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Why Progress is Not All About Your Time, Speed, or Power Numbers

In triathlon, swimming, cycling, running, or other endurance sports, it can be tempting to quickly compare your numbers to your peers or your past achievements. Time, pace, speed, and power numbers are common metrics we use to assess performance. But, progress is not all about those numbers.


"You are never too slow to get faster." — Coach Mark

Triathlon Coach Training Plan

Assessing Your Progress in Endurance Sports is Complicated

Assessing progression in speed is a tricky thing in endurance sports that are run on courses of varying terrain in varying conditions. Is a 3:45 marathon in 80 degrees and 90% humidity faster than a 3:39 on a 46-degree dry day? Not technically, but there is a good argument that the slower time is actually a better performance because of the conditions. Unfortunately, we know the Boston Marathon doesn't care what conditions you ran in. So we look for fast races to get that BQ.


Cycling is easier to quantify in some ways but not in others. Power is a great tool for tracking improvement, but unfortunately, they don't hand out awards for peak power numbers. Only speed! If you can go faster on less power, that's actually a good thing.


Fitness Improves Gradually, Over Time

In day-to-day training, there is an irresistible urge to compare sessions each week to how they went last week and look for improvement. One of the best signs I like to look for in improving isn't just the absolute number that's put out (pace, speed, power), it's HOW I felt achieving that number. As you add years of training together, those signs of improvement will come less from absolute numbers and more from perceived exertion. My FTP, running threshold, and swim threshold settings have stayed within a 5-10% range in the last 10 years. If I were to examine things too myopically, it might not look like I've improved at all. I would probably get disheartened and quit the sport. But the reality is that I love training for what it is and acknowledge that the slow, imperceptible creep of fitness has happened very gradually over time. Such that I don't notice a difference from one week to the next, one month to the next, or maybe a year to the next.

Triathlon Coaching and Running Coaching

My encouragement to athletes is not to get caught up in a quantitative analysis of strict external output numbers when it comes to performance. YES, we absolutely look at those things and use them as markers. But don't get too caught up if one session was really good or one session was really bad. Keep a long lens on your performance development.


How much can you resist fatigue?

This post from the empirical cyclist is a bit techy but there are some cool takeaways. He notes that Brandon McNutty's peak 20-minute power has been pretty much unchanged for the last 5 years. That's 5 years with zero improvement, right?!? Sort of, but not exactly. Winning a bike race is a bit more complicated than your 20-minute FTP score calculated in TrainingPeaks. We talked about depth of fitness last week and the author of the Empirical Cyclist post is referencing that here: "How much can your best efforts resist succumbing to fatigue?"


As we build into the fall season of racing, make decisions that will encourage and support your long-term development in the sport. Progress in triathlon, swimming, cycling, and running is not simply a product of the numbers. I promise that by keeping an eye on the big picture, you'll both have fun AND get faster!


Suffer Faster.

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