Set Goals, Lay Track

I love numbers. From the beginning of my athletic career (gymnastics), through grade schools and college (baseball), to now (triathlon, endurance sports), being able to measure and quantify results and progress has always been one of my favorite things to do. I am obsessed with batting average, home runs, RBI’s, WAR, OPS, isolated slugging percentage, win probability added, watts, mph, RPM, stride rate, splits, and transition times. But not heart rate – I hate heart rate. All of this is front and center in my brain because I recently took a functional threshold power test. My result was fine, I guess. The way I see it, there is no “winning” an FTP test, you can only suck a little less each time (or more, depending on how you look at it). Any way you slice and dice it, the resulting number guides future workouts, and provides a measure of progress.

Which brings to light an interesting question, what do all of these numbers mean in the bigger picture? Phrased differently, it might sound like, “How can I use this numbers to get faster?”

Jon and Marc might hate me for saying this, but from my perspective, numbers by themselves don’t mean much. It is fun, if not an agonizing exercise, to compare oneself to others’ times and key metrics, but I think a lot of people in our sport(s) focus too much on results over process. That statement is not meant to be a sweeping generalization; numbers have a place, and many uses, in endurance sports. But in my experience, the athletes too often focus on them as opposed to taking a simpler approach to training.

I use an analogy, coined by my favorite radio personality Adam Carolla, which helps me see the bigger picture. I see where I am right now, and I see where I want to go, the way to get there is by laying track in front of me. What does that mean? Training is a really simple process; it’s a matter of going out there and doing it. Each workout is the opportunity to make a little progress over the day before; each workout is a set of tracks that I can lay down in front of me to move forward. A bad workout isn’t a disaster or a hindrance to progress, it’s a piece of track that took a little bit longer to nail down, and thus feels more rewarding when it finally is in place.

My qualm with numbers is that when people focus on them, they lose sight of the bigger picture, me included. And the bigger picture is defined by consistency. At any level, there is nothing more important than consistency. I remember hearing that the most important part of ability is availability, and it’s stuck with me forever. There is no, “Man, if I could only train a little bit more, or dedicate myself.” That doesn’t exist because that is part of the challenge, if not the major challenge. Keeping your head down and powering through one workout after another is the most valuable quality you can possess when juggling the demands of a full-time job and other responsibilities. Everything else will follow. Race day is the opportunity to pick your head up and realize how far forward you have traveled, an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Numbers quantify consistency, but only AFTER consistency is achieved. In three weeks is my first race, and when the time comes to drop the hammer, I won’t be thinking about my FTP or my heart rate, or my watts. No, I’ll be thinking about all the hard work, hours, and dedication that have gone into getting ready for this season, and I’ll have plenty left in my reserve, whether I’m within my defined power zones or not.