From Spokes to Screens: Bridging the Gap Between Old-School Wisdom and Modern Technology

From Spokes to Screens: Bridging the Gap Between Old-School Wisdom and Modern Technology

How do you control and monitor your effort during your triathlon training sessions? At the risk of aging myself, I can still remember a time when our watches (wearables to millennials) recorded elapsed time and, if we were lucky, eight lap times. These we were able to access immediately after the session by means of buttons on the watch but, if we didn’t write these down in our trusty training diaries, they were lost the next time we timed another session.

As for bicycle computers (head units to millennials), these measured: distance, speed and elapsed time. If you had something top of the line, they would calculate your average speed after the ride. If your budget didn’t allow for something that advanced you would have to do a little maths and record that in your training diary because, as for the stopwatches of the time, the next session would erase the previous one. These magical devices recorded all of this data by means of sensors on the bicycle’s forks which picked up a passing magnet that was attached to a spoke. If the distance was not millimetre perfect, it would not pick it up and if it was too close, the sensor would get caught in the spokes and be ripped off. This information was then sent to the computer on our handlebars via a cable which needed to be cable-tied or taped to the frame and coiled around brake cables in order to trace a path as clean as possible from sensor to computer. All of these devices were battery powered and these needed to be replaced at regular intervals. There was no recharging.

Back then we controlled the effort in our training sessions by means of perceived effort and speed. We used race times or training time trials in order to set future goals and targets and then based our training speeds and efforts off these. This was more easily controlled in running where we all had a good idea of race paces from 5km to the marathon and, depending on what we were training for, we would target intervals at these different paces. Done on a track, we would check the trusty wristwatch at each 200m mark to calculate if we were holding the correct pace but we’d have to monitor how that pace/effort felt for the next 200m until we could verify that we were not fading or accelerating.

For runs on the road this became more tricky because our devices did not measure distance. As a triathlete I spent a lot of time cycling over my running routes in order to determine kilometre markers and route distances. I went as far as to take a spray can and paint small marks on the roads with my secret symbol in order to help pace my training runs. On regular routes this wasn’t necessary though, I simply remembered where each kilometre mark was. In races we relied heavily on the kilometre boards provided by the organisers and, back then, there was a much higher emphasis on the accuracy of these as a result.

Cycling was a bit simpler in that we had distance and speed as references on our computers but, more complicated in that we had to factor in climatic conditions like wind, heat and humidity and also road conditions and gradients. Indoor trainers of the time were simple rollers which are still used today, more as warm-up and cool-down tools. These required balancing and riding our bikes straight in order to stay on the narrow rollers. There was little to no resistance so, they were not that effective for interval training. Some interval training could be done on a velodrome if we had one nearby but most was conducted out on the open road.

All of this resulted in athletes of the time developing a very refined perceived effort scale. We were able to control our pace and effort during training and racing by means of how things felt and I think this is a skill that we are in danger of losing with all the technology that we have access to now. Even someone like myself who had the opportunity to develop a very accurate internal ‘effort monitor’ can lose the skill with an over-reliance on feedback and data from devices. I spend almost as much time pouring over graphs of session downloads as I do actually performing the session nowadays. Power, heart rate, cadence, speed etc. are not the only things my devices and the analysis software shows me. Training Stress Score (TSS) and Intensity Factor (IF) are values calculated for every session and these contribute to calculations of: fitness; fatigue and form.

It is amazing to be an endurance athlete today. We have access to feedback and analysis that was not even available to the World’s best professional athletes thirty years ago. So, I will definitely not be shouting how, ‘things were better back in my day,’ but I do still try to keep my ‘internal effort monitor’ tuned by judging some of my sessions and intervals based on how the effort feels and then referring to the downloaded data afterwards to confirm that I was accurate. All my devices have one ‘old-school’ screen-view where all I can only see time and distance, which I use for this reason. I believe an accurate ‘perceived exertion’ can be practised and trained just like any other aspect of our sports and it is a very useful skill to have.

It can also be fun to have a low-tech session from time to time. Having so many parameters to work within in a training session can be stressful. I am not immune and I know a lot of athletes who suffer with pre-session anxiety. We are biological organisms not machines and despite all the algorithms and equations that calculate form and fatigue, some days are better than others and we always have that worry that we are going to fail to meet the expectations of a training session. I know that there are countless sessions that have been abandoned because numbers were not achieved early on. Sessions where adjusting to a slightly lower target, would have still resulted in a productive workout and, more often than not, the desired numbers would probably have been reached after a more gradual start to things.

So, take the pressure off from time to time and train ‘tech-free’. It’s good for the mind and hones one old-school skill that is still relevant today.

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