I have been involved in the sport of triathlon at all levels for quite a long time as a coach, and as an athlete. I've witnessed the sport go through many changes, some bad, but mostly good. But for some reason, the early part of 2011 has me in a bit of a quandary. I am thrilled with the group of athletes that I am currently coaching - they are driven people who are optimistic, not wanting the easy road, and fun! I am also really excited about racing this season. My own training is going well, I feel strong but mostly (maybe the training going well and feeling strong quantify this) I am psychologically really motivated to do well.
So where is the quandary? It has to do with passion and technology. First, passion. In order to really, truly excel at something, you need to be passionate about it in my own point of view. In regards to passion, I'm talking about really being engulfed in what it is you are trying to do. Not doing it as a chore, but rather something you love, live, eat, breathe, dream for. Yeah, maybe it sounds corny, but I lie in bed at night thinking about a) what I need to do tomorrow training wise to "make me better" and b) what my game plan will be at my first race which is over a month away. I don't know how common this is and I'm certainly not trying to say that I represent what passion is. I just know that I think about this stuff at night while lying in bed because I love it! Call me pathetic but it is what it is. Im guessing that this love has got to be passion - so I'll try different training protocols, routes, and locations, and I'll choose races that are new and exciting or old but still exciting, to keep this love/passion. And I won't race for the sake of racing. Again, I'm not stating here that this is the way to do it, but rather what I will do to keep the passion, and not get into a rut and race because I worry about getting love handles or because my tri-friends are racing a certain race.
Another trend that I feel is setting us, as triathletes, back a bit actually is the dependency of technology. I just recently returned from my Tucson Camp. Just before heading out, I experimented by taking the power meter off my bike. I did this primarily for one session at camp. At camp, I could care less where my power output is since my main concern is to spend some time riding with each athlete attending camp. However, the day we climb Mount Lemmon, everyone is on their own. No one wants company on this climb as is evident by the abundance of iPods. Everyone wants to dictate their own pace. The past 5 years, I had paced myself using wattage on this climb. This year, I wanted to go by feel. I wanted to hold back when I felt I needed to and go for it when I wanted to. If I blew up, I blew up - and then obviously, I mis-paced the climb. Surprisingly, I rode my fastest ascent up Lemmon this year, and my condition was not much different than previous years.
I know many athletes who have never achieved what they are truly capable of because they are so locked into their gadgets - they trust these more than they trust their own feel. You could argue that heart rate and power meters don't lie so they are doing what they should but my argument is that the athletes threshold is higher than they realize. In regards to much of the testing done by athletes, and the testing many coaches give their athletes, I would wage that 90% of the time, this testing is inaccurate. Some coaches that may be reading this are probably saying "not my testing" , but why is it that threshold heart rates are usually much higher in a true race than in a test? Many coaches out there now have read the latest books on training with heart rate and power and are overly locked into minutiae like TSS, CP30, ... They are losing track of what we are training for in the first place; to race. Rob Straz recently sent me a link to a great article by Chris McCormack - this is a two time Hawaii IM champ who discusses in his blog how he trains ONLY by feel and he constantly thinks about what he needs to do to race a triathlon well, not just swim well or have a fast bike split.
I'm not saying that tech toys don't have their place. Feedback from these tools make my coaching job more accurate as they give me an accurate depiction of where my athletes are at. I'd prefer my athletes to cover up their power meter or heart rate monitors during quality sessions and review the data afterwards. I find that using these devices on easy training days becomes more valuable. Most triathletes train too hard on their easy days - using a heart rate monitor or power meter to set a ceiling not to go over holds the athlete back, so that they can recover and put more into their quality sessions. I do like for my athletes, and myself included, to use a heart rate monitor or power meter on the bike for ironman races and to have a specific plan so that they can get off and run.
On the last day of camp, we ran a spectacular trail through Bear Canyon called the Seven Falls Trail. This is easily one of my top two favorite runs. It can be technical in parts, but I find this instability makes your footwork lighter, more stable and better at reacting to any obstacles or uneven surfaces. Plus, the trail is easier on your joints and musculoskeletal system. I was quite surprised when a small group opted to run the road instead. One thing I try to express at all camps is to do things that you may not or cannot do at home. Anyone can run roads anywhere. If you are worried about rolling an ankle (by the way, trails strengthen your ankles), then back off the effort and run more cautiously. The road group really missed out on an incredible "experience", and that's what it's all about. Not heart rate or power, but experiencing something. At the end of the run, as we soaked our tired legs in the cold brook in Sabino Canyon (something the road runners missed out on), more than one of the campers expressed how amazing the run we just did was. A few mentioned how they truly felt like a kid again, running free and laughing and taking in the experience. And when they are back home in April having a tough run on sone of their regular routes, they will think of this Seven Falls run and smile, and it will boost their passion meter just that much more.