Why these cycling coaches recommend taking a data vacation. – By Joe Lindsey
It can start harmlessly enough. “A lot of my clients are not license-holding racers, but they’re looking to ride gran fondos and gravel adventure rides,” says Robin Farina, a longtime cycling coach with RF Coaching, and the 2011 USA national road champion. “These people are business owners and from corporate America, and they approach riding like they do work; they’re very data-driven.”If you’re too focused on your power meter you’ll miss what’s happening on the ride. It could be anything from a gorgeous vista with perfect golden light, to a roadkill skunk pancake you were supposed to point out to the rest of the group on your wheel.Farina (and other coaches) say they often see signs of an over-reliance on data among Type-A personalities, less-experienced athletes, and those who are chronically time-stressed and feel they have to make the most of every pedal stroke. Adam Myerson, founder of Cycle-Smart Coaching, says one of his first clues a client is leaning on the power meter too much is “a pattern where every threshold-interval day is an opportunity to set a new personal record (PR),” and they feel defeated if they don’t.These riders will also often make excuses for why their numbers aren’t at their peak. “My power meter must be miscalibrated” is a classic chestnut, says longtime coach John Verheul. Worst of all, since they’re afraid to actually softpedal between intervals in order to recover, they’ll always hover at around 90 percent of peak fitness, but rarely much more.Psychologically speaking, riding “to the numbers” is an external motivator, explains Verheul. “It’s a milestone for fitness, but it takes away the enjoyment of what you’re doing.”What’s more, say all three coaches: If you’re too focused on your power meter, you’ll miss what’s happening on the ride. It could be anything from a gorgeous vista with perfect golden light, to a roadkill skunk pancake you were supposed to point out to the rest of the group on your wheel.“When you focus so hard, you lose a lot of what cycling is,” says Farina. Handling skills, pack dynamics, how to properly pace, how to read terrain, even how you respond to external factors like weather: All of it slips outside your focus when you’re tied up in data.2. HOW TO DETOX FROM DATA: GET TO KNOW YOURSELF
Fortunately, the fix is pretty simple: Don’t look at your computer. Don’t take this the wrong way: All three coaches we spoke with are absolutely in favor of using power meters. They agree that data is key to becoming fitter and faster, riding longer, and doing so more comfortably—the trick is to record that data without watching it, or what Myerson calls “black box” training.It can be as simple as putting the computer in your jersey pocket, or customizing a home screen that has only a few basic readouts. Some riders even put a piece of electrical tape over the offending portions of their screens.Numbers can be a distraction from the fact we’re trying to get good at riding bikes. How do you put a number on a person’s positive mindset, or ability to accept a difficult challenge, or resiliency?How does this look in practice? Verheul says that instead of telling a rider to go do X efforts at X percent of threshold, he might send her out on a particular loop and tell her to do the climbs at 95 percent of what she thinks her threshold is, and then recover the rest of the time. “I’ll say, ‘Here’s what I want it to feel like’” says Verheul.
“Perceived exertion is the most important measurement I get, because it takes into account all the stress on a person that we can’t measure in other ways,” he says. “What’s tricky is that people can misinterpret the sensations,” especially if they’re used to relying on the numbers to quantify their efforts. Riding “black box” is a way to get riders familiar with how they feel on the bike at various intensities.
3. THE RESULTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
It will feel weird the first few times, but if you can do it, say the coaches we spoke with, you set yourself up for a completely different kind of relationship with riding.
Verheul tells the story of a rider who worked with a colleague of his, and had his best results ever when he stopped looking at his data. “The funny thing was, his power numbers were the same,” says Verheul, who attributes the improvement to the client becoming a more complete rider. “Numbers can be a distraction from the fact we’re trying to get good at riding bikes,” he says. “How do you put a number on a person’s positive mindset, or ability to accept a difficult challenge, or resiliency?”
Hiding your data might even help you set that sought-after PR, if unintentionally. “I’ll tell clients to go ride with a harder group than they’re used to,” says Farina, which can be tough with a power meter, “because they’ll see, say, 700 watts and know they’re in the red zone; it’s a trigger for them to cut themselves off. If they don’t have that number, they just know they’re going hard, but they can do it.”
High-mileage riders, Farina says, typically don’t have an issue taking a power meter vacation, or a break from the bike altogether. It’s newer riders, who are attached to the workout structure, for whom it’s hard.
But the results serve as a powerful reminder to focus on what we love about riding.
“We do this because it’s enjoyable,” she says. “It can be fun to be educated and analyze numbers, but our sport is about learning and doing our sport. If you get caught up in the watts, you miss being a complete rider.” Indeed, you might be missing your best performance, as well.