Older Book, Newer Perspective

As a triathlete, I am fascinated by the personal stories of other endurance sport enthusiasts.

Among my favorite stories are those told by some of the big names in our sport like Scott Tinley, Bob Babbitt, Chrissie Wellington and Mike Reilly. That last name is quite famous in the world of triathlon. Mike Reilly is also known as the “Voice of IRONMAN ®” and made popular the phrase, “You Are An IRONMAN” that many athletes hear as they cross IRONMAN finish lines all over the world. In the last couple of years he has published a book full of inspiring stories. But here is where I need to shift gears.

This post is neither about Mike Reilly nor his book. You can learn more about him in a TriRiot interview from 2016.

Instead, this post is about a 2011 book titled, “You Are An IRONMAN” written by none other than Jaques Steinberg.

YOU: “Who is Jaques Steinberg?”

ME: “I’m not quite sure.”

I do know that he is a journalist who’s biggest claim to fame before 2011 was authoring a book detailing the little known world of college admissions; New York Times best seller apparently. By the time Steinberg had authored “You Are An IRONMAN” he had completed a few triathlons, none of which could be called an IRONMAN. However, he was fascinated by several normal people who decided to take on the challenge of an IRONMAN. And not just any IRONMAN: IRONMAN Arizona 2009. Coincidentally, that was my first participation in an IRONMAN branded event.

I read “You Are An IRONMAN” as soon as it was available from the friendly Amazonians (who don’t really live in the Amazon but will ship your books for free if you pay extra).

Let me be clear. This is not a book review. If it were I would tell you that the stories are interesting, but the writing is not engaging. It’s a rapid fire treatment of who did and said what in such detail that the stories become hard to follow and remember as the author switches from one subject to the next. I can forgive him. He’s a journalist, not a playwrite. I can also forgive him, because I really don’t want to be the pot calling the kettle black.

As I was preparing to change my address from middle of nowhere North Carolina to middle of nowhere New Mexico, I came across my ten year old copy of the book and decided I should reread it. One reason is that I too competed in IRONMAN Arizona 2009. Another reason is that I personally know two of the subjects in the book, Scott and Leanne. Perhaps the biggest reason I want to read this book again is that I want to understand why someone with little to no skin in the game is so fascinated by normal people who dream of crossing an IRONMAN finish line.

Steinberg is known as an education reporter and Chief Editor of the New York Times, not a sports writer. So what qualifies him to write about triathlon? The answer is simple: curiosity. He is curious about what makes a person voluntarily push themselves to extreme physical limits for the better part of a year only to celebrate with a grueling 140.6 mile multisport race. I’ve been in the sport for 15 years and I have the same curiosity. Later this year will mark 12 years since that day in November when I and 2500 other athletes competed in IRONMAN Arizona 2009. Among those other athletes were Marty, Mike, and John, all of whom have graced the pages of this blog. Scott and Leanne were there too. Many of them have moved on from triathlon and found other challenges and adventures. But me? I’m still here swimming, biking and running. And I’m not really sure why. I just know I love it. Maybe that’s enough of a reason.

One thing that is clear from Steinberg’s writing is that he has a healthy respect for anyone who makes it to the starting line of a triathlon, let alone the finish line. He goes into such detail to show that these athletes are normal people with fears, doubts, dreams and medical conditions that are not unlike most of us. He’s basically saying, “They did it. You can too if you just take the first small step.”

Steinberg seems just as impressed by the person who simply makes that first bold move to get off the couch as he is with the IRONMAN participants. I think what he is telling us is that life is meant to be lived physically. No matter our education. No matter our social status. And no matter our economic standing, life is not fully lived unless we can do something physical. Evolution made us to be physical beings that crave the hunt and brave the elements. That’s how we survived millenia to be what we are today: organisms that can choose to be sedentary or active.

You know what I choose.

Until next time…

Loose Heifers At Lunch

This story has nothing to do with triathlon, endurance sport, or anything else that you are likely familiar with. But it’s a story I like to tell so just humor me and read on.

