Balancing the Numbers: Getting the Most Out of Your Training
RunTri.com Racing Coverage || By Raymond Britt, cover story for Inside Triathlon Magazine
It’s about finding balance. It’s about getting the best out of yourself. It’s about learning what you’re capable of. It’s about discovering your strengths and working on your weaknesses. It’s about doing more with less time. It’s your swim, bike, run life in a nutshell.
It’s your training log.
It’s a vital tool that can help you unlock your hidden potential. It can also help you achieve that potential despite limited time, because – let’s be honest – there will never be enough time in the day to train as much as we want, while living our real, everyday lives.
Starting as back-of-the-pack finisher eleven years ago, I wanted to find a way to improve from a novice athlete (how about a 4:47:01 debut marathon?) to eventually qualify for the Boston Marathon and the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
But there were many natural obstacles: a full-time job as a tech executive, four children; in short, a full-time life that left little extra time for training. In fact, I’ve only been able to train an average of eight hours per week in recent years. No, that’s not a typo; that’s life.
To meet my goals, I had no choice but to get the maximum out of those few training hours. I needed to find a way to balance real life with my goals of improving running and triathlon performance. Sound familiar?
The simple tool I used to do it: my training log.
You can get the most out of your training by tracking the right information, doing the right analysis of your performance, making the appropriate tweaks based on that analysis, and translating those improvements into better racing.
The good news is that all it takes is a few key pieces of data after every workout, and spreadsheet calculations help you do the rest. Easy.
A Deceptively Simple Start
It all began innocently enough. On a warm summer night in August 1994, I decided to do something I’d never done before — run a couple of miles. I liked those first two miles enough that I tried it again the next day, then again and again. I was hooked.
On a whim, I jotted down the times and distances on a piece of paper. My rationale for those notes: it would be interesting to see if I might run enough miles to actually equal a marathon distance. Little did I know that was merely the beginning.
Many years and 50,000+ miles later, I’m still tracking every workout. It’s simple to do so, and I’ve found the benefits can be significant.
In that 1994 training log, I entered straightforward information, very similar to what I track today. It’s so simple — intuitively, you probably already know what to include. Here’s an example of my actual 2004 training log data. This is everything you’ll ever need to capture about your training.
Week and Date: noting the Week will allow you to aggregate training totals later; I start my weeks on Sunday as a psychological boost. This way it’s possible to start the week with a long training effort, as opposed to saving it all up for the end of a more traditional week that ends with Sunday.
· Type: For type of activity, list Swim, Bike or Run – simple enough, but this will be key to totaling your workouts and seeing important patterns such as training mix and comparative performance by discipline
· Distance and Time: The basics of your workout; don’t worry if you don’t have exact information, use estimates if necessary
· Pace/Mile and Miles Per Hour: these data can be simply calculated with a formula to gauge performance versus perceived effort over similar workouts
· Exercise/Route/Comment: include short notes about your workout, route, conditions, anything that’s noteworthy, should you choose to compare against other similar workouts later
· Heart Rate: I’m not a slave to heart rate training, but occasionally, I will wear a heart rate monitor to manage training effort. Having this information allows you to compare similar workouts on similar routes; lower HR/MPH over time indicates you’re improving
· Watts: When I ride CompuTrainer indoors for winter training, which tends to be six months per year, I track wattage. In doing so, I look for higher watts relative to heart rate as an indicator that I’m training better.
· xtra: I keep simple notes about light weight work (I use an ‘x’ for exercise) and abdominal work (an ‘a’)
· Equipment: I enter the equipment I use so I can tell when it’s time to change shoes (roughly 300 miles per pair), or see how much time I’m using certain equipment, e.g. riding indoors on CompuTrainer vs. outdoors on my Softride Rocket.
· Other fields: It’s possible to enter much more information, but be careful to avoid data overkill. I loosely track body weight, but not much else.
It’s that simple. You could stop there, not do further analysis of your training, and this would still be a useful tool.
Having this baseline information helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon in 1995. My big challenge: knock a full minute per mile off of my previous best marathon time. I became totally focused on driving myself to that faster level. I aimed my workouts toward speedier, quality miles, looking forward to entering the better results in my training log each time.
