Tracking Progress in Triathlon

By Stephan Schwarze – December 4, 2013

A lot of triathletes are “Type A” personalities. Tracking and measuring progress and performance in workouts is a standard routine, and we do it all year around. This can lead to a heavy reliance on data and repetitive routines.

Instead of becoming a slave of technology, try utilizing the following ideas. They will help you take a more flexible approach to measuring progress in training, depending on how far along you are in your training season and what discipline you are tracking.

A first step is to ask yourself several times throughout the year, “Why am I tracking my training?” You should not just do it because it’s a habit, because your friends do it, or because you want to brag about overall training mileage. The objective should be to analyze the data from previous workouts in order to plan and set goals for your next training phase, and to become aware of any changes needed in your training.

What to Measure

As triathletes, we need to make sure to take relevant—and possibly different—metrics in each discipline, and, in addition, look at the overall training across all sports.

Swimming: It makes sense to track primarily overall swim mileage, as well as speed (interval times), for key workouts.

Running: Distance and number of weekly workouts are good metrics during easy training phases. Terrain and weather conditions have an impact on these numbers only insignificantly. As training progresses, running pace (minutes/mile) is the most valuable metric for key workouts.

Cycling: A 30-mile ride through steep hills is significantly harder and takes much longer than a 30-mile ride on a flat course. So, tracking time is more relevant than tracking distance. If your rides are a mix of outdoor rides and indoor trainer rides, make sure to consider this when you compare riding volume between weeks. Generally, trainer rides are more effective. As a rule, I assume that, on the trainer, you need to ride about two-thirds of the time as you would outdoors for an equivalent effect.

To track intensity, power output is the most valuable metric for cycling (see below).

What to Track

During the off-season, try to stay away from measuring and tracking for most training activities. The main goal during this time is to recover and recharge so you can pick up harder training again for the following race season. It helps to get a break from tracking distance, speed, or intensity of your activities during this time. In my opinion, there are only two reasons to do detailed measuring or performance tracking during off-season:

  1. You plan to use a new power meter, HR monitor, or other tool. The off-season is the time to become familiar with a new device in order to be able to use it fluently when training picks up again.
  2. Measuring paces or times can be useful for evaluating equipment. For example: Riding the same course on the same day with the same intensity but using a different helmet or wheels can help you assess which helmet or wheels performs best.

Tracking in Base Training

As you pick up volume and mileage during base training, measuring progress can be achieved with some simple metrics. For swimming and running, it makes sense to primarily track overall mileage. For cycling, I prefer to track riding time during this period. With some exceptions, there are very few workouts during base training for which I track intensity (such as power or heart rate).

Additionally, tracking overall workout time (across all sports, plus gym work) is beneficial during base season to see increases from week to week.

Tracking in Build and Race Season

As race season approaches, tracking will change. This is when performance data related to the intensity of workouts should be the main focus. For swimming, interval times per distance are key. For running, paces at certain intensity levels during speed work, tempo work, and long runs are the best indicators to see week-over-week progress. Cycling is probably the most challenging to measure, as measuring speed has limited value because the terrain and weather can have significant impact. Heart rate (HR) zones are a better indication of training progress, but, even for this element, you can see variations over weeks that are not related to training. For example: I found that my heart rate is significantly higher on days after air travel. General health conditions also influence most athletes’ heart rates. So, the most useful metric to track cycling performance progress during build periods and race season is power. Power meters are certainly more expensive tools than watches or HR monitors but, at a certain level of fitness, it makes sense to consider using these.

Even during race season, my advice is not to measure and track every workout. As a triathlete, you’ll probably have between three to six key workouts each week. Those are the workouts that make you faster, and those are the ones for which you want to track progress. For other training, such as recovery rides or easy runs, just a basic metric (mileage run, or time in the saddle) will be enough. There is little to no value analyzing the paces or power numbers for such workouts.

Using Analysis Tools

Taking metrics and tracking training progress are only useful if you analyze the data later and take action according to their results. So, what is the best way to analyze results?

If you use a single device to measure workouts in each sport, then the manufacturer software is probably your easiest choice. For example: A lot of multisport athletes use Garmin devices, as Garmin’s software and Connect service are fairly useful for analyzing results.

If you use different devices, or you manually measure performance (e.g., by just tracking time with a watch), then a generic software solution is more suitable. TrainingPeaks is probably the most popular solution, and it provides plenty of features to analyze workouts. My personal preference is SportTracks 3.1. It is very reasonably priced, has access to lots of plugins, and is full featured to analyze all your workout activities.

Regardless of the tool you use to analyze your training results, make sure you know what to look for in the data, or get help from a coach or experienced athlete. For example, in addition to just looking at interval times and paces, analyzing recovery data (how quickly your heart rate drops between intervals) is a valuable indicator of your current fitness level.

Make Your Metrics Work

Don’t track workouts only for the sake of measuring. Adjust what you track on the basis of how far along you are in your race season. Collect metrics that are useful to plan, adjust your training going forward, and analyze past training data regularly so that you can take action.




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