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Are we training to race or just training to train?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about 'what counts as a great workout' and questioned how so many people are now focused on 'output' rather than 'intensity' during their training sessions and whether this was beneficial. This has largely been driven by the increasing use of apps, devices and power meters to monitor our training sessions. You can read the blog in full by GOING HERE

Same day, same fitness, different result.

A cold, but clear November morning and I'm lined up to start the cycle time trial for our local winter duathlon. The legs feel a bit jaded from yesterday's trail run but overall I'm in good overall condition and set off at a strong pace, quickly getting into my rhythm. The course is just shy of 11 miles, including Hunter's Hill and I cross the line in 29:02. Immediately I'm disappointed, in summer pre-Ironman I'd managed to get down to 26:20 and today the wind is calm, so I expected better. That's nearly 3 minutes slower over 11 miles, a huge difference on the same bike, using the same kit.

Now, the obvious answer here is that it's November, it's the 'off season' and in summer I was at my peak before my main goal for the year. But here's the thing, I'm doing similar watt bike sessions now, to those I was doing in July and the power output figures on the watt bike now are exactly the same now as they were in July.

If we are using training 'output data' to predict my fitness and race performances, my watt bike power hasn't changed, so how the hell have I lost 3 minutes over 11 miles when my training data is telling me I'm just as fit as I was in July?

Training isn't racing and data isn't everything

Now, I have a few theories and explanations for the near 3 minute difference, but they’re too much to discuss in this blog. However, I’ve  become increasingly aware of how my data during training sessions doesn't correlate well with race performances in real life. This is a 2 fold observation, the first is how my data doesn't predict race day (3 bloody minutes over 11 miles?) and the second is how so many other people seem to produce amazing training data, yet fail to perform in races. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen someone's power output on a cycle test, or improvements in a pool swim test and then scratched my head at how they struggle on race day. Sitting on the turbo or running on the treadmill is not racing on the road and a controlled training session is not the same as a race day or simulation.

The focus on data

One of the other things I'm becoming increasingly aware of is that the 'training process' is becoming ever more important and in many cases, more important than the end result (race performances). personally, I don't really care what my training figures are, I'd swap them all for a personal best on race day, as that is the ultimate goal. However, some athletes can become so engrossed in the 'training process' that it becomes the main focus. The fact that there is a race at some point down the line seems to be no more than an interruption to their training.

I am now aware of some people who hardly race at all, if ever. Their sole purpose is to train, produce figures and raise their cycling ftp (or whatever else). Improving their training figures seems to be the end goal, as opposed to taking part in an actual event.

Training V race day

So here's the thing. With the ever increasing focus on training output, I personally feel that the athlete's mindset in many cases has become all about the training and not about the racing. I think that the figures in training can be a poor representation of race day performance. I regularly see people displaying amazing swim/bike/run data on a multitude of apps, presented in graphical form, only to see them perform poorly on the only day that counts, which is race day. Convinced that training data translates to race performances, they predict times which they fail to hit, then scratch their heads when they fail to perform, given the data driven evidence. This triggers the usual conversations such as ‘was my nutrition right?’ or ‘was it a bad day?’. In reality, you can’t predict race performances from training data. You can however, predict race performances from other race performances.

The comfort blanket

The training plan provides us with a safe routine and each week we can continue to hit our targets, work hard, pat ourselves on the back and tick off the sessions. The numbers may show that we are improving, but in reality you will only really know if you have improved by standing on the line and racing, but this is often avoided for the comfort of ticking off another session. Maybe we all feel safe in routine?

The social media effect

I think it's worth considering the impact of social media on training an competition. My psychology friends will be far more qualified to tell me how social media can impact upon people's mental well being. I’ve seen much discussion about how images posted online present a picture of a perfect and in many cases 'fake' life, which others find themselves trying and failing to achieve. The other common discussion revolves around the need for followers, likes and positive comments, which can almost take the form of an addiction. At a time when mental health seems to be a bigger issue than ever, many are linking it to social media. 

Websites such as Strava are in effect 'Facebook' for athletes where they build a persona, based on data, stats and images. I do wonder if once these personas have been established, they might be hard to live up to, in a real race situation.

If you look good on Strava and you're constantly posting images of yourself 'smashing it' you risk losing kudos if you take part in a 'real race' and don't perform well. I personally have experienced several people who have become 'social media athletes' and now they hardly ever take part in 'real races'. I do wonder if their persona which has been established online is now holding them back and they avoid races for fear of their online persona being ruined. If you have a genuine fear of taking part in events because you're worried about people beating you and what others will think, that's not going to lead to a healthy, long term relationship with competition. Let’s be clear, I’m not ‘strava bashing’ here, I’m simply interested in people’s state of mind and how social media plays a role. I think I’ve personally been guilty of all of the things above at some point. 

So that's the ramblings almost over. My advice is to get out of your comfort zone this winter. Try some new challenges, enter a masters swim gala, ride with people better than you, run some 5k or 10k races and commit to doing them well, rather than just going through the process of collecting the shirt and the medal. There's a lot more to racing well than ticking off the sessions and doing some events or training with others will give you an accurate benchmark of where you currently are, rather than using your training data to 'predict'. Experience of race day and everything it brings is invaluable from a sports psychology perspective for so many different reasons (too many to discuss here).

To be honest, from my experience during the last 24 months of coaching, the most important thing I’m beginning to understand is that it's probably not the physical conditioning which will make the most significant difference for many athletes, it is all the other stuff. The kind of stuff that 'yet another' training session just doesn't provide. I also think that going forwards, the problem is sadly just going to get worse for many. 

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