Romantic Life of the Cowboy

In the 1990’s, I used to work for a very large cattle company in Billings, Montana. Before you get all romantic with ideas of riding a horse into the sunset and spending Christmases singing songs on the back of a horse drawn wagon on a starry night, let me paint a more realistic picture.

My office was not a 60,000 acre calving pasture and my executive chair had neither horn nor stirrups. It was in a building on Airport Rd in the city. As far as offices go, it was nice. I had a great view out the sliding glass door, but it was not often that I had a chance to put my roping and riding skills to use.

Before taking that position, I had always dreamt of being out on the range and living the romantic cowboy life even though I knew better. At one level I knew the cowboy life was difficult and didn’t pay much. But at another level I wanted to believe that the Hollywood version of the Lorne Greens, Barbara Stanwicks and Chuck Connors was waiting for me. I also wanted to believe that I could still qualify for the National Finals Rodeo if I could just practice my roping. What I wanted to do and what I actually did are two different things.

Real Life of a Cowboy

One day in late Spring, possibly 1999, Lori and I decided to meet for lunch. Actually, Lori swears it was Fall of 1997, because she remembers being pregnant with our daughter, so let’s go with that.

Anyway, we met at the office, jumped in my truck and headed up Airport Road, by the (you guessed it) airport. To the North of Billings is a line of Bluffs that look out over the city and the Yellowstone River. It’s really quite beautiful. Billings Logan International Airport sits on top of these bluffs. There are three ways to get to Billings from the airport. Airport Road leads to the East side of town, 27th Street to the center of town. And Zimmerman trail is a tight, curvy little road that takes its travelers to the West part of town.

We drove down 27th street where we found our restaurant. Afterward, it was an easy decision to take Zimmerman Trail back to the top of the bluffs just for some variety and scenery.

After reaching the top of the bluffs and driving a little way toward the airport, we noticed a truck and stock trailer parked on the side of the road. Something looked odd about that situation.

It took me a couple of glances to realize that the back door of the trailer was broken which can only mean one thing: loose livestock. Sure enough, a big beautiful heifer was running loose along the fence around the airport. There may have been others, but the memory is a bit foggy about that. This was my chance to show off some cowboy roping skills that I had acquired from watching Will Rogers movies in my childhood.

I was on foot and Lori followed with the Truck. There was an officer in a patrol car helping out too. Lariat in hand, I was ready to catch a 700 pound heifer (that’s about 320 kg for my Canadian, Mexican, Australian, South African, Italian, Spanish and British friends). The patrol car slowly moved behind the heifer, pushing her toward me along the airport security fence. Within 30 feet of me, that young cow picked up her pace to a jog making a path between me and the fence. I was ready with the rope.

All it took was two swings of the loop. On the first swing, miss bovine shifted gears from jog to “get-the-hell-out-of-here” : still on course between me and the fence. After the second swing of the rope, I let go aiming for the back of her neck. It’s a pretty sight to see a lariat’s loop gently graze the back of a cow’s neck and fall into place over her head, but she was too fast and I was too slow. There was no time to pull out the slack so she ran through the loop… almost.

There’s an immeasurably small moment in time when you execute a decision and when you realize the consequences of that decision. The slack pulled out of the loop after her front feet ran through. The rope was around her body, not her neck. And that’s the moment I had the realization: I’m on foot, what am I going to do with a 700 pound heifer? The answer came rather quickly in the form of a nasty rope burn as the nylon rope slid through my hands and I was yanked to the ground.

Staring at the ground which was inches from my face, I could only think of one thing: there’s a heifer running loose around the Billings airport with a 30 foot rope dragging behind her. When I pulled myself up, I saw that the heifer was standing still in a face off with the patrol car. That’s just weird.

Walking closer to the scene, I could see that one of the car tires was parked on the end of my rope and the heifer couldn’t get away. I don’t remember the rest of the story. I know I got my rope back somehow and the heifer was loaded in a trailer.

