The Blessing and Curse of Training Technology

6 07 2011

By Matt Russ
For Active.com

The landscape of training and coaching technology has changed pretty dramatically in the last decade. Just as our phones, computers, and televisions have transformed, so has the hardware we train with and the software we utilize to analyze our training.

If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be able to train with a device that tracks my heart rate, pace and distance real-time via GPS, doubles as a cycle computer, and can be used to analyze a wide variety of metrics post-workout, including a 3D satellite overview of my route—all for about $200—I would have said you were crazy.

This same device can be uploaded to a computerized cycle trainer and the outdoor route you just trained on can be recreated in 3D virtual reality. The front wheel of your bicycle will be elevated in sync with changes in course grade, and even wind resistance can be programmed into the software. These computerized stationary trainers can then be linked together, and athletes will be able to race each other in virtual reality on their own bikes on the course you select, including your upcoming race course.

Sounds far fetched? All of this is technology is currently available. What a great time to be an athlete! Until the box arrives complete with multiple pieces of software, cables, manuals and the device itself.

One of the great things about being a head coach is that I get to be tech support to our many other coaches, athletes, and anyone else that may have a random question and my email address. If there was any justice in the world, I would receive a fat check from Polar, Garmin, Training Peaks, SRM, Ergomo, and Saris each month.

Depending on the day, I view technology as both a blessing and a curse. However, there are ways to avoid technological pitfalls and use this electronic wizardry to better effect.

Buying the Right Device

I love those PC/Mac commercials. Makes you want to run out and buy a Mac right? Well, the new, smaller, sleeker, more expensive Garmin 405 you just bought is not Mac compatible, whereas its much cheaper, older brother, the 305, is.

After several years of promising a Mac compatible software solution for the 305, Garmin finally delivered; then made the new 405 incompatible with both Macs and Training Peaks, the most popular training and coaching software. This is actually a fairly common refrain, as a lot of smaller companies will not spend the money designing a Mac version of their software.

Assuming your device is compatible with the computer you own or the software you use, the next step is learning how to configure your hardware. This involves actually getting out the manual and programming in everything from your weight to wheel size, and how you want to display all this information.

Years ago we had heart rate monitors that displayed, well, heart rate. Now we have pace, cadence, distance, speed, lap, heart rate, elevation, grade, power, time, interval, torque, maps, calories burned and more. Figuring out what is relevant and what is useless is a task in and of itself.

Make sure the device you purchase is the right device for you. It is easy to get overwhelmed with too much information. I have worked with athletes utilizing $1,600 Power Taps that function as little more than expensive cycle computers. Do not purchase a device unless you have the time, patience, and aptitude to learn its proper function and application. The latest technology is not for everyone, and often the newest device has the most problems.

Software Installation

After you’ve purchased your device of choice and configured it to your needs, it is time for the software installation. This is a pretty straightforward process that involved inserting a disk and following the (usually fairly simple) directions. Connecting and uploading your workout data to the software can be a different story though.

In order for it to be recognized it has to go over your firewall and under your anti-virus software—which may or may not want to let it through. I have had to temporarily take down firewalls and AV software in order to get my devices to sync with my computer. This is one of those things you can tear your hair out trying to trouble shoot.

Issues often occur when different pieces of software or hardware do not work and play well together. Manufacturers frequently update their software to resolve these issues, and the device you just purchased may have been sitting on a shelf through several new software releases. A good place to start is by visiting the manufacturer’s website to make sure you have the latest software and driver updates.

Let’s Talk

The real fun starts when you get multiple pieces of software attempting to interface. Training Peaks is a great example. I like Training Peaks. It is, for the most part, well thought out, functional, and allows access to a variety of data by both the coach and the athlete.

The problem is getting the data there. Uploading your power meter or other device requires the use of Device Agent, a piece of software that “talks” with the many uploadable devices, gathers the data, and loads it to the appropriate date on your training calendar—if all goes well. I have found that some days it works flawlessly, some days you have to trick it into working, and some days it just does not want to go to work and you are better off leaving it alone.

The problem could be with other applications you have open interfering with the connection, or the device itself, or the USB cradle, or any one of the multiple pieces of software needed to get everything to cooperate. When it comes to tech support, you will generally find that the buck does not stop anywhere.

Although I am somewhat sympathetic to their plight, each manufacturer of a device or piece of software will likely point the finger in the other direction. Of course, you can always visit the support forums in which you can collectively vent your frustration and occasionally stumble on a solution.

