Focusing on your power numbers is nearly a guaranteed way to slow progress
“What’s your FTP” and “What’s your 1 Rep Max (1RM)?” seem to be everywhere these days. . . and if you don’t have an answer for the person asking for these numbers, you’re dismissed as either not being serious, or not knowing how to train.
But is it really true that if you don’t know your numbers that you’re failing in your training and will quickly fall behind those you train and race with?
In reality, this obsession we’ve developed over numbers has led to a big increase in the STALLING of progress for many endurance athletes, as they’ve lost the ability to focus on the thing that actually matters:
How their body feels, both during an effort, and in their day to day life.
The Real Gauge
Through my over 20 years of coaching, in a variety of sports, I’ve learned that there are really only two things that matter for performance improvements:
- A deep understanding of ones own feelings and how to interpret them
These two things may seem simple enough at first glance, but in fact, they go quite deep to set the foundation for all performances in life; be they sport, professional, or social.
Let’s take a look at what you should be focusing on instead of your numbers, if you’re looking to improve and perform over time.
Now the first one seems pretty obvious, as the more consistent you are in your training, the more you’ve practiced the skills and built up the mental and physiological abilities to perform well.
But really, there are many pieces that need to be learned within the act of being consistent itself:
- How much stress can you handle in a single session, day, week, and training block
- How long you need to recover from the stress of a training session, or block
- How long it takes you to adapt to the stress (This is one many endurance athletes miss!)
- When to change the focus of the stresses (trainings)
There are quite a few more lessons, but these give you a good idea of how impactful it really can be.
Consistency will be driven by a number of things, but ultimately, as it pertains to sports performance, it comes down to doing the least amount of work, in the least amount of time, in order to get you your desired result.
NOT the numbers themselves.
This is where so many endurance athletes go wrong, as they think that more, is more, is more: More training means more (better) numbers.
But this is not true. Pretty far from it, actually.
When you take the time to learn how much training, and at what cadence or frequency you can handle– mentally and physically- you can truly build towards improved performances and consistency.
However, what many cyclists and triathletes alike will do, is aim for consistency in their numbers. But that is NOT the idea here, as month to month, and certainly day to day, our training readiness will vary greatly.
This can be due to a number of things, mostly outside of our control.
This leads us to point number two.
2. A Deep Understanding of Ones Own Feelings
This is where it gets a little too “soft science” for many of todays “research based” coaches and athletes, as according to them “the numbers, are the numbers, are the numbers.”
If we were beings without emotions, or even more simply performance robots, sure! The numbers would dictate all. But that’s not how we work.
We as humans are emotional beings, who are also affected by environment. Both the internal hormonal environment, and the external living environment.
While we’ve been exploring the external environments impact on human performances at extremes of temperature for quite some time, the impact of the internal environment is often far more extensive, and much less understood, especially from an emotional and mental perspective!
While this has become very evident to me in my over my coaching career, it’s all too often ignored completely.
In fact, leading researcher on performance in extreme environments Dr. Stephen Cheung spent quite a bit of time talking about the brains role in performances when he joined me on my podcast (Listen to Episode 50 Dr. Stephen Cheung- “Don’t Count Out The Brain in Performance & Recovery”). Now why would a leading researcher on external environment be talking about the brain and our thoughts and feelings?
Because they matter. A lot more than many would like to admit.
Erin Carson, a fellow leader in the world of strength training for triathletes and cyclists, also spoke about the importance of RPE and how the athlete felt about the training session, when she joined me on the podcast as well (Listen to Episode 89 Erin Carson- On Strength Training for Triathlon Performance).
These feelings, which belong to each individual athlete, when learned how to be followed, play a significant role in your development as an athlete. They aren’t some fu-fu-shi-shi quasi science. They’re legit.
"How'd it feel?" tells you a lot
See that little smiley face there at the bottom of the screenshot?
TrainingPeaks spent some time and money to come up with the scale and system to allow coaches to better understand how an athlete FELT with a workout, and their RPE (perceived exertion).
Now why would one of the leading platforms for data crunching, even bother?
Because it matters.
In fact, a 2018 study by Helms et al., found that RPE based loading for strength training held a slight advantage against those using % of 1 Repetition Maximum for their training, as it (RPE based training) allowed them to match their effort with where they were on that day, at that time….