The rope burns are long gone and the story is a bit hazy in the memory, but it’s one of those things that brings you out of the fog of romance and into the brightness of reality.

If I ever call myself a cowboy, it’s only because I don’t know enough about being a cowboy to know that I’m not a cowboy.

Until next time…

A Change Of Scenery

Today is June 13, 2021. There’s really nothing special about today, other than it is a beautiful, hot day here in sunny Mexico; New Mexico that is.

Lori and I decided it was time to leave North Carolina and get closer to our roots. I think it was Mel Tillis who sang, “… when we’re young we want to get away. When we’re old we want to go back”. We are neither young nor old, but moving to New Mexico puts us closer to our old Arizona stomping grounds.

Up until about three months ago, I was trying to focus on training for IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga which was held a month ago in May. The impending move across the U.S. and a high stress load from work forced me to rethink my priorities. I put Sami’s professional coaching services on hold and deferred the Chattanooga participation to 2022. I just didn’t have time to train properly. The Saturday 12+ mile runs were getting good, but also getting in the way of other things.

My New Digs

I love our new home, but moving to a new location has drastically disrupted the training routine. Especially this location: La Plata, NM.

My new digs in La Plata, NM.

That highway that runs into the distance is paved, but I’m a bit nervous about riding my bike on it. Drivers here are not sure what to make of cyclists and there is no shoulder. I did try running on it, but drivers aren’t sure what to make of runners either. Running is safer if you don’t mind running through the brush in the ditch to avoid an oncoming car.

My solution has been to run trails and ride the mountain bike. There are miles and miles of government land (right side of picture) that are perfect for this kind of training. It’s not exactly sport specific unless I’m training for XTERRA, but it’s close for now. I have yet to seek out biking/running/triathlon clubs. There is a pool in Farmington (15 miles away), so maybe I can get lucky and find a masters group or just get a lane twice a week. There are also some lakes in the area that, I’m told, are good for swimming.

Race #2 for 2021 is next Saturday in Smithfield, NC. It’s the Three Little Pigs sprint triathlon. Because of work, I travel between NM and NC which means I can still enjoy the local races in NC that I’ve been enjoying for the past 14 years.



The high intensity training I’ve been doing off road and on the trails (and at 6000′ altitude) has me in perfect shape for Three Little Pigs. Look out all you 55-59 male age groupers!

Until next time…

We Need Blood… But Not Yours

I donate blood when I can. At least I used to.

When the company organizes a blood drive, many of us respond. This happens several times each year and when the latest announcement came out a couple of months ago, I was one of the first to sign up. That 8:30am time slot is exactly what I wanted.

Arriving at 8:33 on blood letting day, I witnessed the Red Cross staff setting up their theater, something they would do for the next 20 minutes. I’ve come to expect this, but it’s ironic that the Red Cross robo calls beg for blood as though five people will die without your immediate donation. Yet when the day arrives to jab arms and fill bags, they move slower than I do after an IRONMAN.

It was almost 9am when I sat down to answer the technician’s questions: easy questions like, “Have you paid for sex in the last 12 months?” Then came the two fingers on the wrist. I’ve never been any good at feeling a pulse on the wrist, but these folks know what they are doing. Forty eight beats per minute.

She hesitated.

Then she called for her supervisor who put two fingers on my wrist and glared at her watch. Thirty seconds later she announced, “Forty eight.”

Technician: I’m sorry but your pulse is too low. You won’t be able to donate today.

Me: I’m sorry, did you say too low?

Technician: Your pulse has to be between 50 and 100 in order to donate blood.

Between 50 and 100? Basically, because my heart is healthy I can’t donate blood. How many of us triathletes have resting heart rates below 50? Probably most of us.

What bothers me is that upper bound of 100. Are they telling us that someone with a resting heart rate of 100 beats per minute is healthy enough to donate blood and an athlete with a heart rate of 48 is not? They must be accounting for nervous donors who have a healthy fear of needles. And if that’s the case, then the other end of the spectrum must be someone so relaxed that the thought of receiving a 16 gauge needle in the crook of the arm elicits pleasure. Maybe that’s an indication that the donor is no stranger to needles (e.g., drug addict). “Uh oh! Get this guy out of here.”

