Like many athletes, mere mortals, weekend warriors and washed up has-beens, I’ve had a relationship with data ever since I started running a little more seriously than I had been during Year 10. For the most part that was only measured on race day at an athletics meet and served as a measure of the training and preparation put in to date.
Any interval based track workouts were based on perceived effort and the instructions of our coach who oversaw our sessions (I’m talking hard burnt grass tracks with plenty of holes in them). The emphasis was on prescribed effort, form and technique. And you know what? If we showed up, were relatively consistent with our frequency of showing up and did as we were asked, we turned in some mighty handy times and results on a regional and national level.
Fast forward to university days and I was amongst the early wave people of using heart rate monitors and training to specific heart rate zones that were found through blood lactate testing and a ‘ramp test’ on a treadmill thanks to a coach who was an early adopter of these tools. I soon worked out that we were way ahead of the curve as I learned more from what we did in training than I did sitting through first year Physical Education pre-requisite papers at university.
Make the leap 25 years ahead and we are in the maelstrom of devices, tracking and data and an overwhelm of confusion.
From GPS to accelerometers, Heart Rate Variability (HRV is known as the variance between the beats of your heart), Heart Rate, oxygen saturation, bloody glucose monitors, cadence, power meters for both bikes and running, vertical ascent/descent amongst others along with the programmes and applications that have been designed to interpret this data and information to give it to you in a way that means something. And yes, there are a myriad of other physiological factors that we can now measure such as sleep, calorific burn, steps, distance covered and many others.
“If you can measure it, you can improve it” is a strongly held belief.
The proliferation of data and the use of data is an incredible tool, but when you factor in the fact that we are humans and NOT robots, and that personality traits play a role in our relationship with data we have to start to question our relationship with the need to measure.
It’s a topic that I’ve been wanting to put into words for more than a while.
As an athlete, it was my job to continually push boundaries.
Truth be told, it wasn’t just my ‘job’, it was the concept of working towards continual improvement that kept me in the game. I had devised ways of using devices and data in ways that no one else has yet figured out (that I am aware of) to gain the physiological, technique and performance data that I wanted. I understood the shortcomings of certain technologies and found ways of getting the information and feedback that I wanted and needed.
This information and data fed into product testing, how I designed my approach to training and preparation for competition while allowing me to remain highly objective regardless of outcomes or results. This must be tempered with the reality that devices and tech DO FAIL at critical moments and you need to be able to operate without their feedback when you have to.
When it comes to data, devices and tracking, the biggest change I have observed was when devices became tethered to social networks; firstly facebook, instagram and twitter feeds, but more specifically Strava and Training Peaks (coaching software that has revolutionised the interpretation of data and performance and ability for coaches to communicate with athletes). While being incredible tools to interpret raw information, to communicate and to have a visual and virtual log book of everything to look back on; these applications have also brought with them pressures that haven’t been present before.
I recently came across this article from the NewsRoom with Olympic silver medallist Caitlin Regal which resonated greatly around some of these pressures that are infrequently spoken about but cultivate not only in high performance environments, but also in every day Joe and Jane Average who is making a concerted effort to improve themselves.
As stated by Caitlin; “We’re in a system where everything is documented, and we’re taught what good numbers and bad numbers are. It’s part of performance, and how you get better,” says Regal, a self-confessed perfectionist. “It’s a way of affirming whether you’re good or bad – but it’s not always that plain and simple.
“Even recently, I felt I had to do a certain amount of training sessions during the week because that’s what I’d usually do. But now for me, with a back injury, it’s about waking up and deciding what’s best for me – without the pressure of ‘I need to train because it needs to be uploaded to Strava’, or ‘I need to train or else I will gain weight’.
“So, I’ve been running without my watch, without anything tracking me. Now I run for as long as my body wants to go.”
“Surely I am not the only one that has it programmed into me to track every bit of exercise and in turn give myself a sense of accomplishment or failure, when really it shouldn’t be pass or fail. You are literally going outside to keep healthy. Is that not success in itself?”
Personally, I went through a similar experience of having to re-frame my relationship with data about three years ago. A freak accident, a broken body and a brain that needed re-wiring will do that.
When the screen on my Garmin cracked and the strap on my most basic digital watch broke, I simply didn’t replace either and I can’t tell you the last time I charged my bike computer.
What it forced was to go back to ‘feel’ and to see the progress that wasn’t measurable. Knowing full well that effort and exertion are intrinsically linked, it came back to old fashioned breath control to measure perception of effort. Believe it or not, but this fashionable term of ‘breathwork’ has been around for centuries and if you start to tap into it, you’ll start to unlock many possibilities around how to manage your effort and output as well as your autonomic nervous system and response to stress.
While I have aways had a good sense of ‘feel’ and exertion, lack of measurement made me tune into these with a heightened sense of awareness. Yes, I have the benefit of knowing what things should feel like having had years of measured experience but what it allowed was a sense of freedom to simply enjoy, go back to the ‘why’ and to focus on the progression of skills especially when learning new things.
This does not mean that I’m against data, I’m just acutely aware of how it can affect different individuals more than others due to the psychological impact of it. I also admit to there being a strong likelihood of re-igniting my relationship with it in the future for specific activities and measurement of physiological data for overall health and wellbeing (and possibly physical performance) as well as coaching.
All I ask is that if you are measuring, know what you are measuring, why you are measuring it, how it can help you gain a greater understanding of WHY you are doing what you are doing and HOW your body is responding to a certain stimulus.
Because believe it or not, I’ve put in some of my career best performances directly after an effort when a Garmin has told me that I needed a 79 hour recovery period. True.
You are more than your data, but knowing how to use your data effectively will be one of the greatest things you will do.
To be continued….