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Coaches Blog

Data, Laziness, and Perceived Exertion

What are the benefits of power meters, smartphones, multisport watches, and lap counting devices? When it comes down to it, the benefit is data.


It’s immediate for the athlete - it could be that the multisport watch is beeping that they’re out of their designated heart rate zone; or screen showing that they’re averaging 200 watts on their current Zwift ride; or that they’re 500 yards into their swim and their stroke count is 23 per 25 yards.


For the coaches, it’s data, but of the delayed variety. We see what happens after the session is done - average power, average pace, average heart rate.


There’s nothing wrong with data, but I contend it’s making athletes lazy. And laziness is dangerous in multisport. Let me give you some examples - one of lazy, one of unexpected awesomeness.

  • It’s easy to just hop on your bike and Wahoo Kickr, turn on erg mode, choose a ride and go - in fact, that’s what many of us WANT, but it’s not helping develop personal awareness as an athlete. You can probably even watch a television show while you’re doing that, glancing momentarily at the screen to see what you’re supposed to be doing. You might have to pay attention if it’s intervals, but an endurance ride? Ha! Let me share a story: I rode indoors using a Compu-Trainer (antiquated and defunct) for five and a half hours in preparation for Ironman Coeur d’Alene. I can’t tell you what my power output was, my pace or cadence, how far I rode, how I felt, or what my exertion level was. I CAN tell you that I watched most of a season of Downton Abbey on that ride. Ultimately, I got time in the saddle, but looking back, the ride was a waste.

  • It’s also easy to go run, having your heart rate zones set to notify you if you leave a specific heart rate zone or run slower than a particular pace. More story now: One of my last training runs for Ironman Florida was 2:30. I drove to my start point, grabbed my Garmin, iPod, and headphones, and started loading up my nutrition. When I looked at my Garmin, it was dead. Zero battery. iPod was also dead. All I had was a Timex watch and 2:30 to think about nothing but how I felt on the run. It was probably the best training run of my life.

It’s lovely to have feedback continually in our faces - technology is great, right? Well, technology is great until it isn’t. Great until your power meter dies mid-race, until your heart rate monitor isn’t functioning properly, until your multisport watch dies unexpectedly, falls off during the swim, or the battery drains rapidly, until your Di2 shifters fail, leaving you in a huge gear for the remainder of your bike (then one can only freak out over the big monster numbers coming off of the power meter) and know that the run is going to be a rough one, to say the least.


Other things that affect this type of power data are terrain, wind, heart rate monitors, weather, humidity, and tiredness.


I’m sure you’re wondering what to do without the technology. The answer is FEEL. I’m here to introduce you to Perceived Exertion (PE)! If nurtured, your body and brain connection will provide you all the data you need to train and race. It takes time and practice, just like improving your power output and increasing your run pace.


Because I think definitions are essential, here’s what Perceived Exertion is: “Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, respiration or breathing rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue.” (www.cdc.gov)


Team MPI uses a chart defining aerobic, anaerobic, and phosphagenic and compares it with training zones. The training zones 1-6 are further defined as to what you’re working on - for example, Zone 2 is Endurance.

We draw further comparisons to Bike Functional Threshold Power (FTP), Functional Threshold Heart Rate, Bike Effective Pace (distance), run paces, and finally, RPE, numbered from 1-10, with 1 being the easiest effort and 10 being all-out effort). Words to associate with that RPE like ‘easy’ or ‘all out’ and the description of what that particular RPE should feel like. I’m sure many organizations have a version of this chart, but this one is exceptionally well written.


So how do you use it? As an athlete, you or your Coach should define what type of workout you’re doing. For example, it could be a 40-minute Endurance Run, PE 3-4. Look at the chart! This should be a steady state run, the effort is easy, and you can carry on a conversation comfortably.


If the description doesn’t mention heart rate zones or a specific pace, then the goal is to go run easy for the designated time. Do I encourage athletes to wear their heart rate monitors? Sure - but it’s for post-run comparisons only. Looking at other data after the fact, the athlete and I can determine how their perceived exertions matched their pace. It’s not perfect, but if someone stripped the athlete of all their data devices, they’d be able to go run at a particular exertion and know what it FEELS like.


Let’s look at a bike ride. You, or your Coach, should once again define what type of workout it is. Let’s say you’re riding outside and have some FTP pushes. These pushes are a Zone 4 or Threshold effort. It should be HARD. What does this mean? During those pushes, you should be on the verge of becoming uncomfortable and maybe only be able to speak a sentence. Also, you may only be able to keep the pace for a short time. PE is essential on the bike because while you may have a power meter for your bike trainer, you may not have one for riding outside. If this is the case, PE is what you need to work on and count on.


Is it easy to train by Perceived Exertion? NO! I’ve had multiple conversations with athletes that want to know how many watts I want them to hold on a PE 3-4 (Easy) bike ride. Or, what should their heart rate be during this PE 5-6 (moderate, tempo) run? The answer is: I don’t know. And the fact is, neither does the athlete until they’ve worked on training using Perceived Exertion. It takes practice and dedication. It also takes a certain level of trust in both the Coach and yourself to follow the workout as written, then provide appropriate feedback. But it’s important to know how you feel because…well, technology is great, isn’t it? Make use of the best technology we have - our BODIES.


Happy training!

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