But we are triathletes. We live in that zone. It’s that place where pain resides and becomes our friend. We’ve learned to bring the memory of those painful experiences into our daily lives so we can laugh at the little obstacles: the obstacles that stop most people in their tracks. What is one needle stick compared to mile 18 and the sun going down? Only those who train to suffer will understand.

Usually my resting heart rate is around 40 to 42 bpm. What if they had recorded that instead of 48? CPR?

Until next time…

Heart Rate Monitor Comparison

Last year at this time, I was trying to post an article everyday. I guess we know how that went!

So… for the first TriRiot blog post of 2021 A.C. 1)Anno Covidi, I’m going to point you to a YouTube video and another web page. How’s that for shirking responsibility?

But here’s a little background anyway.

A Little Background

I use a chest strap heart rate monitor. I’m not sure exactly how it works but I think it has something to do with electrical impulses associated with heart beats. Recently, I purchased an optical arm band heart rate monitor. I don’t know how it works either, but I have had my doubts about the accuracy of the optical type for some time. The benefit is that it doesn’t chafe like the chest strap.

Because of my doubts, I performed a little experiment to see if the monitors produced similar results.

TriRiot YouTube Video

Interactive Results

If you click on the chart below, your browser will open a new tab with some details about the comparison and a chart that you can use to summarize portions of the data.

Results of the comparison can be summarized interactively

Until next time…

References   [ + ]

1. Anno Covidi

2020: Not So Bad For Everyone

I was listening to Triathlon Taren the other day. He mentioned how he and others have felt a kind of depression due to so many race cancelations and travel restrictions. I get it. After all, this is 2020 A.C. 1) Anno COVIDI .

Even though I know what he’s talking about, I don’t feel the same. First, let me say that I have a lot of sympathy for everyone feeling down or struggling with lockdowns, layoffs and deaths. If that is you, you may want to stop reading this post now and click over to something else, because the rest of this post is a bit sunny and I don’t want you to feel like I’m rubbing your nose in anything. I’m not.

This year has actually been very good for me and my triathlon future. I’m sure the performance gains are completely unrelated to any effects of the COVID pandemic, but I have definitely thrived in this environment. I train by myself most of the time anyway.

For everyone out there mentally and emotionally struggling with race cancelations and postponements, I want to offer some advice:

Keep your eye on the future

That’s the only way I know how to get through this. I expect my KQ2) Kona Qualification ambitions will deliver results in about five years. It could even be 10 years before I qualify. With that in mind, I can suffer through almost anything in the short term… and that’s what this pandemic is. It will be downgraded in the next year or two and life will get back to a new normal.

This is very similar to how I handled my post race depression. I just made plans for race #2 long before I started race #1. After the November 2009 IRONMAN® Arizona, I fell into a deep depression. It impacted my whole life: family, work, training. In the video below, I ponder the causes of such depression and talk about what I did in 2016 to prevent it.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. I want to see you at a race in 2021 (or 2022 if necessary).

Until next time…

References   [ + ]

1. Anno COVIDI
2. Kona Qualification

A Good Transition Can Get You On The Podium

Many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are just beginning to plan and train for the 2021 season. This is a good time to think about how you are going to execute those transitions in your shorter distance races. Those are the races where fast transition times can really help.

In this video, I deliver some hard evidence of the value of practicing and executing fast transitions.

Can I Validate My Functional Threshold Power?

It’s all about power.

Power Tap indicator
Power Tap indicator (yellow ).

Of the two main variables in a training program, volume and intensity, volume has been easily measured for decades. On the other hand, intensity has suffered from a lack of accuracy until recently. Power meters can quantify intensity like no other device outside of a laboratory. The power meter revolutionized training and racing.