Training Peaks also makes a more complex piece of analysis software called WKO, which again, I find very useful for more detailed power analysis. However, getting an athlete’s power files from Training Peaks to WKO is a complex, multi-step process that borders on ridiculous and often does not work. Why these two pieces of software from the same company do not work seamlessly together is a mystery to me.

Trouble Shooting

When something does not work, first and foremost remember Occam’s razor. This principle, attributed to the 14th century friar, basically states “look for the most logical or simple solution first.” I usually find that re-seating a device in an upload cradle, changing or recharging the battery, plugging it in again, or just a good thumping will get it to work.

Most athletes don’t know that their Power Tap has four batteries (two in the hub, one in the heart rate strap and one in the head unit). Your device gets exposed to a lot of abuse. It may get rained on, sweated on, stored in a hot or cold car, and generally knocked around. Make sure there is not a physical problem such as a frayed or cut cable or corroded contact points.

If your device functions by direct contact in an upload cradle, and you have used it in or near salt water, the contracts may have too much corrosion on them to transfer a signal. Rubbing a very fine piece of sand paper over them a few times may do the trick. Simply knowing your hardware and how it works will save you a lot of frustration. Your GPS will not work if you run through a tunnel. Go down the list of most simple solutions before spending an hour on hold with tech support.

If Possible, Keep It Simple

The more complex you make something, the greater the likelihood of failure. There is a lot of buzz about open-source ANT+ technology that will allow different devices to essentially be cross-compatible with each other. On the surface this is great for the consumer, as it may cut down on the number of devices you need to gather training data, making data transfer easier. However, I believe there is also potential to open a Pandora’s box.

Recently, the Garmin 705 cycle computer was made compatible with SRM power meters using ANT+. If you are uploading your cycle data to your Training Peaks account this requires that three different manufacturers products (four if you include your PC’s operating system) all have to work together to get the data to the right place.

This means the manufacturers of these products have to communicate with each other when they make changes to software or hardware. If one link is taken out of the chain, whose responsibility is it to fix the process? I like to take the simple path to getting the data I need and try to stick to devices I know work well most of the time.

I warn my athletes to not become overly dependant on a device or the data it produces. You have to be able to train and race “blind” when a gadget inevitably fails. Athletes are often distracted when they become fixated on data.

Why Get Techie?

With so much potential for problems and frustration, why would anyone subject themselves to such technological misery? First of all, I have admittedly overstated the amount of problems these devices have. For the most part they do work, work well, and work well together.

If they did not, people would simply stop buying them (which has happened with particular devices). It is in manufacturer’s best interest to get technical problems ironed out, and make their products relatively easy to use and reliable. Most issues are not with the devices themselves but are user error.

Secondly, I firmly believe that the more information I get, the more effectively and accurately I can coach an athlete. Years ago athletes were given a simple piece of paper with a training plan, perhaps based on their perceived exertion. The coach wound them up and let them go, hoping for a good result on race day. Perhaps they did well, perhaps they did not, but there was not a lot of objective feedback to work with in the interim.

I can now see more information on what goes on during a workout than if I was next to the athlete during it. I can see when they are overreaching and I am in constant communication with them through our software. I can instantly update or change a plan as needed.

I can quickly compare their race data in each leg of a triathlon to last year’s race—or any other race—and gauge improvement trends in power and pace over time. I can crunch numbers until the cows come home and spend a much greater percentage of my coaching time focused on actual performance data vs. performance speculation. Verbal communication will always be a mainstay of coaching, but if you can show an athlete objective performance improvement, they are more apt to be on board with the process.

Every year, athletes get faster, new world records are set, and performance barriers are broken. I do not believe this is due to better athletes being born, but to greater knowledge and application of better coaching methods. New technology is never easy to integrate, and it takes time and patience by both the coach and athlete. But the more accurate the training stress load and analysis of it, the faster the athlete will become.

I was surprised to find that only a handful of the thousands of USA Cycling-licensed coaches have become USA Cycling-licensed Power Based Training Coaches. Training with power in and of itself requires a learning curve, more of the coach’s time, and can even be intimidating. But once you start gathering and tracking an athlete’s power data, the feedback on their progress becomes invaluable; and you quickly wonder what you did without it.

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes up to the professional level, domestically and internationally, for over 15 years. He currently holds an Expert license from USA Triathlon, an Elite license from USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a freelance author, and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit www.thesportfactory.com for more information or email him at coachmatt@thesportfactory.com.

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