In a way, the training log, this simple spreadsheet, had become my master and coach. I knew the target I needed to reach, I was accountable for it, and I strove to get there and beyond in each workout.
In October 1995, I ran the Chicago Marathon in 3:14:28, qualifying for Boston. The bigger deal: having knocked 85 minutes off my debut marathon time in one year, largely because of unrelenting focus on the numbers in my training log.
But focusing on the raw data is only the beginning. The fun starts next.
Finding the Story Behind The Numbers
The magic comes in the way you analyze the information in your training log. There’s a story in the data, a story about you, how you train, what you’re capable of, what you prefer, what you avoid, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.
The plot can thicken as you assess changes in progress, performance and fitness over time as different variables change, e.g., distance, effort, heart rate, watts. By analyzing your training data you can crack the code to find your opportunities to improve. And the code covers the gamut – weekly totals, training mix, annual totals, comparing previous years, and equipment.
All it takes is a few simple Microsoft Excel calculations and Pivot Tables to convert the data entered in your training log into key insights about how you train.
While preparing for my first Ironman triathlon in 1997, I diligently read as much training material as possible. One of the most valuable things I learned was the concept of periodization, four week cycles building to greater training time, followed by a rest week, then the cycle began again. This intuitively made sense; take your body to a new level, ease off to recover, then go even higher.
On paper, training plans built on the principle of periodization looked great. But real life got in the way, often robbing precious training time, and shattering hopes of staying on the textbook schedule I had planned. And it’s still the same, year after year. To counterbalance these time challenges, I need a guide to keep me on track.
This is where the Weekly Totals analysis in my training log comes in. I’ve learned to take distractions as they come, and to try to rough out weekly training that approximates periodization. A Pivot Table calculates the raw data, and a chart is linked to the weekly totals. Seeing my weekly training in chart form provides a visual to tell me if I’m on track.
For example, in a typical 'high volume' training and racing year, I averaged just over eight training hours per week. Some weeks exceeded ten hours (several of those weeks included marathons or Ironman races), but most are under eight hours. Weekly blocks of time that approximated periodization. Not strictly by the book, but good enough to lead to a 10:12:22 Ironman personal best in Lake Placid in week 31.
These weekly training totals might look low compared to the averages tossed around in triathlon forums, but I contend that total hours mean far less than the quality of training in those hours. It’s quality, not quantity. You want to make sure the combination of the daily workouts and the weekly totals is projecting you forward. That’s your main focus, having great training hours, not just accumulating time.
While the weekly picture of your training provides ongoing perspective, a Year-To-Date Summary analysis tells you what you’ve accomplished in total for the year – time, distance, averages by discipline. More importantly, it gives you insight into what you need to change.
There are several good things a training log summary can reveal. My training logs tend to show that my training mix is close to where I’d like it, at least for the first part of the year – heavier on biking, although certainly light on swimming. The average times per mile are among the best I’ve seen by April — particularly in cycling – leading to a confidence boost compared to other years. My distances per week are lower than they will be in summer, obviously, but not too bad, except for the swimming again.
Speaking of making mistakes from the past, I was an expert at it, until I saw the light, in the data.
I had been training for and competing in Ironman races since 1997. By the end of 2001, I had improved somewhat, but there seemed to be an impossible gap between what I thought was the best I could do and what seemed required to qualify for Kona. The gap, in my estimation, was at least 40 minutes in an Ironman race. I had to do something different. But what?
Once I posed the question, no serious scrutiny was necessary. I had to look no further than at a sum-total table in my training log that summarized time by discipline, per year. The simple table of annual totals told the story.
The answer was obvious. In 2001 I was running 50% of the time, biking 35% of the time, and swimming 15% of the time. You can guess two things from these numbers: I preferred running, and I was not a particularly good cyclist or swimmer in Ironman races. I was stuck in a comfort zone. A zone that was perfectly fine if I never wanted to improve, but one that needed to change rapidly if I wanted to get to Kona.
I made a dramatic shift in the first seven months of 2002. Whenever possible, I was on the bike. Long rides, intervals, hills, whatever. I needed to spend more time improving on the bike. That was my focus, and my training mix changed accordingly.