An Intensity Benchmark

Power Tap wheel hub
Power Tap hub on rear bike wheel

Power is certainly accurate, and relatively easy to measure. But absolute power values are meaningless from one workout to the next. A benchmark had to be developed for the sake of comparisons and that benchmark is called functional threshold power (FTP) 1)Ballinger, A. 2020. What is FTP in Cycling and How Do I Test and Improve It? Cycling Weekly. https://www.cyclingweekly.com/fitness/ftp-cycling-3638652)Anon. . What Is Functional Threshold Power. TrainingPeaks. https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/what-is-threshold-power/. It is most commonly defined as the maximum effort one can sustain for 60 minutes on the bike (Allen et. al, 2019)3)Allen, H., Coggan, A. and McGreggor, S. 2019. Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 3rd ed. Velo Press. Boulder CO.

Functional Threshold Power is a point estimate of a theoretical construct so it is not going to solve all your training problems. But it can be very useful.

Testing FTP

There are different ways to estimate FTP. My coach, Sami, and I use a method similar to that of Friel (2016)4)Friel, J. 2016. The Triathlete’s Training Bible 4th Ed. VeloPress, Boulder, CO. p.47 which involves a 20 minute maximum effort on the bike. For this discussion, let’s call that Max20. The resulting average watts of the 20 minute effort can be multiplied by 0.95 to approximate the actual 60 minute functional threshold power (FTP). In our implementation of the test, there is an extra five minute all-out effort before the 20 minute effort. It gives us a little extra data to play with and as long as each subsequent test has the same protocol, I can compare results among tests to see how my fitness is improving.

Why pedal for 20 minutes to approximate a 60 minute effort?

Sixty minutes of pedaling at your highest constant effort is difficult. In fact, it’s grueling. It is very hard to maintain the power you believe should be your FTP for that amount of time. And in order to perform the test correctly you must have a pretty good idea of what your FTP is going to be before you even start the test so you can pace it correctly.

All of this has lead me to the question:

Can I validate the results of my 20 minute FTP test?


How accurate is FTP20 for predicting a 60 minute effort (FTP)?

Validation vs. Confirmation

I know from the get go that I won’t be able to validate my FTP estimate from a 20 minute test (FTP20).

Statistics. That’s why I can’t validate my FTP20. There is one experimental unit (myself) and, at this point, there is one replicate (one recent measure of FTP20). That’s what they mean when they say, “n equals one.” Therefore, this is not so much a validation, but a confirmation of sorts.

So, to confirm my FTP20, I need to generate a 60 minute all out effort (FTP60) and see if

FTP60 = FTP20 = 0.95 x Max20

The 20 Minute Test (FTP20)

This workout was held on 11/14/2020 and it went something like this:

  • 10′ warm up: easy spin
  • 3 x [60″ @ z3, 60″ @ z1] (z3 can be based on RPE or previous FTP estimate)
  • 5′ @ z1
  • 5′ all out
  • 10′ @ z1 recovery
  • 20′ all out
  • 5′ cool down

‘ = minutes, ” = seconds

Power (watts) generated over the course of the 20 minute FTP test workout
Summary statistics for the 20 minute all-out effort

Average power for the 20 minute effort was 220w. Multiply that by 0.95 and we get FTP = 209w. Now, let’s get a little rest and then confirm that estimate with an “hour of power.”

The 60 Minute Test (FTP60)

After a week of mostly low intensity and low volume training it was time to complete the “hour of power” on 11/21/2020.

Low intensity and low volume preceded the second test in order to allow sufficient recovery from the first test.

This workout was a bit more simple than the previous FTP test.

  • 15′ warm up.
  • 60′ all-out
  • 5′ cool down
Power (watts) generated over the course of the 60 minute FTP test workout
Summary statistics for the 60 minute all-out effort

In the first test of FTP, we determined FTP20 to be 209w. From the table on the right, we can see that the average power for the 60 minute effort (FTP60) was 209w.

I think high power statistics are not necessary to conclude that my FTP60 confirms my FTP20.

