Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?
Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?
Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone. But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines. Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.
How long can I sustain this effort?
Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?
Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day. But it takes practice!
Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result
The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact, you will fail miserably. You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts. You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your heart rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert. In other words, your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.
You’re thinking, “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.
Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day. Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.
There’s a recipe for developing this instinct. Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode. You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.
You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training
It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.
The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.
In the second example, the power is “descriptive”. You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.
You improve your ability to understand your body while executing a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.
On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.
Fitness Follows Mastery
Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions. Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest. “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!” Right…but that’s not the point.
Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts. Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do. That’s algorithmic.
But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.
Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body. Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines. See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’? Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued? Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?
Practice Perfect the Push Performance
Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com
Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well. If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more. If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.
“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!
I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave.
I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.“
Ride “Blind” and Benefit
During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor. Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video. Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”. You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.
The Process Oriented Athlete – Bring your Mental Focus Inward for Optimal Training and Racing
Learning how to manage our attention and what we think about while training is a vital skill to master. Most of us can use improvement in this area. Benefits include more focused skill development, more concentrated interval training, and an enhanced ability to find that “runners high” that many athletes crave.
If you had a plan to follow that could teach you these things, how much would it be worth to you? I’d like to share with you a story of how one triathlete, David, put these skills into practice when it really counted…during the swim leg of his first practice triathlon.
It doesn’t matter if your a new swimmer like David, or a seasoned racer like Lance. Knowing how to control your emotions and convert nerves, anxiety and fear into positive emotions is knowledge that everyone can benefit from. Here is David’s story.
David’s First Ocean Race
This April I participated in mini triathlon as a swim angel for a new triathlete at the end of one of our training camps. The mini triathlon consisted of a 500 yard swim, 3 mile bike and 1 mile run. David’s new swim skills looked great in the pool and on video but had yet to be put into action in a race-like setting…with wetsuit and in open water.
I began the mini-race next to him as we let the main group go ahead. Even before the first buoy 20 yards from the beach I knew that his energy was not going to last. His stroke deteriorated to a high-turnover-clawing through the water, head up with an unspoken mission of “I don’t want to get left behind”.
I hoped David would “settle in”, but “settling in” of course, is a learned race technique. After about 100 yards of this effort he resorted to breaststroking then freestyle, back and forth. But even his breaststroke was wasting energy.
With every breath he took I saw him firmly fixated on something far in the distance…perhaps not even the exit point but perhaps some mirage on the tropical horizon. He was far outside of his body in a mental sense. He was “over there” and he needed to be “right here”.
David seemed to me to be on the verge of panic. He’d finally paused in this struggle long enough for me to offer some words of encouragement. Relax your neck, lengthen your stroke, feel the streamlining with each stroke. These words helped a little bit. I encouraged him to roll over on his back to get a few restful deep breaths rather than continuing to struggle in breaststroke.
Finally, he calmed enough to begin focusing on technique as if he were in the pool. We swam in short thoughtful intervals. First I asked him to count twenty strokes then roll over on his back for a short rest. We went from twenty to thirty strokes. Even the simple act of counting allowed him to control his energy and emotions and return to being inside of his own body and in control.
For the final 50-100 yards he swam on his own, guided by short repeats of 20-30 strokes followed by a few breaths on his back. Finally, all of his technique work from the previous week finally came through. Longer smoother strokes, relaxed breathing, forward movement without churning the water. He looked like a swimmer. No…he looked like a triathlete! He exited the water smiling…a big relief for me!
Process Oriented Training & Racing – How David’s Swim Could Have Unfolded
This swim was a real learning moment for me about things I take for granted. David used up all sorts of physical and emotional energy at the beginning of the swim, but was able to relax by the end. What if he had reversed his energy going into it? What if he’d started the race with his calm quiet focus, swimming 30 strokes with a relaxed neck, rolled over for a few breaths and continued until he was in tune with the water? If he’d focused on the process of going from start line to T1 instead of focusing on the other swimmers and the exit point?
Let’s do a short visualization. The starting gun goes off and instead of charging into the water with a flurry of stroking and kicking, he decides ahead of time that he’s going to wade in, take several deep breaths and make his first entry into the water in a relaxed superman glide position…focusing only on relaxing his neck.
He glides for a second or two feeling the combined buoyancy of saltwater and his wetsuit allowing him to glide forward without using any energy at all. Around him others are still storming into the water creating waves, splash and bubbles, He takes his first strokes easily and then his first breath. He continues to feel relaxed. He tunes out the noise of the other swimmers and counts 20 smooth strokes before focusing again on making sure his neck is relaxed. Swimming within his own body, he begins to really enjoy the swim…not at all like his last race!
Midway through the swim he’s feeling confident and shifts his focus to another focal point. He again counts out sets of 20 strokes enjoying further focus and amazingly, he feels as if he may be moving a little faster through the water. He is surprising himself! He lets go of any concern about where the other swimmers are. Energized, he wonders if he might be able to push himself just a little bit.