Meaning if they were tired, they went to the same perceived effort as they would have on a good day, adjusting the weights/resistance to meet them where they were feeling, not in accordance to their % 1RM.
While this is an important and foundational note, it’s also important to know what exercises to progress to, and why. Cyclists have different needs and demands placed on our bodies through our sport, and as such need different progressions in the weight room.
The topic of cycling specific progressions and regressions is covered extensively in my Strength Training for Cyclists Certification, and why the course is so absolutely fundamental for coaches and self-coached athletes that want to progress and see the best possible results from their strength training for cycling results.
Training by perceived exertion allows the individual, essentially, to take into account training stress, mental fatigue, life stress, poor diet, and more daily factors, and thus internal environment changes, ranging from neuromuscular to metabolic systems, that will affect their performances.
For the vast majority of cyclists and triathletes this style of training will allow for far better results than basing your training off of a test or two, which really only serve as a single snapshot of where you were on that day, at that time (and for many of us, we don’t have our best day on testing day, which sets us even more askew from the training intensities we need).
This means that training by RPE- yes those 6 minute VO2 efforts should make you feel like your lungs are on fire- and using the numbers to learn what you’re capable of when you feel as you did on that particular day, will allow you to build fitness and abilities (i.e. the ability to ride and race on feeling) which are far more in alignment with what you’ll do in an event, or on any given day.
Of course there will be times, such as peak events, where you’ll need to push another level or two. . . this is where “training by the numbers” leads many cyclists and triathletes down the wrong road…
When the numbers really, truly, don't matter
In a goal event, or one which you expect to do well in, whether aiming for a podium finish, or trying for a personal best time, if you fall short of your aim, your numbers don’t matter.
I’ve been in this situation myself, both as a rider and as a coach, where we’ve fallen short of the performance goal… BUT, we lie to ourselves opting to look at the numbers and proclaim:
I set PR’s for the numbers/ watts per kilo/ power curve!
While the numbers don’t lie (unless you haven’t calibrated your power meter for the last however many months), all you’ve done here is confirm that one, or both, of the following has occurred:
- You training didn’t actually prepare you for the demands of the event (physically)
- You lacked the tactics or “racing IQ” necessary to do well
Putting out all-time personal best power numbers, but finishing 8th in an event that you expected to be on the podium for, means that you’ve failed in a pretty big way.
Now, I’m usually a very positive guy, especially as a coach, but a part of being a really good coach is to call a spade, a spade: and then fix that mistake quickly.
In this case, it’s to train the things that you need to, in order to get a best RESULT, not a power number.
Training for an event by the numbers, and subsequently racing to numbers, does indeed to a little to help you build for your actual performance. But instead of being concerned with “digging deep to stay on the right wheel” or “go with the right move”, you’re focused on “how you’re riding harder than your predetermined numbers say you can” during the event, or digging too deep/hard on a training ride where you should actually be riding to how you FEEL, and hitting the goal RPE, not digging deeper.
And it also goes the other way! On the days you feel good, you STILL ride to the RPE, not the numbers.
Yes, yes. I know, I know “Chris Froome staring at stems” is a shinning example of “why the numbers matter”.
But he had a whole team to work to keep him at the desired work level, allowing him to not spend a single extra calorie for multiple stages (later in his career, when he wasn’t suffering for Sir Bradley).
Not only that, but I can pretty much guarantee that when Chris needed to make a move, or cover a move, he was using his racing IQ, and not worrying at all about anything other than getting to where he needed to be, or making his opposition have to dig physically and mentally deeper than they wanted to (or could).
THAT is a trait that far too many amateur racers, both cyclists and triathletes, are missing these days as they are too focused on “the numbers”.
While numbers and data can be useful in helping to confirm that you’re in the right ball park, they should not be treated as the be all end-all.
If what you’ve read thus far hasn’t yet convinced you that the numbers themselves are there as a rough guide, not THE guide, then take a listen to what the Co-Grandmaster of Training with Power himself, Hunter Allen, has to say about training with power on Episode 83 of my podcast “Training with power is more than just numbers!”.
Just as with letting “current research” guide you in an “evidence based coaching practice”, training by power numbers alone is selling yourself short of getting the absolute most you can out of your training, not allowing you to experiment to find what works for you, as well as cheating yourself out of developing all of the abilities you need in order to get the best you can out of all you’ve got.
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