Like I said above, I do not consider this a validation. It’s possible that the two estimates are identical by chance. After all, “n equals one.” There are many sources of variation and I accounted for only a few. Also, notice how the minimum power is zero in both tests. During the 20 minute and 60 minute intervals I never stopped pedaling which means either the measuring device in the wheel hub is dropping watts or the head unit is dropping watts. The effect may be inconsequential, but I don’t know for sure.

Another factor that may have affected the outcome is bias. I may not have pedaled as hard as possible on the second test, because I knew what my initial test results were. It’s possible that I subconsciously tried to make the results match. I truly doubt that’s the case because I can not pedal smoothly enough to hold the power output constant so the power meter displays a very large range of numbers. Aiming for one particular number would require a higher level of averaging or smoothing than what I was monitoring.

For now, however, I have a high degree of confidence in my current estimate of FTP and the 20 minute testing protocol.

I’ll Take 20 Over 60 Any Day

The 20 minute test is hard enough. Putting out a maximal sustained effort requires pacing and focus. The 60 minute maximal effort is brutal. If you plan on trying it (and I suggest you do if only because my misery loves your company), here are some of my notes and observations:

  • Both tests were performed on a training stand with hydrostatic resistance.
  • The power meter is a PowerTap® in the hub of the rear wheel.
  • I used my FTP20 as a guide for pacing the 60 minute effort.
  • In the first 10 minutes, I aimed for an average watts of 200 to 205.
  • After that I just tried to increase the power slowly.
  • The effort felt easy for the first 15 minutes.
  • From minute 15 to 30, the effort steadily got harder and harder to maintain the same power. I considered quitting the test.
  • From minute 30 to 45, I was in hell. Too late to quit.
  • In the last 15 minutes hell rejected me so I had no one to blame but myself if I did quit. Something inside kept pushing, but at one point, I begged for the watch to move faster.
  • About 50% of my time was in the aero bars compared to about 60% for the 20 minute test.
  • No video games like Zwift®, Rouvy®, etc.; no music, no videos.

So, in conclusion, it seems that my FTP20 is an acceptable estimator of my FTP. Now on to the next question,

How can I be confident that my FTP is an accurate estimator of my anaerobic threshold?

Until next time…

References   [ + ]

1. Ballinger, A. 2020. What is FTP in Cycling and How Do I Test and Improve It? Cycling Weekly. https://www.cyclingweekly.com/fitness/ftp-cycling-363865
2. Anon. . What Is Functional Threshold Power. TrainingPeaks. https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/what-is-threshold-power/
3. Allen, H., Coggan, A. and McGreggor, S. 2019. Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 3rd ed. Velo Press. Boulder CO.
4. Friel, J. 2016. The Triathlete’s Training Bible 4th Ed. VeloPress, Boulder, CO. p.47

Triathlon Training: Which Is Better, Numbers Or Feel?

If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It.

Anything can be quantified.

For example, did you know that there is a number to indicate the firmness of your bacon? If enough bacon eaters complain about soft bacon, the bacon makers of the world are going to find a way to make it better and the only way they know how to make it better is by quantifying bacon firmness1)Savell, J. and Gehring, K. 2019. Meat Perspectives: Explaining soft bellies and testing firmness. Meat + Poultry. https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/21126-meat-perspectives-demystifying-soft-bellies.

I can’t make up this stuff. It’s how I make a living… sort of.

I’m the kind of person who sees beauty in numbers and patterns in complex data sets. Therefore, I’m the kind of triathlete who likes to collect numbers: power, pace, heart rate, etc. However, I do have my limits.

The Power of Feel

Is it possible that numbers like watts and beats per minute could distract athletes from getting a true feel for their sport?

How many of us are too busy listening for the Tempo Trainer to beep instead of feeling the arm as it catches the water?

With a heads up display inside the latest gadgety swim goggles, you probably don’t even have to count laps anymore. (Maybe that’s not such a bad thing actually).

Power meters used to be exclusively a bike gadget. Now you can measure run power if you have the right expensive device.