He focuses on a slightly faster stroke while continuing to extend into a streamline. It seems to be working. Slowly he starts to pass struggling swimmers who look frantic, tired, and longing for the swim to end.
Before he knows it, he’s at the beach, smiling!
Practice Process Oriented Focus Now – and Benefit on Race Day
As race day approaches, now less than three months away, begin practicing this shift in focus for yourself. Remember how I said that “settling in” was a learned strategy? You’ll need to practice the process oriented approach in training in every element of the sport. Practice it on your next swim, your next bike, your next run and even when practicing transitions.
Practice focusing on the things you have in your immediate control and stay within your body while training…especially during interval workouts and long rides and runs. Those times when you find your mind shifting it’s focus to dinner, work, or family are the moments you can best practice shifting back to the process of moving, of training, of being mindful within your own body.
Come race day at the end of July, you may surprise yourself by turning out an enjoyable and faster-than-expected race.
Suzanne Atkinson, MD, founder & head coach of Steel City Endurance, LTD is a Level 2 Certified USA Triathlon & USA Cycling Coach. She is leading a series of clinics and free training programs for registered participants of the 2012 GNC Pittsburgh Triathlon. Click here for an overview of all the triathlon training events and clinics for the 2012 Pittsburgh Triathlon
One of my most enjoyable conversations during the weekend visit by guest coach Terry Laughlin involved a conversation with a dedicated triathlete who had reluctantly missed Terry’s effortless endurance “taster clinic” on Saturday morning. She had a 4 hour training brick on her schedule that she simply felt she couldn’t miss, yet was disappointed by not being able to attend the clinic. She made the trip to Terry’s REI lecture later in the day to say hello and express her regrets.
What followed was a thirty minute conversation on following the “schedule” vs. following your intuition. All of us have chosen triathlon and endurance training because at some level it brings us enjoyment. Furthermore, many of us are challenged at learning and improving our skills including swimming, running, cycling and transition.
In Sally’s case, she had an opportunity to meet and be coached by someone whose books she’d read, whose blogs she followed and who was in town for a rare pair of clinics! Let me tell you that getting an internationally in-demand coach into town for organized and marketed clinics wasn’t a piece of cake…these were special opportunities.
Yet her training plan called for a four hour brick on that same morning and she wasn’t sure when she could fit it in otherwise. She expressed her regret at not being able to attend the clinic and seemed genuinely disappointed.
Although I’m not Sally’s coach, I certainly appreciate her dedication to training. However, as a coach, I encourage all of my athletes to make their own decisions about training, using my plan as a guide. We all have other components of our lives that make us healthy and happy…training for a race is just one of them. From the perspective of training plan design, coaches like to use catchphrases such as “key workouts”….workouts you shouldn’t skip. But in the larger picture, there’s really no single workout that forms a keystone in your training…it’s the consistent and progressive training over a long period of time that creates your fitness and determines your progress.
This is a two way street when working with someone who helps plan your training. Many athletes don’t realize that they should communicate with their coach far more than most of us do. I remember when I first hired a coach and received my monthly blocks, I was shy or embarrassed to say that I didn’t want to do one thing, or that I preferred to do another thing. In order to best follow your intuition as an athlete, it’s really important to understand the “why” of your schedule. Sometimes it just requires an awareness that it’s OK to feel like doing something different from your plan…but then discuss it with your coach or experienced training partners if you need feedback.
If Sally were my athlete, and had she asked me for “permission” to move her brick, change the brick, or skip it all-together so she could attend this clinic, I would fully support her desire to do so…that Saturday morning opportunity to attend a (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime clinic by a coach you respect is by far the more appropriate thing for Sally to do than a “key” workout on the schedule.
Will Sally’s training program be impacted by skipping a 4 hour workout? Maybe a little…but assuming it’s not a repeated pattern of behavior…skipping long workouts, Sally will be every bit as prepared for her half-ironman in 3-4 months. Are there other ways to structure Sally’s training to accommodate a clinic she’d like to attend? Of course there are. Swapping weekends, splitting the brick…the body doesn’t really know that there is a schedule to follow…coaches make up the schedules…they are artificial overlays onto the rest of our life’s constraints. Either Sally or her coach could have easily accommodated the clinic…which in the long run would have had a much bigger impact on her overall development as an athlete and as person…than a single workout.
I’ll also add that Sally wouldn’t have needed my approval to attend if I were her coach…if she thought it was valuable, I would support her. If she’d asked my opinions about the clinic I would have shared them, positive or negative…and still supported her decision. If Sally is curious about or interested in learning and being exposed to new perspectives…then who am I to discourage that?
The takeaway here is that as an athlete, trust your intuition. Pay attention to those things that make you curious. Pay attention to your gut instinct when it comes to your training and progress as an athlete. No matter how much you paid for a training plan, how much you respect your coach or how proud you are of never skipping a workout, nobody knows your body better than you do, and nobody can make decisions about how you spend your time better than you can.