Bend in the Road: Riding by numbers

Separating the useful training tools from the gimmicks

Power meters, speedometers, sleep trackers, heart-rate monitors, muscle-oxygenation meters, altimeters… there is no shortage of digital measurement tools available for cyclists to quantify ourselves and the minutiae of our lives. But what is valuable and what is just noise? I have played with all of these things and more, and come to an equilibrium of sorts with gadgets and digital technology. Here’s what works for me.

Let the cloud mind your data

Isn’t part of the joy of riding a bike to escape from it all? To unplug our minds from the electronic mayhem of our daily lives and engage our bodies with the natural world? Yes, absolutely.

Yet, there is something to be said for measurement. One thing I appreciate about modern computers and various training software is their ability to track a slew of metrics — and then store all that data online for you to dig into when you please. Just press start and enjoy your ride. Look at the world around you as you ride (or maybe just your friend’s hub as he tries he darnedest to drop you), then look at the numbers later.

There are two core benefits to any of these tools, be they state-of-the-art power meters or your bathroom scale. One, they provide objective measurement. And two, when used regularly, they allow for analysis that can lead to improvement.

This basic feedback loop applies whether you’re interested in something geeky — like raising your FTP and W/kg while lowering your CdA (AKA 'drag area') and heart rate — or something simple — like getting yourself ready to do a big weekend ride with your buddies.

Tracking training data paints detailed pictures. luckily, keeping that data these days is easy and transferrable :
Tracking training data paints detailed pictures. luckily, keeping that data these days is easy and transferrable :

Tracking training data paints detailed pictures. Luckily, keeping that data these days is easy and transferable

In the first, you have to have data points to even start the conversation and goal setting, never mind specifying the training and measuring the progress.

In the second, you still need a simple set of measurements to make sure you’re on your way. For instance, if you have a 100-mile ride coming up, you should probably do a few rides before then. And using a bike computer to measure these rides and tally up your mileage is a simple way to make sure you’re on track.

While I have friends who have dutifully logged all their training in spiral notebooks for years and years, I just can’t bring myself to care that much. But even a slacker like me can turn on a Garmin and press start. Combine this with the (sometimes begrudging) cooperation between players like Strava, Garmin Connect, TrainingPeaks and others, and I have years of data to sift through.

Tools I use

I record every ride I do with a GPS computer of some sort. When I’m not testing something for review, I use my personal Garmin Edge 500. It’s small, simple and reliable. While persnickety types will point out the GPS-based distance, speed and elevation are not as precise as dedicated tools, the rough calculations are good enough for me. Mostly I’m interested capturing distance and time, plus power and heart-rate data.

I’ve trained with power for 15 years. A power meter is the easiest way to measure progress and meter efforts, plus quantify training load over time. I have three meters I particularly like, for different reasons: SRM, Quarq and Stages.

My colleague John Whitney just did an interesting piece on power training vs heart-rate training. After losing interest in wearing a strap for years, I’ve been back on the wagon recently. I like the Wahoo Tickr because it works on ANT+ and Bluetooth.

Every ride I do goes on Strava. The social aspect is fun, and the at-a-glance cumulative stats are great for looking back on past months and years by time or distance. The analysis isn’t anywhere nearly as rich as TrainingPeaks, but sometimes rich isn’t what you want.

A Garmin Index Smart digital scale showed up out of the blue for review in December. It measures weight, body fat, etc, etc, but the key feature is the app. When connected with your Wi-Fi, the scale sends all the metrics to Garmin Connect. While mildly annoying that the info is locked within Garmin Connect (I’d like to see an auto-export to TrainingPeaks), it is motivating to see a daily record. The more I use this thing, the less beer I drink.

Garmin's index smart scale records data wirelessly on garmin connect:
Garmin's index smart scale records data wirelessly on garmin connect:

This scale is a tattletale 

TrainingPeaks is something I use periodically. The online software lets you read the tea leaves of your training data, mapping out your projected training loads and fatigue. If you are training for something, it’s gold. If you’re just wanting to ride, it isn’t interesting. The upstart Today’s Plan out of Australia offers something similar, with custom analysis and the ability to tailor training plans to your daily training time availability and specific goals.

Tools I can’t bring myself to care about

I think smart watches are dumb for cycling. Same for activity trackers. I know a few coaches love the idea of monitoring off-the-bike activity, as this affects what you do on the bike. I can’t be bothered.

Garmin, Recon and 4iiii all tell us that we should have plastic gadgetry strapped to our sunglasses. Because it’s safer, allegedly. And because jet pilots use similar stuff inside their helmets. I’m not a jet pilot. Also, it looks ridiculous. Pass.

BSX Insight has an LED-based tool that measures muscle oxygenation in real time. I’ve done about a dozen rides with the thing, and cannot for the life of me determine what use it serves. The company compares its tool to the early days of power meters, when it was a tool with purposes yet unknown. Pass.

The key component – human judgment

The most important training tool of course is the one inside your skull. Determining what to do with all this data is critical. For the rest of February 2016 we’ll be running a series of training features that we hope will be helpful for you.

Personally, I’ve benefited from the advice and guidance of coaches and experts for years. Most of that has been through reading their work, whether in books like Joe Friel’s The Cyclist’s Training Bible or in training articles or on blogs. Some of that has been following stock training plans. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed reading the advice of USA Cycling coaches as I hammer out intervals in the garage, thanks to TrainerRoad’s interactive training.

But the best of course is an expert looking over your shoulder. This year I’m working with Frank Overton, founder of FasCat Coaching. By uploading all my data into TrainingPeaks, we can collaborate on what’s working and what isn’t with minimal time invested.

Data is great. having a coach to provide feedback and guidance based on that data is better:
Data is great. having a coach to provide feedback and guidance based on that data is better:

Data is great. Having a coach to provide feedback and guidance based on that data is better

Overton will be the first to tell you that data doesn’t tell the whole story: “Training by numbers is great but you still have to listen to your body to put those numbers into context.”

And you don’t have to work with a coach to listen to your body. Racking up big numbers — whether in miles, hours, TSS, ‘suffer score’ or anything else — can be enticing. But if you’re tired, take some time off. Make your easy days truly easy, so that you can make your hard days truly hard. Then come back and look at the data.

Ben Delaney

US Editor-in-Chief
Ben has been writing about bikes since 2000, covering everything from the Tour de France to Asian manufacturing to kids' bikes. The former editor-in-chief of VeloNews, he began racing in college while getting a journalism degree at the University of New Mexico. Based in the cycling-crazed city of Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids, Ben enjoys riding most every day.
  • Discipline: Road (paved or otherwise), cyclocross and sometimes mountain. His tri-curious phase seems to have passed, thankfully
  • Preferred Terrain: Quiet mountain roads leading to places unknown
  • Current Bikes: Scott Foil Team Issue, Specialized S-Works Tarmac, Priority Eight city bike... and a constant rotation of test bikes
  • Dream Bike: A BMC Teammachine SLR01 with disc brakes and clearance for 30mm tires (doesn't yet exist)
  • Beer of Choice: Saison Dupont
  • Location: Boulder, CO, USA

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