By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
One of the entertaining, and educational, parts of my job is filtering through all of the latest and greatest gadgets athletes can use to track or improve performance. In the pre-Kickstarter days, this would mean unsolicited packages arriving at the office for us to unpack, test out within our staff and maybe ultimately endorse and use with our athletes (which on the whole was very few). The packages came in a wide array of shapes and sizes, from shoes with springs to football shaped water bottles. Every so often, we’d would get a winner and find something that had some utility for coaches and athletes, and we would incorporate the new fangled do-hickey into our athletes’ training lives somehow. However, all too often, the gadgets were fundamentally flawed by trying to answer questions athletes weren’t asking.
Fast forward to today and the request to evaluate the latest and greatest often comes from our own athletes. They hear about the newest gel or recovery tracker on Twitter and inevitably ask their coach, “Is this worth it?” Fortunately, we have a very simple way of initially evaluating such items: “What problem is this trying to solve, and is it a better solution?”
Particularly over the last 3-4 years, the area of new bright shiny objects to pay attention to has exploded. In general, I think this is a good thing and embrace technology and methods when they suit athletes better than what we were previously using. However, the signal to noise ratio is now out of balance. We are getting far too many useless things to measure, monitor and track than we are useful ones. Additionally, many of the newer devices on the market have a narrow range of utility, and any benefit to the tracking has to be closely weighed with the cost and effort of doing so.
In this vein, our coaching staff recently held a series of continuing education sessions on, “What’s worth monitoring?” We initially brainstormed a list of things athletes could track and then assigned coaches to do research on each of those trackable things. At the end of the exercise, we had well over 50 metrics and related devices to evaluate, which I have streamlined into the color-coded chart below. We took as many items as possible into consideration. Simple things such as volume and intensity all the way to more complex items like Heart Rate Variability, Mood and DC Potential. No, the latter is not related to the comic books. We placed each metric into one of the following three categories:
- Yes, it is worth tracking (green)
- It depends. And it depends on… (yellow)
- No, it is not worth tracking (red)
The chart summarizes what’s worth tracking. It is easy to see that most devices fall into the ‘It depends on…’ category. This is the important takeaway for athletes. What you choose to track and monitor in training has to serve an actionable purpose. For example, if you are tracking sleep (which I wrote about previously and many athletes now track and is firmly in the ‘it depends on…’ category) you should have some sort of actionable follow through on why you are tracking that metric. If you sleep less than 7 hours or have 22% of your sleep in REM, are you using that information to change the workouts or something else functional? If not, it’s not worth tracking.
What’s worth tracking
At the end of the exercise, we came up with the following metrics that are absolute must haves for athletes to track. Ironically, they are simple and elegant and take the least technology to monitor.
Volume of training- This is an easy one. Volume is necessary to track simply because athletes need to ensure they are doing enough and progressing the right amount. For ultrarunners, volume is most effectively tracked by time. This is in contrast to road and track athletes who will typically track volume by miles.
Volume of vertical gain/loss- I track this with my athletes to see if they are matching the vertical gain/loss per mile as close as they can to the race. Many athletes can pick and choose different trails they have to run and during that pick and choose process, it is important to ensure there is an appropriate amount of vertical gain/loss throughout the week. I aggerate this on a weekly basis and try to get it within 10% of what the race will serve up. For example, the Western States 100 has 18,900 feet of vertical gain and 22,970 feet of loss in 100.2 miles for an elevation change of 417 feet/mile. In training when aggregated on a weekly or monthly basis, I try to have athlete target between 376-459 feet per mile, particularly in the last 8 weeks of training.
Post workout subjective feedback- Out of all of the metrics to track, this one is by far the most important. Athletes know how things are going, how fatigued they are and how well they can perform usually in advance of any way that we can track it. That’s precisely why when I discuss athlete’s training the question ‘how did it go?’ comes first. Not ‘How far did you run’ or ‘Did you run at the right intensity’ or ‘What was your heart rate?’ Those questions are far less important and can come later down the line.
My go-to tracking system
While there are a lot of ‘it depends on…’ situations in the above chart, 95% of the athletes I work I track exclusively through the green sections of the chart 90% of the time. I keep the tracking system simple for athletes simply because the three metrics above provide the largest return on investment and the curve for diminishing returns drops off pretty steeply from there. Quality supersedes quantity in this situation. The other things I add for athletes most often during the year are periodic sweat rate tests, blood testing (which I interpret myself and only when warranted) and time hiking vs running.
I recommend using TrainingPeaks to track these metrics and bring them all under one roof. During my coaching career, I have used systems as simple as spreadsheets and word documents, the GPS device native apps like Garmin and Suunto, and even have built our own training tools to use with athletes. They all pale in comparison to the ease and power you get out of TrainingPeaks’ (in an effort to full disclosure, I am not compensated by TrainingPeaks in any way. We actually pay to use their software). Its ability to track all sorts of things and make it easy is quite simply the best out there.