I’m somewhat of a technology geek. I like things that hold out the promise of doing something more effectively and efficiently, especially in sport. I can only recall one time when I was totally wrong on something which appeared was new. In the early 1990s the clipless pedal appeared from Look. At the time my son, Dirk, was racing roads in the pro category. He asked me if I thought he should get them. I advised him against it as I felt they were a passing fad and would never hold up to the rigors of high-power sprinting and climbing. I thought the shoe soles would separate from the uppers over time. Boy, was I wrong. Nearly 20 years later they own the market. It’s rare to see someone with toeclips. When you see them you know it’s someone with a disdain for technology.
But with that exception I’ve seldom been wrong. In 1982 I got my first heart rate monitor. Athletes asked me why I wanted to use that since all you had to do was stop and put your finger to your throat to find your pulse. Throughout the 1980s I told them they needed a HR monitor. They’d train better and go faster with more objective information. In 1992 it reached the tipping point. I realized that year that nearly everyone at the starting lines of triathlon, bike and running races was wearing one. Now it’s rare to find an athlete who doesn’t own several HR monitors. My challenge in the last 10 years has been to convince them that they’re paying too much attention to their heart rates. Heart rate by itself it doesn’t tell you if you are in great shape, poor shape, overtraining or anything else. And yet I run into athletes almost daily who make decisions about training based on what their heart rates have been recently. These are the athletes I like my coaching clients to race against.
In 1995 I got my first power meter. Actually, I borrowed it from SRM as I was writing a book which became The Cyclist’s Training Bible. I wanted to know more about training with power which I had read was what Greg LeMond was doing. But there was no information available on power-based training. So I experimented with it that summer. But at the end of the year I had to return the unit to the company. I learned a little, enough to add a small section in my book, but certainly not enough to feel knowledgeable. I could tell, however, that this was even better than a HR monitor.
In the summer of 1998 the inventors of a new power meter contacted me and wanted to know if they could fly to Colorado and show me what they had come up with. This was the Power-Tap. In The Cyclist’s Training Bible I said that some day someone would come up with a cheaper power meter than SRM’s. The inventors told me they had taken this as a challenge. They gave me a prototype to try out and once again I was training with power and experimenting. That fall I wrote what I believe must have been the first introductory manual on how to train with power (Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan have gone well beyond this rather simplistic view of power with their excellent book, Training and Racing with a Power Meter).
Power-based training is now where HR-based training was in about 1988. It’s catching on but isn’t quite there yet. One of the hold-ups is cost. Power meters start at around $1500 whereas even in the 1980s HR monitors were only about $100. The other hold-up is complexity. There’s a lot more to be learned about training with power than training with heart rate.
Interestingly, with almost all other technology triathletes have been the early adopters – HR monitors, aero bars, clipless pedals, variations on bicycle technology, sports nutrition and more – while road cyclists have lagged well behind the trend. It’s different with power meters. Roadies now are the early adopters and triathletes are resistant to change. Triathletes seem to have a tremendous attachment to their HR monitors.
In 1999 Dirk, Gear Fisher and I came up with an idea for a web-based coaching tool which at first was called TrainingBible.com (later it was changed to www.TrainingPeaks.com). This was to be a tool coaches could use to communicate with their athletes. We launched it in 2000. Within a year we realized that it was too good an idea to allow only coaches to use it so we opened it to any athletes who wanted to coach themselves. It’s proven to be a great success. In fact, I’d say that it has become the standard for all other such software to be compared with.
What’s coming down the pike next? I’ve seen the new Swimsense from Finis which promises to give swimmers some of the same data runners and cyclists get from speed-distance devices and power meters. I also know of a couple of companies that are working on power meters for running. That would be a great improvement as pace and speed are very sensitive to wind, surface and terrain. On the other hand, power is a pure measure of performance output. If these come to fruition they will greatly change the way runners train – and even think about their sport.
I don’t know for certain what we will have next as far as technology, but I can tell you one thing for certain: No matter what new technology appears many will take the position that it isn’t needed and doesn’t improve performance – and costs too much besides. Then it will take years for the new technology to reach a tipping point, if it ever does.