Heart rate? That’s so 90’s. Today you’d better be monitoring heart rate variability (HRV) so you know when you are sick, because you shouldn’t trust your own feelings.


I’m reminded of a bike ride from about four weeks ago. The pace was easy, the cadence was relaxed, yet my heart rate was over 130 beats per minute. That’s what my trusty Garmin® sport watch told me. Because that’s what the watch said, I accepted the number as an accurate representation of heart rate and reduced my bike speed to the point of almost falling over. My HR was supposed to stay below 100. It finally occurred to me that something was not right.

Pulling off the road, I checked the pulse with a finger in the neck and an eye on the digital chronometer. The finger method may not be as convenient as an ANT+ radio signal from a chest strap, but I trust it as being far more accurate. You never know when microscopic electronic components will go bad. By giving myself the finger (three times), I measured a heart rate of 85bpm. And the watch? It still said my heart rate was over 100, way over 100.

Later, I found out that the battery in the chest strap had died and the displayed heart rate was being measured from optical sensors on the back of the watch. Those optical sensors are notoriously inaccurate in my experience.

Can we learn pace without a GPS device? Can we learn cadence without a bike computer? Can we be triathletes without all the numbers? Of course we can.

For some people, it takes years to generate the feel of the moment. I’ve been doing this sport for 14 years and I still have trouble getting into the right run pace without help from the GPS elves. On the other hand, I know what a good catch feels like in the water. At 500 meters into a swim, I can tell if my form is falling apart and I can tell if it’s from fatigue or daydreaming. These are good things to know.

Having a good feel for the sport only comes from experience, loads of experience.

The Power of Numbers

I can think of two very good reasons to train by the numbers:

  1. Accuracy. Certain factors, highly correlated to sport performance, go unnoticed by our natural senses. Any athlete can set their training level by monitoring their own perceived exertion (commonly called Relative Perceived Exertion on a scale of one to ten). But how accurate is that from one day to the next? On Monday you may feel great and have a great workout. On Thursday your mind might be preoccupied with something that makes the training feel more difficult than usual regardless of how hard the body was actually stressed in training. Often it takes objective measures to cut through the noise of our perceptions so we can more accurately estimate what we want. In fact, it often takes complex statistical models to cut through the noise that bombards our senses every second during a workout in order to build a truly informative picture of our fitness (e.g. TSS score).
  2. Discipline. Old habits die hard. Here’s a scenario that may sound familiar. Your workout for today is an easy 60 minute run. As you start the workout, you feel great, but a little nagging voice in your head says, “You’re uh, going kinda slow dontchya think? You’d better pick up that pace if you want to actually train for that upcoming race.” And before 30 minutes into the run, the pace is much closer to race pace than what the workout called for. This is where the numbers come in handy. A good heart rate, pace or power monitor can warn you when you are getting off track from your intended workout plan.

This is your captain speaking…

I’m not an airline pilot. Neither am I an air traffic controller. So if the upcoming analogy is way off, you know why.

Balancing numbers and feel is like flying a commercial jet liner. The captain has to know the numbers. No matter how automated the system, the captain must be able to interpret the numbers, process them and take action. Sometimes, those numbers come from air traffic control: altitude, direction, speed, etc. Other times those numbers come from the instruments in the cockpit: fuel levels, hydraulic pressure, passenger weight distribution. Numbers, however, are not enough. Imagine this:

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. I just want you to know that you are in very capable hands. Out of 100 students I was top in my class for interpreting flight data. We are going to have a lot of fun today, because this is the first time I’ve ever been in a real cockpit…

Hopefully the cabin door hasn’t already been locked by then.

Remember Sully, the pilot who landed a plane full of passengers in the Hudson River? I’m pretty sure he would be the first to tell you that there’s a point where the numbers are good, but your intuition and feel are vital.

