Alex Thompson Blog: Science + Training = Fun

  • By Alex Thompson
  • Published February 6, 2013

Basing training on science and numbers is a hard concept to sell to people. Often people tell me sport is simple, just get out there over and over and get better at it. I agree this would help you improve, however this works up to a point. Take my guitar playing as a reason why scientific based triathlon is a game worth the candle, stay with me it will make sense.

I’m OK, I know my chords, I know my scales and I can keep time, more or less. I can even bust out the odd improvised solo with my mates. However there is a world of difference between my playing and theirs. My mates play in serious bands, they go on tours they write real songs and put their own money on the line with it. In other words it is serious.

The difference between them and me is that my mates, they practice scales they learn phrases, when they practice it is hard work and they practice a lot. I just have fun with it. I play just for a bit of fun, as where I’m living I have no real ability to form a band and while I do the odd project I can take it or leave it. I am doing the equivalent of riding to feel and for my purposes it’s fine.

For the newcomer to triathlon, talk of functional thresholds, heart rate zones and in my case the addition of fatigue curves, CTLs VDOTS and god knows what else is baffling. And it is easy to say oh it’s too abstract, it can’t be right and what riding to numbers is hold me back, what if I’m limiting my potential, why back off when it says. Spending too much time in excel ruins the fun of training. If that’s your opinion, it’s fine. If you don’t want to go into that, that is fine. If you want to ride on feel that is fine also. It depends on who you are and the level at which you want to race at.

Scientific coaching takes athletes to a higher level than they could have done through just running on feel, if it didn’t why wouldn’t pro tour teams save the weight and not put a power meter on their bikes! So we can agree it has merit, but what exactly is it? What’s more what is science in general?

When you take away all the smoke and mirrors, all science is, is making observations about the past to predict the future. You repeat it over and over again with more detailed observations and you get a fuller picture of what is going on. As technology advanced observations can be more detailed. From the invention of glass to the invention of particle accelerator, it’s the same thing.

Coaches have always logged details, they keep records they see what works for who and what doesn’t. The level of record keeping by a world class swim coach would astound even the most astute actuary. In this way all coaching is science. Even the most basic assumptions such as those who ride lots are better at cycling than those who hardly ride, are scientific, be it a very rudimentary form but science none the less.

So what’s so new about the new breed. The tools. Power meters have revolutionised training. Lets go through what power meters can do.

1) power meters measure torque-the force you put through the pedals
2) they then use this to measure force over time, which is watts (or how much work/power you are doing.

This changed the game, we all know a mile on the flat is easier than a mile up hill, and not all hills are created equal so miles are inadequate at measuring work. We can now measure how much power the rider is pushing and compare rides to see if he is getting more powerful.

That is only the start. This data is easily downloaded into programmes, along with heart rate we can see a number of things if we equip ourselves with the knowledge of how to observe. Dismissing an X-ray print out, or an Echo-cardio gram as abstract nonsense because you do not posses the skills on how to observer is silly. However this can be what happens when we get into using the data from power meter files.

It took me three years of working with Alan Couzens and asking questions on a weekly basis before I decided to go it alone. This is because scientific training can highlight weaknesses, It can show you what training works and what doesn’t and by how much, it can help you decide what taper is best for you. There are however many red herrings, for example when you go out for a ride and your heart rate is lower than usual for the same power, it may be fitness, or it may be tiredness. Getting the observation wrong could mean over training, or it could mean an unnecessary recovery week.

It is with this I say treat the new WKO+ era of training with caution, it can and does work wonders. It has helped me no end, but it took me years to get to grips with it. If you want to learn it and do it yourself go for it, read everything you can. If don’t want to get bogged down with numbers, that’s fine. I coach people who enjoy the power side and like the numbers to a certain extent but know they would get more out of their training by letting someone like me work with them and analyse their data and report back with a training plan and also an objective breakdown in how they are improving.

Whatever way you go, remember enjoy the training, and enjoy the process of learning about who you are and how you improve. Homage to the perfection of wisdom, and train with purpose.

You can get more information about Alex on his Facebook page or on Twitter: XIronmanAlexX

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