With the escalation of performance-tracking gadgets, downloading, uploading, sharing and social media, many athletes are far too keen to find signs of progress.
Showing others how well you’re doing has become an epidemic. But as satisfying as beating your mate, last week’s average speed or your record for a Strava segment can be, it isn’t necessarily an indication of improvement. Every session may be a step towards an improvement but you can’t expect to see a progression after each one.
The science of endurance training has shown that over three quarters of your work must be performed at less than 80% of your maximum heart rate (HRmax). You also need some top-end efforts above 85% HRmax to develop strength, pace judgment, pain tolerance and race mentality. Therefore your weekly session plan should set out session goals, and any data downloads or records of perceived exertion should be used to determine whether or not you achieved them.
For example, if you’re due to perform a zone-one endurance or skill session, any metrics you track should be used to control your pace and ensure the workout doesn’t turn into a race.
Alternatively, if you’re doing an interval session, perhaps a single-sport time trial in zone three, you need to know you’re working at your best effort to show what you’re capable of under race conditions.
There are various ways you can spot improvements with the performance data you collect:
Test your aerobic fitness, such as a three-mile run at 75-80% HRmax to see how fast you can cover the distance while controlling your effort. Yes, you could go faster if you raced the three miles but you can’t do that every fortnight throughout the year without injuring yourself or burning out in the long term.
Look for changes in what you’re capable of doing in zone one (up to 80% HRmax). Fit athletes can achieve amazing speeds while remaining aerobic (for example, top age-grouper Lee Piercy can do 5min miles at 80% HRmax). If you struggle to stay in zone one, the first step to improving is being able to keep your effort to this level for most sessions.
Across all high-quality efforts (such as intervals and races) look for improved output. If not, you may be failing to fuel correctly, doing too much base work, speed or volume, or simply hitting the end-of-season fitness drop that happens near the tail end of every racing year.
Over longer periods you may also see speed increase for a given HR. This happens by sticking to the goals of each week’s sessions. Improvements don’t happen by trying to ride, run or swim every session faster than the one before; they happen at the biological pace of your genes not your ego or motivation to beat others. Discipline in training is very important.
(Image: Jonny Gawler)
For lots more performance advice head to our Training section