How do I become a Fitter, Faster, Better Cyclist or Runner: keeping track of it all?
Keeping Track of it All
You now have a goal and a detailed plan to meet your goal. You can have a look at the earlier chapters if you want to review them.
In my experience it is useful for many reasons to use some measures to keep track of progress, fatigue and various other parameters. Don’t be scared if you’re not very technically minded, as it's very easy and there are lots of free tools out there that you can use. I’m sure that you will find it quite interesting as well as a good way to make progress as effective as possible.
Here’s what we will consider
Keeping a training diary/log
How hard you are training at a given time?
How to measure fatigue?
Nutrition and eating enough of the right things
Keeping a training diary is a useful thing to do for many reasons and it isn’t difficult. In fact it can be quite rewarding to reflect on how things have gone.
Here are a few reasons:
Motivation: a record of the training you have done gives you confidence and also motivation to keep building on what you have done;
Progress: the record of each of your key sessions shows where you are improving;
Areas of improvement: if things aren’t quite going as you hoped, a review of some key sessions in your plan or some of the other recorded parameters that we will discuss may well explain why and what can be changed to get back on track;
Early warnings signs: by looking at trends in your diary you may be able to see that it is time to take a rest or make a change, ensuring your progress is the best it can be.
It is best at the start not to try and record too much since once the initial enthusiasm has worn off you don’t want it to become a burden. Fortunately there a number of free applications that can help track things over time and some have low price add-ons that enhance this facility further.
There are various on-line diaries that you can use or you can use a book and write things on paper. Get in touch if you want some suggestions that might work for you.
How hard are you training? Training Intensity?
It is often useful to measure your training intensity.
You can do this in several ways such as:
Recording how hard you think you are working (known as Relative Perceived Exertion - RPE). There are standardised scales for this and it can be a good idea to use one of these. An example is provided below.
Measuring your heart rate during exercise;
Measuring your running speed using GPS - this is most effective on relatively flat and even surfaces;
Measuring your power.
Perceived Exertion (RPE)
The cheapest of these is estimating how hard you are working based on a standard scale. This is remarkably accurate once you are used to it and before the days of heart rate monitors was what people used. I am also aware of some very successful elite (World Champion) athletes that still work with RPE, either informally or formally. Here is a common system I like, the Borg 10 point scale (note there are many scales and also other Borg scales):
As a guide, once you have done some training you are likely to be able to sustain a Perceived Exertion of 4 to 5 for about an hour so for the examples we have used previously, running 5km or cycling 10 miles your race pace effort would be 5 or 6. Your easier exercise between key sessions should be around 2 to 3 and your longer session if it is a secondary key target should be of moderate effort, 3 building to 4 at the end.
You cannot sustain the higher levels, 7 to 10 for a long time so Extremely Strong would be working as hard as you possibly can for a few seconds.
Nowadays it is relatively easy to measure heart rate during exercise. You can use a smart phone with a suitable chest strap (many of these use Bluetooth technology), or you can use a dedicated heart rate monitor which usually gives a read out on a wrist-watch or other display unit that picks up a signal from a strap around your chest. Nowadays, wrist based sensors are increasingly popular but be wary, because these are not very accurate in my experience. I find the wrist-watch option most convenient for running but for cycling, other good options are to mount your phone or cycle computer on the handlebars where you can see it. Again, for triathlon, a watch is best since it stays with you through all disciplines.
To use a heart rate monitor effectively you will need to set some training zones that are personal to you and there are a number of ways to do this. The easiest is to base the zones on your maximum heart rate.
You can estimate your maximum heart rate using a rule of thumb: a commonly used method is to subtract your age in years from 220. So if you are 37 years old your maximum would be around 183 beats per minute (this is a very rough guide so if you are going to use heart rate consistently it is best to do a test to find your maximum).
220 - 37 (years old) = 183 (maximum heart rate = 183 beats/minute)
You can also do a test to measure your maximum heart rate. Find a hill that you can run up at a good pace that will take you 5 to 7 minutes to run or ride up. After a warm up, ride as hard as you can up the hill and really push it for the last minute. Your heart rate should be a good estimate of your maximum and if you have a monitor that records you can read off the highest heart rate that you reached.
As you train more you will be able to adjust your maximum heart rate - for example if you see it go higher - but don’t worry, it isn’t critical to get an exact reading and as with everything our body changes all the time.
Once you have your maximum heart rate you can calculate some zones; there are many different approaches. The table is based on 10% ranges up to your maximum heart rate, which can be a good starting point. Tools like TrainingPeaks, allow you to calculate zones in different ways within the app. If you are unsure on what to do, get in touch or make a comment.
The more sophisticated monitors allow you to set your own zones. Heart rate zones are just a relative measure of effort so as long as you are consistent you can use any and vary your training accordingly.
Speed zones for running and power zones for running and cycling are a little more complicated to set up but there are many good websites with detailed explanations. If you need some help setting these up then please get in touch and I will help you.
