Some thoughts on measurement, and an altitude update
Some thoughts on measurement, and an altitude update
the face of a very, very cracked woman mid-altitude training

I can remember a time in my career where I didn’t measure or count anything. I didn’t have a power meter, a smart phone, a “wearable”, and for the first few years, I didn’t even have a heart rate monitor. I didn’t measure anthropometric variables or keep nutrition logs. The tools I used were simple: my bike, and a trusty Timex digital watch to keep rough track of how long I was out on the trails for. I didn’t use Trainingpeaks or Strava - just a good ol’ Excel calendar with my prescribed training. I tracked my training and progress with a written journal, and the only thing I measured was my effort. 

This “grassroots” approach worked for me; I progressed quickly in cycling those first few years, despite coming to the sport late as I transitioned from hockey. I did eventually get a heart rate monitor, but wasn’t using it with any device that was “upload-able” - the monitor’s only purpose was to give me something to check in with when I was riding endurance or doing sub-maximal intervals. Basically, the heart rate monitor taught me how to ride at an appropriate pace for foundational training. 

In 2015, I got my first power meter (and also a cycling head unit). For reference, I’d already raced at three world championships and had a few national championships podiums at this point, all trained for with my trusty Timex and heart rate strap. When I got this power meter, however, it didn’t change my training or approach at all. I didn’t start riding to power zones or setting wattage goals - the workout prescriptions remained as percentages of heart rate and level of effort to give. We used the power data gathered to cultivate some confidence and to measure improvement over specific distances/time frames, but that was sort of the extent of it. I had begun to use other tools to measure a more expansive picture of improvement, like Strava for times on technical trails, and perceived exertion at specific accumulations of load.

As a new athlete, there was nothing wrong with this; I was at a phase of my career where the power numbers were increasing virtually every session. But as you get older and your training age increases, you simply won’t be able to measure all the improvements you’re making with just your power meter. You need to expand your focus and look at this less-easily measured variables to direct your training and approach. 

At times, I’ve felt that the power meter has narrowed my focus too much. It reduced what was important down to what could be numerically measured, and that’s a real shame. During these times, I think it detracted from my development and progress as an athlete. Watts are only part of the equation, and to focus on them to the exclusion of other elements that are less-easily measured is a mistake. I think it also pulled me into the trap of treating training sessions like tests. In reality, if you’re training to be better on race day, you should be getting a little worse throughout your training blocks before you recover and supercompensate. But the power meter can make you forget that. I know it has for me, at times. 

Aside from my power meter, I’ve never really bought into the “if it can be measured, we must measure it” attitude. I don’t have a wearable, and I won’t ever get one (for many reasons). I prefer to check in with these things - sleep, recovery, energy levels - by myself, without the aid of technology. Maybe that makes me old fashioned? I don't track anthropometric variables (again, this is for many reasons), and though I do use TrainingPeaks, I have always preferred to keep track of my training with a written journal to complement the online logs.

Measuring things is important, for a whole host of reasons. Measurements keep us on track and provide feedback on the effectiveness of our approach; they keep us motivated when what we’re seeing amounts to improvement; they provide insights on why things might NOT be going as planned. The key to all of this is the analysis, which is an art. If you measure appropriately and analyze with discretion, then the reflection that comes out of that is where the magic is. But honestly, I think we measure too much. Or at least, we sometimes measure the wrong things. 

As with anything, how you use it is the most important part. I’ll keep my power meter and my head unit, thank you very much, but as for the rest of it? I think I’ll stay analog. 

Right now, I’m at the beginning of an altitude block in Big Bear, California. We’ve got some serious altitude races coming up, with Crusher, Andorra, Snowshoe WC, and Leadville all in the next two months. As someone who flounders at altitude without proper prep, this block was much needed!

Ironically - or, perhaps, pertinently - given the context of this post, training at altitude does require a higher degree of mindful body awareness and tracking. You can use variables like HRV to track how you’re handling the load, but I maintain that the most effective way is a few minutes of mindful self-reflection every day. If you want to make use of altitude training well, you have to really tune in to your body. Training and fatigue just hit differently up here.

The first few days up here were ROUGH. Expectations had to be adjusted! I limped through my first intensity workout, and have had to really lean into the “ride, eat, hydrate, nap” routine. On Saturday, I had a somewhat basic 5 hour endurance day planned (I say somewhat basic, because I know 5hrs is never "basic"... but it's not a tall ask for how I'm trained) and I was in a darker place literally the WHOLE ride than I was at any point during Unbound. I just cracked myself SO hard ha! That should give you an idea of the additional load of altitude. Lespy and I have been working our way through all the Star Wars instalments chronologically since Obi-Wan came out (yes, I am a nerd), so that’s given us a task to make the post-training couch time feel more productive. Another 2.5 weeks of hard but balanced training up here, and then we head to Crusher!

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