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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 firmness[1]Savell, J. and Gehring, K. 2019. Meat Perspectives: Explaining soft bellies and testing firmness. Meat + Poultry. … Continue reading.

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.

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