• When to Ignore the Data

    by  • May 7, 2014 • trainin and tactics

    The integration of data and exercise has grown exponentially in the last few years. For cyclists, accurate data can maximize your training efficiency, help you plan specific race strategy, or give you something to mull over during a slow day at work. Heart rate, normalized power, left-right balance, gear selection; the list of available data streams expands every year.

    As the name of my coaching business suggests, I view the trend toward more data as a good thing but it comes with its own set of problems. While I’m not one to wax nostalgically about riding an eight speed with wool shorts and a leather chamois, there are advantages to knowing when to unplug and ignore technology. In this article we’ll focus specifically on the data stream with the biggest footprint in our sport, power.

    Power holds us accountable like no other metric but that accountability comes at a price. The Garmin beeps, the power meter is detected, and we punch the clock. Wattage has the tendency to incessantly demand our attention. It can be beautiful and frustrating in the span of one day. It does a fantastic job of reporting how hard we’re pushing on the pedals but a miserable job at offering any context surrounding that effort.

    Objectivity is why we love power but also why it can be dangerous. The number on your screen doesn’t tell the story of an extremely challenging day at work, a few sleepless nights, a dramatic swing in temperature, or multiple days of training. Without “life-context” it’s easy to view power as the end-all in defining our progress as athletes. That fatalistic interpretation of power data is why it’s important to know when to ignore it.

    Periodically ignoring power gives us the space to appreciate that the human body is complex. The best theory we have is that exercise performance is regulated by complicated systems in the central nervous system that serve to keep us from destroying ourselves [1]. As a metric, power can’t capture that complexity. Sometimes a bad ride/race can’t be explained. You’re better off enjoying a classic YouTube video rather than dragging yourself through the mud. An even better option is to practice positive self-talk, as it can actually improve your performance [2, 3].

    As a general rule, endurance athletes are incredibly hard on themselves. Honest, self-criticism is a big part of what pushes us. We hold ourselves to incredibly high standards that are more objective than ever. But as our lives as athletes become more measurable, don’t forget context. Knowing when to ignore your power meter is becoming an increasingly important training skill, one that has to be practiced. Here are a few suggestions…

    — Program multiple screens into your head unit. Some rides might require viewing power, others just the time of day. Use context to make this determination.

    — Be conservative scheduling demanding workouts on days after racing or during other life stressors. Be careful not to set yourself up for failure.

    — Periodically skip the Garmin all together.

    — Mix up your training with structured and unstructured rides. No one has an endless capacity to train. Sometimes it’s better to ride without the boss looking over your shoulder.

    Nate Dunn, M.S.
    Data Driven Athlete


    1. Noakes, T.D., Time to move beyond a brainless exercise physiology: the evidence for complex regulation of human exercise performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2011. 36(1): p. 23-35.
    2. Blanchfield, A.W., et al., Talking Yourself out of Exhaustion: The Effects of Self-Talk on Endurance Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013.
    3. Tod, D., J. Hardy, and E. Oliver, Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2011. 33(5): p. 666-87.



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    Nate Dunn has always been passionate about understanding human performance. What started as a fascination with heart rate monitors in high school led to the completion of his Masters Degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science from CSUS and the founding of his cycling coaching business Data Driven Athlete. He can typically be found reading exercise physiology research, talking excitedly about athletic performance with clients, or backpacking around the NorCal wilderness with his wife and young daughter.