Monday, August 29, 2011

Measuring Progress

A few weeks ago my friends and I had a conversation about how easy it is to get caught up in numbers particularly during race season - pace, splits, and rankings - and compare ourselves to others and to our own past performances. It's all too easy to let numbers dictate whether we feel a workout or race was successful. 

It's important to remember that numbers provide useful feedback but they are essentially measures of output, dependent on a multitude of inputs. If we look at the factors that contribute to the output, we can identify many other ways of measuring success and progress.

Here are some inputs that can influence our performance on swim/bike/run during training or a race:
  • race strategy
  • swim/bike/run skills
  • training consistency
  • training quality
  • anxiety/fear
  • congestion (in transition, on swim and bike)
  • mechanical issues
  • pre-race/pre-workout nutrition
  • in-race/in-workout fueling
  • personal physiology (which changes day to day)
  • state of mind
  • stress levels (family, work)
  • fatigue
  • travel-related issues
  • phase of training cycle
  • ability to cope with unforseen circumstances 
  • terrain
  • weather
The list of inputs can be used to identify opportunities for improvement. This allows us alternative ways to define success. I'll share some of my own examples.
If I look at my swim pace in races this year, I could get discouraged. Despite speedier swimming in the pool, my swim times in races have not shown the improvement I might have expected this year. However, I am far more comfortable and confident in the water, my technique has improved, and I learned how to draft. I spent much of the last few races drafting and maybe setting myself up for what turned out to be my best bike splits. I call that success! Next I am going to try going out with a little more speed at the start of the swim, finding faster swimmers to draft, and increasing my arm turnover. I'm not focusing on the outcome, I'm focusing on the inputs: technique, strategy, and mental toughness. So while my swim numbers don't show great changes (yet) I can still see development in my swimming. I understand too that improvement is not linear, but can plateau and jump.

Other examples of areas where I am seeing success are in nailing down my pre-race and in-race fueling, bike handling, and dealing with unforeseen circumstances (not easy for a reforming control freak). My whole mantra for Nationals in Burlington was to just "roll with it" and I had plenty of opportunities to put that to the test with the travel difficulties and flat pre-race tire.

During a race I ignore numbers. I don't time my swim, I don't know what my previous years' splits were, and most of the time I ignore my Garmin on the run (sorry, Coach!). I run my own race and at the end I give myself time to reflect on what I felt good about and what I might change. I establish how I feel about the race in the absence of numbers. Then I let the numbers in as training feedback, not as a determination of self-worth or enjoyment.

One of my fears is that my love of triathlon would be tied to results because I have had some success. I work hard to avoid that. I don't look at my rankings or standings because there is nothing I can do about a formula or about who shows up to race. I give the best that I have to every race and take away some new insight or understanding. I love the whole training and racing adventure, I love the community of endurance athletes, and I love what triathlon has taught me about myself. I won't let numbers and formulas diminish that in any way. I'm in this for the long haul.

Numbers are information. You choose what they mean to you.