Are triathlon gadgets a good thing?

Our writers ponder the merits of GPS watches, power meters and heart rate monitors


Are you wondering whether to train with as many triathlon gadgets as possible, or just go by feel? Nik Cook and Andy Blow make the case for and against devices like HRMs, power meters and more.


The case for triathlon gadgets

The simplest but most compelling reason to use an objective metric, such as heart rate, power or pace, to monitor your training is that, without them, the majority of athletes will go too hard when they’re supposed to be taking it easy and too slow when they’re supposed to be going fast (says freelance writer and experienced multisport competitor Nik Cook).

This means that, during those lower intensity recovery and endurance workouts, you won’t be targeting the correct physiological systems, won’t be developing your body’s economy and ability to burn fat, but instead will be accumulating injury and overtraining.

On the harder workouts, you won’t be able to gauge how hard is hard, will struggle to evenly pace efforts and will have no way to monitor progress. You’ll end up training in a physiological no-man’s land that’s ineffective and a waste of precious time.

Yes, there’s a romantic and free-spirited side of us that sometimes likes to swim, bike and run just for the joy, without technology interfering, and there’s no reason not to do that occasionally.

However, if you want to improve, your training has to be progressive and, without quantifiable measures of intensity and training load, this is impossible. Some athletes undoubtedly do go too far and suffer from paralysis by analysis, but (presuming you would interpret the data properly) if you’re not using them, you’re limiting your performance.

With work, family and other commitments making time to train a precious commodity, you need to maximise performance gains from available time. Without performance metrics, you’re guessing, and almost certainly guessing wrong. With them, and with a bit of knowledge, you can guarantee that every stroke, pedal rotation and stride is making you a faster triathlete.

The case against triathlon gadgets

Even though gadgets like GPS watches, power meters and heart rate monitors are everywhere and becoming increasingly more affordable, I still believe there’s a very powerful argument for training and racing ‘by feel’ at least some of the time (writes sports scientist and coach Andy Blow).

If gadgets aren’t used sparingly they can start to dominate training, detract from the basic enjoyment of being outside and even hold you back from achieving the results you want. The tipping point comes when people become obsessed with the objective ‘stats’ spewed out by their devices. They then start to lose sight of the importance of actually listening to how their body feels and adjusting their training (or racing) accordingly.

At the end of the day, the ‘feel factor’ from your body is the very best guide you’ll ever have on how hard you can push, but it’s also something you can only understand perfectly after years of practice. Gadgets, at first glance, may seem to offer a shortcut by telling you what your body is doing, but in reality they can’t measure all of the nuances that are going on in such a complex system as the human body, and can occasionally mislead you.

More importantly, they also distract you from focusing on internal cues so you don’t learn  to trust your instincts. And that can often mean the difference between success or failure when you’re in a race.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for using technology to enhance your training – for example, periodic fitness testing or measuring performance in key sessions to monitor improvements – but until we make a device as smart as the human brain to track performance, gadgets will never be as useful as the old grey matter.

(Images: Jonny Gawler / Ben Winston)


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