Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Data-Driven

Simple steps for evaluating your progress and planning for 2016.

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Simple steps for evaluating your progress and planning for 2016.

In March 2011, I went to my first triathlon camp with coach Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness and was assigned a shared room with Sami Inkinen. I didn’t know much about Sami other than he was very fast (I’d raced him a few times as an age-grouper), very handsome (his remarkably always perfect hairdo was the target of far too many of Matt’s jokes) and apparently very smart (he had a Stanford MBA and had recently co-founded some real estate website named “Stevia” or something).

Sami and I spent many afternoons working away on our laptops, eating endless bowls of guacamole and chips while recovering between sessions.

One day, I asked him what he was working on. He said he was taking a brief break from actual work and updating his training log. I asked him what software he used. He said he was an Excel nut, and used it for just about anything he could. I also considered myself a fairly proficient spreadsheet dork since my mechanical engineering days, but there’s nothing that could have prepared me for what he was about to show me.

For years he had meticulously logged every stat and detail of every workout, his sleep, nutrition, performance, and tons other factors I didn’t even know existed. He had charts, graphs, formulas, pivot tables, VLookups, nested formulas to parse strings and other stuff I didn’t understand and had trouble pronouncing. It was, easily, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. A self-described “incurable data geek,” Sami approached triathlon in the same way he approached business—using meticulous data gathering and analysis to identify trends, aid in decision making and continuously improve many facets of his athletic performance. He told me later that in business and in triathlon, “the rate of learning separates winners from losers.”

At the beginning of every year, I think of Sami and that statement and try to, in a much less detailed and impressive way, report and analyze my previous year’s progress in the hopes of making a plan that will help me take that next step toward “better.” We can’t all be Bobby Fischer on Excel, but there are some simple steps you can use to help you evaluate your progress and create a plan for success.

First, review what you said you were going to do. Before you start making a list of all the things you want to do this year, take a look at the list of things you said you were going to do last year. This is kind of like looking in the fridge and cupboards before going to the grocery store. It keeps you from getting stuck in a never-ending cycle of re-identifying the same problems and addressing them (or not) in the same way without ever making forward progress, i.e., eight partially used ketchup bottles in the pantry.

Grade yourself, and ask why it did or didn’t happen. I give myself a grade on each thing I said I was going to, then I write the main reason or two it did or didn’t happen. Those developers and/or business guys familiar with “scrum” project management concepts know that this is a hugely important part of the process—asking “why?” Did information or priorities change? Were you unable to get the advice or expertise you needed? Did you bite off more than you could chew? It helps remind you of what you’ve already tried and sets the stage for what you can and should do when you finally look forward and set goals.

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The season is so long, it’s often hard to remember what we said we were going to do when it started, so if at all possible, write it down in a Google doc or email it. I found my list from the beginning of 2015 in an email to Matt. Here it is with grades and “why’s”:
– Consistent strength program. (A) My main focus, and did a good job.
– Hydration/nutrition work. (D) Thought about it a lot but never put plan in place.
– Less travel and less racing. (B) Raced less, still too much external travel away from family.
– Consistent weekly schedule with blocked out family and Picky Bars times. (C) Got it sometimes but wasn’t consistent enough. Still need to limit time outside of these priorities and training.
– Regular group swims. (B) Mostly pretty good.
– Run-specific strength, and more FAST speedwork. (B+) Hit the track, speed came back.
– Dynamic bike efforts above 380 watts. (A-) Lots of HARD dynamic bike efforts paid off.

Make a new list of focused problems you want to address. In addition to things leftover from last year’s list (for me, hydration and schedule), are there new things you need to work on while looking back at your year? For me looking at potential focus on Ironman next year, an easy one is adding more bike-specific strength and some longer rides so I don’t explode at four hours like I did in my first go. List them all out—anything important you can think of that will help you improve.

Prioritize. It’s easy in a new year to make tons of new goals and overwhelm yourself with too many changes at once. Changing habits is tough, takes time and concentration, and generally you’re more likely to be successful by cutting the clutter and focusing on the few most important problems. I generally aim for 4–8 problem areas where I’ll get the biggest bang for my buck.

Make a plan for each item on your list. Last year I knew hydration and nutrition in the heat were a problem for me, but I didn’t create a plan for how I was going to address those issues. As a result, I ended up making little to no improvement in them. You can’t just identify the problem without at least taking a stab at the solution. For each problem, identify a few key tactics that will help you address it. Think of things you can do regularly that are as measurable and achievable as possible.

My 2016 problems and plans:
– Loss of bike power, back/sciatic/knee problems
– 3 times weekly bike- and weakness-specific strength program
– Longer rides at the right time of year
– Hydration/nutrition/cramping
– Meet with experts, seek out testing and data
– Frequently test and train in hot environments (and repeat)
– Decrease time spent outside of family, training and Picky Bars
– Monitor time in external areas
– Say “no thank you” more often, guard family time
– Check in and readjust weekly schedule on monthly basis

DO IT! Now comes the fun part—go do it! Enjoy the challenge and confidence of having reviewed your history and used that information to create a better plan going forward.

In the couple of years after our first camp, that guacamole-eating, perfect hair-wearing Finnish man went on to be the fastest overall age-grouper at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and Ironman World Championship. And that little company of his? Well, it is called Trulia and it IPO’d for around $500 million.

Clearly, we won’t all be Samis, but we can all use the basics to help us evaluate our progress and take an awesome step forward into the new year.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a five-time Wildflower Long Course champion, Ironman winner and the CEO of Picky Bars (

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