Until next time…

References   [ + ]

1. Savell, J. and Gehring, K. 2019. Meat Perspectives: Explaining soft bellies and testing firmness. Meat + Poultry. https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/21126-meat-perspectives-demystifying-soft-bellies

A Power Meter Taught Me Something I Didn’t Expect

I have a confession of road rage. Actually, it’s not so much road rage as much as it is road perspective. Would people drive big vehicles at high speeds if they intrinsically knew how much energy those vehicles consume?

This post is about finding that place where we as humans can appreciate what it takes to move through space/time at superhuman velocities.

Car Versus Human

I may be a triathlete, but I’m not just talking about swimming, biking and running. Imagine yourself driving down a highway in your favorite car. Chances are your car is powered by multiple pistons being forced into motion by well controlled explosions inside of a metal block that weighs a few hundred pounds. Now imagine trying to carry your car on your back as you walk the short distance from the parking lot to the chiropractor’s office. I don’t know how many people can do that, but the percentage of people on earth who can would probably fill this page with zeros (either I’m exaggerating or using a large font).

Yet this engine, with its controlled explosions, can move you, your family, some cargo, and those long forgotten McDonald’s french fries under the seat down the highway at 70+ miles per hour for thousands of miles before tune ups and oil changes. I, on the other hand, can run a five mile loop at a tenth of the speed which then requires a recovery drink and hot shower. This perspective alone might make me appreciate how hard the car works to drive me twenty five minutes to Wilmington just so I can run five miles for forty something minutes. And in my 40 minutes of running I put out less “work” than my car did to get me there.

New Perspective

So, when I see someone behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle, I think to myself,

“How many of you truly have an appreciation for the amount of energy it takes to move your vehicle down the road at whatever breakneck speed you can get away with?”

The question may be rhetorical, but it has serious implications for all of us humans who want more and want it now. I have no data to back up this claim, but I believe that if more people had a feel for just how much energy is required to start their cars, they would likely do more walking, running and/or cycling. I once knew a guy who lived on a remote cattle ranch in New Mexico. He would run several miles to his mailbox at the main road. I’ve also known people who would drive less than a mile on a beautiful day to the post office and then sit around the house because they had nothing to do.

The real eye-opener for me was the power meter on my bike. When I first got the power meter, I could hold about 200 watts pedaling for an hour. I thought that was pretty good because I imagined lighting two 100 watt incandescent light bulbs. But my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to know how I compared to my car, a 2007 Toyota Yaris.

According to Wikipedia, Vincent can generate up to 89 horsepower. (Yes ,I named my car). In reality, it’s probably only using a portion of that. Let’s assume 50% (45hp). Forty five horsepower is equal to roughly 33,500 watts. Vincent, one of the smallest street legal cars in the U.S., weighs only 13 times my own weight but puts out over 167 times the energy that I do and he can do it for much longer. He can produce over seven watts per kilogram all day long. And that is on the low end. In the cycling world, you would be a top level professional cyclist if you could hold that kind of power to weight ratio for all of five minutes 1) “How much better are pro cyclists?”. Cyclist. https://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/539/how-much-better-are-pro-cyclists .

How many drivers truly have that appreciation? I’m sure most endurance athletes do, because they feel the pain in their legs from pushing 300 watts earlier that day. Ever since I started training for triathlon, I’ve been much nicer to my vehicles. I get the oil changed on time (almost on time). I know my mechanic on a first name basis (Nick, in case you are wondering). I also, drive more respectfully of others. Perhaps the biggest impact from this insight is that I value efficiency over speed and style (regarding my vehicles).

Final Word(s)

I don’t want to give the impression that I negatively judge anyone simply because they drive a large vehicle at 79mph on Interstate 40. I myself own a big truck/lory that I use to haul cargo and horses. The U.S. has cheap fuel, wide roads and a car culture built in to the social fabric. There are neither economic nor social incentives to drive efficient vehicles.

The point of my rambling in this post is that, because of my triathlon experiences, I have a feel for how much energy it takes to move, and because of that insight, I live my life just a little bit differently than I used to.

Until next time…

References   [ + ]

1. “How much better are pro cyclists?”. Cyclist. https://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/539/how-much-better-are-pro-cyclists