Amy Kilpin discovers how you can measure your performance when you don’t perform
Columnist Amy Kilpin looks at benchmarking and marginal gains.
How do you know if you’re improving? It’s the golden question and one I ask myself (and my coach) fairly regularly, but sometimes it can be a bit of an unknown, unless there are regular and consistent measurement practices in place.
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the depths of winter. For most triathletes, that means either we’re braving it in Velominati’s rule number nine style, sweating it out in our pain caves, or forgetting the concept of training in favour of the sofa, Netflix and a leftover Christmas selection box.
Summer is easier. Let’s not deny it; you can rock up at your local 10-mile time trial or Parkrun and try to beat last week’s time. Over a few months, that will give you some pretty good measurables. Then there’s the racing. Remember what that is? Those days seem like a distant, faded memory, and after a long winter of training, sometimes you just have no idea where you are at in terms of what you can actually achieve. That’s where race day comes in.
Of course, it doesn’t always go the right way, but that’s all part of the game. Ultimately it’s a good test of your endurance and speed, and sometimes you can surprise yourself with what you’re actually capable of. Better still, you can use that as a benchmark; a new personal best to beat, or a new distance to step up to. It all helps us to feel like we are accomplishing something and getting better at it in the process.
Winter is a different beast for so many reasons. You’re grinding out hours of training, while trying, and often failing, to fend off the off-season temptations of comfort food and too much excess. How then, can you possibly measure your performance when you don’t really perform?
This is where some of you may be familiar with what can only be described as sheer, unadulterated hell: the dreaded FTP test. It’s a coach’s dream, and an athlete’s nightmare. A flat-out 20 minutes of sustained, maximum output on the bike usually on a turbo or Wattbike to work out your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is basically the optimum power output you can sustain over a prolonged duration (a race). Sounds technical? It isn’t really; it’s just utterly unpleasant.
It reminded me, just a few weeks back into training after my end-of-season break, why benchmarking is actually important. Despite having had a month off, the extremely unpleasant 20 minutes of my life recorded as the third best ever, only beaten by a summer time trial and an FTP training session at the peak of my season. I was anticipating much, much worse.
A week later, I ran a 10k race with a two-minute improvement on last year at the same race, after a 23-hour training week, and having run no high-intensity sessions since being back in training.
It’s not about the results – they were hardly spectacular – it’s just about the benchmarking. If, after a month off, and in the depths of the off-season, I’m in almost as good shape as I was in my peak in the summer, that amounts to year-on-year improvements.
Sometimes it’s so easy to forget that you’re improving, for the simple reason that the increments are often too small to acknowledge.
The more year-on-year improvements you can log, the more you will progress as a triathlete – whatever your aims are. If you can add in a little benchmarking, it’s a great way to measure your progress, however painful it is at the time, plus it’s a constant reminder of why you’re putting in all that hard work in the first place.
My advice? Take the small gains where you can, because I can guarantee you that they will add up to much larger gains later down the line. Don’t forget, 2017 is a new year, a new race season, so hopefully there’ll be a few new personal bests coming as well.