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It’s just past Amazon Prime Day, and lots of multisport athletes opened new devices to replace old tools or to add something useful to their existing quiver. The tech that tracks our training is advancing every year, and athletes can be easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of metrics they can measure. I connected with Justin Chester of Tri Coach Colorado to discuss what triathletes should be looking at when they set up device screens to get the most out of their training.
I selected Justin to join me in this discussion for the same reason I’ve asked him to help me lead coaching certifications in the past–I lean towards the simple, luddite end of the spectrum and Justin embraces all new technology with glee. This is not to say that I’m anti tech—far from it. It’s also not to say that Justin doesn’t ask his athletes to listen to their bodies. We both use numerous coaching tools, and we do it with our own unique balance.
The discussion below will center around the device’s use for swim, bike, and run, and look at them in terms of both training and race day. We hope our suggestions below give you guidance on how you’ll set up your screens and where to focus your attention while you train and race.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Justin’s Perspective On Swim Training Vs. Race Day
While training in the pool, you likely have a prescribed set of intervals you are doing during the swim, like 4 x 100 or 8 x 50. I find that information about the specific interval that I just finished is invaluable. For example, if I’m doing 8 x 50 with 20 seconds rest in between, as I hit the wall after the interval, I want to know how fast I did the 50, I want to know the time remaining in the rest interval, and I want to know my stroke rate—especially if it is a limiter for me. Since all intervals are not designed the same, e.g., some have rest intervals, while others have go-on times such as 8 x 50 on :45, I include the go-on time as well. For longer sets like 400’s and 500’s, if you have trouble counting laps then you may possibly replace stroke rate with interval distance.
During a race, however, your device is simply going to be a tool that records data for post-race analysis since it is not practical to stop and look at your watch. I do set the “auto-lap” distance to something that I can easily keep track of where I am in the swim. For example every 500 yards my watch will vibrate, so if I’m in a half-Ironman swim (1.2-mile swim) I can know when I’m ¼ way through, ½ way through, etc., which is exceptionally useful for pacing.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Ian’s Thoughts On Swim Training Vs. Race Day
Most triathletes train consistently in swimming pools and that is great—keep that up. That situation brings out the “get off my lawn” oldster in me, and I almost want to say leave the watch at home. Learn to use the pool clock so that you can swim sets and paces that are appropriate to your needs. However, I do very much like athletes to track their training volume in one place, so bring your watch. Wear it. Let it record your distance, pace, everything, but please, don’t let it control the workout. There are places where the watch can deliver so beautifully by teaching pace on big sets like 3 x 800s, descending with 1-minute rest between, and for open water as well. So be sure to set the screen to your 100 pace for use in those situations.
As for race day, I have VERY firm thoughts on this: 1) Do NOT stop and look at your watch during the swim segment. The watch will not help you during the race so stay present to the matters at hand: feeling your pace, sighting, drafting, etc. 2) Wear it, start it 30 seconds before the gun, and stop the swim split somewhere after you exit the water. Don’t try and be exact to the timing mat, just know that after the entire race is complete you’ll have all the data available for you and your coach to review.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Justin’s Favorite Bike Computer Setup
With the numerous sensors that can accompany any bike, from power meters and cadence sensors to those worn by the athlete such as heart-rate monitors, the bike is ripe with data. But we have to be careful about what data is actionable in the moment, and what data is to be analyzed from the living room. On my bike I look at seven fields on my Garmin Edge 1030: Lap Distance and Lap Time are both important during training because, like in the swim, intervals are typically prescribed within workouts. Next, I include 10-second Power which is a rolling average (smoothed) of the power that I’m outputting—I find this far more useful than current power, or even 3-second power, as it jumps around far too much. I include the standards with Cadence and Heart Rate, which triathletes are intimately familiar. Finally, for some advanced metrics, I include 10-second Balance and Avg Balance (over the entire ride)—which require a power meter that can measure left/right balance.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Ian’s Favorite Bike Computer Setup
Let me start someplace simple and critical: the Venn diagram of median age of triathletes and that time when human’s vision starts to soften is just one circle. To that end, just because my Wahoo Elemnt, for example, can show me 10 tiny fields at once doesn’t mean it should be set up that way. More is not better. If you can’t read the critical data with a super quick (read: safe) glance, then it’s of no use. One of the brilliant aspects of the Elemnt is that you can zoom in to show just three large fields or zoom out to show nearly everything. I absolutely want my athletes to set the biggest number on the top of the screen as 3-second power. The true value of a power meter on the bike is the fact that it can be instantaneous, and a 3 second average is as close as we get. I want that 3-second power to show every moment when the athlete is spiking and risking their run. I want time up there as a priority too. These are both true for training and racing. They allow the athlete to meet the goal of the day—from a 30-minute recovery spin to a 3-hour monster ride loaded with intervals—to track fundamental race day targets like how many minutes between fueling.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Justin’s Run Setup
With the increasing popularity of advanced running metrics—especially running power—the run can also be overloaded with data, but again we need to understand what data we can act on now versus data that is better for post-workout analysis. There is also less real estate to work with on running watches versus on bike computers, therefore choose data wisely. On my watch, I use Lap Time (auto-lap is typically set to 1-mile), Lap Pace, Lap Cadence (an advanced metric), and HR. During particular form-focused training sessions, I have also set a screen that includes Ground Contact Time, Left/Right Balance, and Cadence.
Set Up Your Device Screens: Ian’s Run Setup
If my athlete likes to be guided by heart rate, then that’s the priority. If they like to be guided by run pace, then that’s the priority. We can build training zones out of both metrics. On a long, hilly trail run, heart rate really needs to be the driver of the session. If it’s a quality run on flat, then pace should be king. Keep in mind that whatever number you’re using can either serve as a governor that purposely limits your effort or a task master that urges you to do deeper/higher/farther/faster than you have before.
We want to conclude with a celebration and a caution. If we can measure something, we can improve it. That’s what makes our wearable technology so great for training. The caution is this: Analysis paralysis is a real thing. Avoid getting bogged down in numbers so deeply that you miss the joy of being so healthy that you can cover the earth’s surface (land or water) under your own power.
Ian Murray has served as head coach for the U.S. at the Youth Olympic Games, ITU WTS events, ITU World Cups, and more. He is Level 3 certified by USAT, Level 2 certified by the ITU and was honored as the development coach of the year by the US Olympic Committee in 2006. He also leads coaching education for USAT.