The shift paid off. By the time I got to Ironman Lake Placid in July, I was more than ready for the hills, and more ready than I’d ever been to run a marathon after a 112 mile bike ride. My training log dictated the change, I followed the guide, and I got what I wanted: my first Kona slot.
To this day, I keep a close eye on training mix. Even early in the year, when it’s easy to let things slip, and when it’s easy to skip an indoor ride in favor of a preferred outdoor run. My training log has been reminding me to not stray, with a simple pie chart that shows the training mix. It keeps me honest. It says: keep the balance.
The last piece of information I analyze is something that might be considered an afterthought: equipment. I first started tracking time and distance with regard to shoes, and later extended it to include everything – bikes, pools, etc.
Again, it’s as simple as creating a Pivot Table to capture the data from your training log entries. To that, I’ve added calculations to show pace and speed for each.
I use this information to tell me when to change shoes (around 300 miles per pair), when to spend more time riding outdoors compared to indoors (I like a 1/3 indoor, 2/3 outdoor mix for the entire year), etc. Also, I can compare totals and averages against previous years to know if I’m performing better on certain things, or what needs to improve.
How much is too much?
Can you have too much information in your training log? You bet. It’s tempting, and I’ve done it. Big mistake.
I got so obsessed about training data in the late 1990s that at one point I had broken each main running route into ten different segments, and entered time and heart rate for each segment. I then plotted a regression of heart rate versus speed for each segment. This led me to the point that I could almost predict the finishing time of a 20 mile run based on my heart rate after the first mile.
Frankly, it was too much information. I found myself more tied up in knots about the data, and less about the workouts. Looking back, I knew a great deal about the metrics of my training, but all that did little to improve my training or racing. I had all the data in the world, but was stuck in a rut. So I went back to the basics, using the primary data described above. This simple data has served me well, and can serve you well, too.
When Time Isn’t On Your Side
It’s great when you have the time you want, relatively speaking, and are able to carry out your training plans in a way that translates to a good daily, weekly and annual balance. But sometimes, life throws a curve or two that calls for you to spend less time training than you’d like. Never mind that there are exciting races on the calendar, never mind that they come at you before you’re ready.
This past winter and spring has been a classic example, as I looked forward to Ironman Arizona and the Boston Marathon. Consuming work and important family activities, not to mention another icy cold, windy Chicago winter, drove my training time to lower levels than I wanted.
These challenges forced me to wedge the absolute most out of minimal training in order to still race well in April. I looked at previous year training logs and borrowed the best workouts, the ones that seemed to make me improve the fastest.
While my weekly training hours were low, averaging close to only six hours per week, consistently the daily detail told me that those hours were more productive than ever, and the annual averages confirmed that, relative to previous solid years.
The results: a great example -- I completed Ironman Arizona in 10:36:05, my third best Ironman ever; a week later, I ran the Boston Marathon in 3:02:24, my second best time on that course.
I can’t say that running these two races on an average of six hours per week training is for everybody. But I can say with confidence that I would not have performed so well without being able to apply lessons from the past to get the most out of training a very limited timeframe. Again, my training log – past and present — served as a guide that took me to solid race performances.
Used right, your training log can do the same for you.
You as Science Experiment
Pull all the pieces together – the data you enter after every workout, and the calculations and tables that can be generated quickly – and there’s so much to learn about your training. It’s as if you are your own personal science experiment.
Whether it’s comparing speed vs. heart rate, comparing time trials over similar courses, assessing how well you perform in winter vs. summer over multiple years, or comparing year over year performance, your training log can provide everything you need.
Remember: keep it simple. You don’t need very much information, but you can take it a long way. Your training log can tell you things that an endless series of triathlon books and articles will never reveal – the core truth about your training strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for improvement.
It’s all there for you. Every workout is another piece of information that can take you closer to your goals. Save the data. Let your training log do the heavy lifting. Analyze changes over time, the good and the bad.
The more you save and analyze, the better you will know yourself and the more you will have opportunities to race better, to unlock your potential, to meet and even exceed your racing goals. And in that equation, hopefully you will also find balance, balance that allows you to live your life fully, in an optimal blend of work, friends, family, training, and of course, racing.