Power is definitely a good way to train for both running and cycling and I recommend it based on considerable experience. Power zones can be used in the same way as the heart rate based zones shown and these are relatively easy to set up based on a few tests. In addition to this using power can give great insights into a lot of relative metrics that show strengths and weaknesses, which can make very significant differences in performance when used effectively.
How tired are you?
In order to get the most out of your training and also be a reasonable human being, it is important that you are not over tired. In fact you will get the most benefit from your training if you are properly rested before each training session, particularly the key sessions. You can refer back to Chapter 2 to get a more detailed idea of this.
How you feel is an excellent indication of how rested you are but we can also fool ourselves. Also because we want to get fit and train hard, not be lazy, etc, there can be a temptation to push too hard at the wrong time.
In order to try to avoid this path to over training, there are a number of things you can measure that will help your decisions and give an indication of how well you are recovering from your training sessions.
Resting heart rate
Heart rate variability
How you feel
Sleep time and quality
Resting heart rate is the most simple to measure. In general, the lower the better and once you have a few days of heart rate measurements you will have a feel for your normal resting heart rate . If there is a sudden change then it may be an indication of fatigue or illness and it may well be best to be cautious and have an easier day, postponing any hard sessions until you are back to normal.
It is best to check your heart rate at the same time each day and as part of a routine, probably the best time is on waking, before you get up.
Obviously it is cheapest and simplest to just count the number of heart rates. You can do this for a minute to avoid any arithmetic, but the number of beats in 15 seconds (multiplied by 4) or 30 seconds (multiplied by 2) gives a quicker approach.
You can use an App on your phone; I have found that the Azumio apps that use the camera of smartphones are very good and convenient. If you have a heart rate monitor you can use that and some of the more sophisticated heart rate monitors now have in-built tests to check recovery.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is becoming increasingly popular as a tool for checking fatigue levels and trends in fitness. The details of heart rate variability and how it works are beyond the scope of this article but it is worth spending time investigate, if you are interested or particularly susceptible to fatigue. One thing to bear in mind though, is that like most of these things, the responses are very individual so spend time learning what works for you. I have several athletes currently using HRV to good effect.
How you feel is still probably the best way to understand how well recovered you are but it is often difficult to believe yourself. That is why many athletes end up over-tired and over-trained because they pushed themselves too hard when they should have rested. It is a good idea to write down how rested and energetic you feel each morning, you can use a scale of 1 to 10 or something different (perhaps you prefer ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘tired’, ‘very tired’). It is best to use something you can compare over time and be as objective as possible for comparison to allow you to spot trends up or down and odd things that may indicate something to take note of like sudden tiredness, which can indicate the possibility of illness coming on.
Being unusually irritable or stressed can also be a sign it is time to back off. Although these things may not be caused by your exercise they are still an influence on your resilience and ability to adapt to training. If things are getting too much, it may be better to go out for some easier enjoyable training or active recovery rather than force yourself to do the harder session in your plan.
Learning to ‘listen’ to your body and mind and trusting your instincts is perhaps the most valuable skill you can develop as an athlete.
Weight is a good measure and although you may have a goal to lose weight it is important to do this gradually. Here we are interested in fluctuations in weight; if you lose weight quickly it could be a sign to be concerned. There is more on diet and eating well in the next section.
Sleep time and quality is a good indicator and also something to ensure you get enough good quality sleep and relaxation. Unfortunately, when we are tired and stressed it seems to be harder to sleep than when we are happy and relaxed - the opposite of what we need.
What do all these measures mean?
You may well be asking what all these measurements and feelings mean and how you will know when it is best to have a break? Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules and what works for one person may be totally different for another. The important thing is to build up a base of measurements that allows you to see that things are behaving as you expect and to spot changes quickly so that you can act before you get too tired, keeping your training at the optimal.
This is really a major advantage of having a coach or someone who understands you and what you are trying to do that isn’t quite as emotionally involved as you are. If not a coach, then try asking a training partner, a close friend or work colleague that can tell you if you look unwell or are unusually grumpy to give an early warning sign. Be careful though and try to choose someone that understands sport and believes in your goals, not someone who thinks you would be better jacking it in and watching television every night.
Are you eating optimally?
Eating enough and enough of the right things is vitally important to success in sport, it won’t make you succeed but if you don’t eat properly you are unlikely to succeed.
I will devote a chapter to getting your diet right later in the series rather than squeeze the details in here so I won’t discuss nutrition further at this stage, other than to reinforce the fact that you won’t be able to train hard for long if you don’t eat enough and/or you are significantly under weight.
This chapter has covered a lot, and now you can go forward:
training at the right intensity;
understanding how you are recovering from training and spotting excessive fatigue;
aware of the importance of eating the right amount and the right things; and
keeping track of training, recovery and progress in your training diary;
Good luck, have fun and please let me know what you think or ask if you have questions. John