly consistent with my personality. Years ago, my company started using a Strengths Assessment developed by Gallup. After completing a lengthy online test, I was given a profile that showed my Top 5 Strength. First among these was Input which means I like to collect information. Facts and information are things I store away for some yet-to-be determined purpose. Analytical was also among the Top 5.

All of this is the sort of thing that makes a lot of folks kind of chuckle derisively with a sort of “whatever makes you happy” kind of tone. The subtext of that being that none of it matters. All of that data is ex post facto. It won’t make you any faster.  By all means, keep a perfunctory log of how much time you spent and how far you swam, rode or ran. However, doing much more is a waste of time. You’d be better off devoting more of your time to your training.

My response to this line of thought: Hogwash! Endurance sports are inherently strategic in nature. This is evident simply from the fact that no self-respecting, reasonably knowledgeable endurance athlete starts his or her race at a full sprint. Each of us is strategic in that we plan our pacing according to what we think we’ll need to not only finish, but hopefully finish strong. Yet it goes much deeper than that.

In high school, I had a track coach that used to tell the members of the distance team to “run smart.” We used to laugh behind his back at his geeky notion about using your brain instead of your legs. We quit laughing when we figured out he was right. His point was that even in a shorter track event (mine was the 800 meter run) there is a point at which it’s right to kick and, hopefully, surge ahead of the pack. Kick too soon and you’ll eventually get swallowed back up. Kick too late and you won’t have enough time to catch them.

Using the data I gather from training and races, I attempt to emulate my high school coach’s strategizing for the 800 meters.  There are three main areas I track: body, sport performance and goals.

Like so many others, I got into triathlon initially as a way to jump-start a weight loss program. I had been a runner, going so far as to complete a marathon in 2006, but the intervening years lead to chronic injury, less running and ultimately, weight gain. When I started being active again, I rather enjoyed tracking my progress. In the first few months, that progress was significant. This past fall, I bought myself a Withings Body scale which not only collects my weight and body mass, but automatically sends it to a website where I can keep a daily track. As result, I get to see how I’m progressing:

It’s rewarding to be able to see how well I’ve done just since last season. I also keep an active track of my heart rate (both resting and workout) as well as my blood pressure. Being healthy is the foundation for being fit. The one fairly vital metric that I don’t have right now is sleep data. I may add that one day. For more information about how you do that, you should read this.

Within each discipline, I’m also interested in my performance. As I get older, there will probably come a time when I will have truly peaked and will only slow down. However, I don’t think I’m there yet. In my own experience in races, some of the fastest people on the course are in the 40-44 age-group. That’s strong motivation and it forces me to look at those factors that contribute to my success. A clear illustration relates to my SWOLF score vs. my overall speed in the water:

My fastest swim so far was the one and only time I scored a 38 (lower is better on a SWOLF) since I started tracking it. It will be something to keep in mind when I get out into open water and may feel the urge to swim harder rather than smoother.

The upshot of all of this is that the having detailed knowledge about how I have performed in the past provides me with greater insight as to what I can do to improve in the future. There’s also an intangible benefit. I’m not likely to be collecting any hardware from a race unless by default (such as if I’m the only 42 year old at in the HITS 70.3). It’s unlikely I’ll ever get a view from the podium. Seeing these results is my reward. It’s one of the most tangible examples of all I’ve accomplished.

Despite making such a defense of my proclivity for data gathering, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for a lot of people, it’s just more work than they’re interested in doing. While I actually enjoy putting all of this into a spreadsheet, many (most?) probably do not. For those folks, I’d suggest making uses of some systems that gather and track it automatically such as Training Peaks or Sport Tracks. A site like Garmin Connect isn’t bad for just a basic log, but I don’t think it’s quite robust enough from an analytical standpoint.

Above all, remember that triathlon is analogous to chess, not checkers. Strategy can be as impactful as physical training.

Thanks for reading!

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