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Is Perceived Effort Obsolete

There is a saying that goes, “if it isn’t on Strava does it even count?” We have come to rely so heavily on technology in our training that I know that there are athletes who haven’t done a training session because they forgot their device or forgot to charge it. Not being able to record and download a session really does make it feel like it didn’t happen, when in reality the body will still assimilate it and make adaptions based on the stress that we provided. When starting up a training phase after some time off, the first thing we do nowadays is charge up our devices and replace the batteries in all the sensors.

Our reliance on data feedback from our devices has resulted in us losing the skill of gauging sessions and race efforts using perceived effort. Who cares? I suppose many would ask. There is so much that can affect our perception of effort that is it not better to utilise the cold, analytical device to tell us what we are really achieving?

Yes and no. Yes, there will definitely be days in our training lives when we are capable of more but when we feel like we are just not up to it. These are days when we need something to push the effort out of us and they are often the days which count a little bit more towards our training progression. Pushing through a session when we didn’t feel up to and achieving a result that we didn’t think likely at the start, are the days that athletes live for. There is another side to this coin though. Sometimes, pushing through those sessions is not good for us. Knowing when we have more to give and knowing when we are not up to it are critical skills to learn for any athlete. Determining which kind of day we are on requires both the cold, hard facts coming from our device and the perception of how it feels to achieve those numbers today. Cross-referencing the two and weighing them up against each other will determine if today is a ‘bite the bullet’ day, or a ‘back things off from the plan’ day.

I have never been a fan of planning a race strategy around numbers. Many will label that an ‘old-school’ way of thinking and they are probably right. Not everything new is necessarily better though. In my opinion, there are two many additional factors at play in a race, in comparison to training, that can’t be measured by a powermeter or heart rate strap. I suggest using data from races for reference, after the fact and not relying too much on them for determining our race pace. Seeing the numbers produced in a race will determine training parameters. It will help to analyse performance. Did we get the most out of ourselves? Did we go out too hard or not hard enough, finishing with too much gas in the tank, or running out of it? Hindsight is 20/20 and the numbers are unemotional, true measures of performance but, in the race itself, emotions and psychology affect what numbers we produce. Both high and low.

Our state of recovery going into an event is also not completely in our control. Over time we can certainly learn to get to race day in optimum condition but, even for professional athletes and even more so for us recreational racers, there are so many outside factors that determine how fresh we are on a start line that is practically impossible to replicate from one race to the next. How well we are recovered will determine how our heart rate responds to effort and recovery. It will influence what sort of power we can sustain through the duration of our event. Using only these numbers to control our race strategy and pacing risks the potential result.

I know of a cyclist who trained specifically for eight weeks for his national time trial championships. Based on the power and heart rate data from his training sessions, he set himself parameters for race day only to realise with three-quarters of the race done, that he had much more to give than he should have had in the last quarter. Fresh legs and adrenaline are amazing performance enhancers.

I had a swim coach who was a former national open water champion. He could swim any split for a 100m in the pool that you asked him to. Now most of us can predict our time for an ‘easy’ 100 or our ‘flat out’ 100, but he could do four lengths of the pool in any time that you asked in between those as well. That is how finely tuned his perception of effort was. Something absolutely critical in the open water where it is not possible to refer to a device for feedback.

Knowing how a sustainable effort feels will help balance our number targets. Practicing using perceived effort during training will arm us with facts that we can compare with race day efforts and help us make an on the fly decision to increase or decrease our planed race targets. It is a skill worth practising and developing and will result in better executed races.

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