Getting the most from your technology
Technology and triathlon go hand-in-hand. Being a relatively young sport, triathlon has fortuitously fallen into a golden age of sporting technology advances, which could be one of the reasons for the sports rapid rise in popularity. Tri newbies come into the sport greener than a kiddie pool with chlorine deficiency. They see the pimped out bikes, TT helmets and GPS watches (that can count strokes, calories, kilometres and number of times you swear under your breath at your coach) and see this gear as their ticket to bucket list glory. The bright, tight and slick bling has done a lot for the sport.
It is a two-way street though – burgeoning sports technology has been able to throw out a kite in the updraft of triathlon’s rise. Being so new to the sporting arena has meant that tradition and tried-and-tested methods aren’t nearly as deeply entrenched in tri as in established sports like soccer, golf or skiing. This youth and, in a way, naivety has given triathletes space and liberty to experiment in training and racing innovations. We have proven to be a freshly turned garden bed for next-gen sports science enterprise and global immersion technology to plant their seeds. In many cases, the point of difference triathlon has offered in terms of willingness to test, trial and invest has given us an edge over technology used in swimming, cycling and running. And, being a sport whose event duration ranges from less than 30 minutes to 12+ hours, triathlon’s garden is rich in soil, perfect for planting and developing technology from fields like physiology, psychology, nutrition, biomechanics, aerodynamics and more.
However, it goes without saying that technology is only useful if used correctly. It seems bizarre to me that there are still so many athletes spending time and money on products that are being used incorrectly, partially or not at all. Here are some examples of tech I’ve found useful in my career.
Heart Rate (HR) Monitor: Many athletes would have used, or at least seen this wearable technology that offers real-time pulse readings. It has been around for a few decades. Recent progress has seen the ability to read and record HR using technology ranging from a special chest strap, bulky finger clamps to inbuilt sensors within ever shrinking wrist watches. Most people would understand HR monitors are a relatively sound method of measuring effort, but this isn’t an exact science. Every individual’s pulmonary system can differ and, taking into account factors like fitness, training experience, genetics and body composition; all hearts can act differently. To best utilise a HR monitor, knowledge of an athlete’s HR history is key. Building up a bank of data records with an explanation of differing stimuli will give greater insight into an individual’s HR profile, and aid training and competition planning.
But HR monitoring need not solely be used to measure and monitor intensity of work – your HR is also a clear exhibit of ability to recover. As an athlete, I would often take note of my HR maximum during an effort and, in recovery, allow my rate to drop to a certain number of beats or percentage of maximum before beginning the next effort. This meant I was not only aware of my performance at effort but also of the change in my ability to recover over time. Also, keeping track of resting HR (say, upon waking or right before sleeping) can show changes in fitness and even signs of illness before other symptoms present themselves.
Power Meter: This is one of the most sought after pieces of cycling technology. After an influx of power measuring products on the market, power meters have become more affordable, but what are watts and how can they help you get more out of your time on the bike? As with most quantifiable values, power is another number that is part of a bigger picture. Power is a measurement of torque applied to the pedals combined with the angular velocity displayed in a format of watts. What this number actually means from one individual to another can be massive. For example, a heavier person will be able to produce a greater wattage purely from adding their body mass to the pedals. An athlete set up on their bike to utilise their posterior chain (big muscles down the back of their legs) will be able to produce more power, but then you add in some other factors, the heavier athlete will have to use all that extra power to overcome inertia and maintain momentum of a greater mass, and the big muscle setup could potentially tire out muscles required to stabilise the athlete’s hips once they get onto the run.
The key to getting the most benefit out of a power meter is, as with the HR monitor, to build a bank of data that can give you a comprehensive profile of your own thresholds and limits, then work at improving those numbers within a similar context. Using power meter data, you can plan training on the bike to target race specific cycling e.g, a long flat bike course will best benefit from a moderate but sustained power whereas a short hilly course will be better prepared for by obtaining short, high and repeated peaks of wattage with recovery.
Metronomes: Metronomes (or pacers) aren’t as well known as the data monitors previously mentioned but can be just as beneficial for triathletes, particularly those new to the sport. Metronomes are devices that hold a rhythm. The most common metronomes beep at a constant rate allowing the user to hear a preset rhythm. Used in both swimming and running the metronome allows the user to hold a consistent rate of stroke or stride without overrating or dropping below the desired tempo. Having a constant reminder of rhythm can be a useful tool for athletes who find it difficult to identify when their form is beginning to deteriorate or for those who get distracted when training and tend to fall out of their prescribed intensity zone – a little beeping voice that helps out when training buddies are a no-show.
Clocks: Hardly a new technology, very few of us would not use a clock, stopwatch, or timing device of some kind in our daily training. We time efforts and recovery; we set time goals, and we chase the clock through traffic to get to the pool before closing. But do we use clocks to their full potential? The concept of rating (in swimming and running) or cadence (in cycling) is, in essence, the sum of repetition over time. So, where a metronome sets rating, we can use clocks to measure and monitor rating and be aware of a value many of us don’t often take into account. Simply count strokes, pedal revolutions or steps over a set time and compare at different points within a session or race. A higher rating will generally require more central effort and will rehearse a movement more effectively whereas a lower rating will need more power, strength and put more pressure peripherally (on arms and legs). Set your own time frame (say, 30 seconds) and always use the same count window.
Computerised Training Logs: When I started triathlon, I was encouraged to keep a training diary. Being a standard teenager with the attention span of a cartoon surgeonfish my entries were intermittent and would often record inconsistent information. Enter the digital age of GPS watches, Wi-Fi and mobile phone Apps, and data recording and analysis is a science within itself. As a professional athlete, having past training session numbers, mapped courses, race course profiles and a metrics history gave me an almost instant comparison of my performances in repeated sessions or races. As a coach, I can use training data software to chart athletes’ improvements and setbacks and cross reference these to identify relationships. I can gather that if an athlete begins to run a certain volume in a week, the following week will see a drop in cycling performance. Going into greater detail and using metric recordings I can establish that at a certain weight an athlete will be able to hold peak power-to-weight, but any less and the athlete is highly susceptible to falling ill. In the huge range of software and Apps available, there are specially designed values that give fitness scores or predict race performance by compiling uploaded data and feeding it through trademarked algorithms. If that’s all a bit too technical for you, I still recommend giving the basic training diary features a try. It’s just like the old ink and parchment, and you might find there’s a feature that shines a bit more light on your goals than you could already see.
It is a brilliant time to be a triathlete in the digital age. Whether you’re just looking to tick a bucket list box or carve out a career at the top, you’re very likely to utilise some form of technology. No doubt there is a product out there that can help you smash your goals but keep in mind, the best tools a triathlete can have is their arms, legs and some good company.