An Analytics Instrumentation Approach to Triathlon Training

Paul Weinstein / 11th April 2017 / Comments: 3 / Analytics

During one of my many long training sessions, it occurred to me that the process our Analytics Team uses to design and implement an analytics program for our clients is strikingly similar to the process that I went through as I’ve built my triathlon training program. It turns out that, regardless of whether you need to track ecommerce metrics or your fitness, the process of creating a great plan is the same. Here’s how.

Start with a Goal

When considering how to improve performance of any activity (be that a website or an athletic endeavor), the first step is to determine what the overall objectives are. Once we have clarity on what we’re trying to accomplish, we can set out to craft a plan to measure our progress toward that goal.

My goal for the Victoria 70.3 Ironman is to finish in 5 hrs, 11 minutes. Within that larger goal, I have sub-goals for each part of the race, including the transitions. To set my goal, I’ve looked at my race history and current fitness and set targets that will challenge my abilities. This goal is definitely a stretch, but hey, why set easy goals?

Broken out, my race goal looks like this:

Swim goal: 0:35:12
T1 goal: 0:02:00
Bike goal: 2:48:00
T2 goal: 0:01:00
Run goal: 1:44:48
Race goal:    5:11:00

Identify Key Performance Indicators

Now that I have my goal set, I need to figure out what the most important metrics are that will tell me if I’m on track with my goal, or if I need to regroup. For triathlon training, I could choose speed metrics, training volume metrics, among many others. The thing I love about Triathlon training is that there is no shortage of data to crunch. The down side, as is true with the promise of big data, is that just because I have a lot of data, doesn’t mean that I’m paying close attention to the right data. The key here is absolute clarity around the most important metric.

In this case, I’ve chosen fitness as my key metric. My ability to keep moving for over 5 hours requires that I have incredible fitness. While I’ll measure many other metrics to help me understand how I’m progressing for each aspect of my training, the most important number that I’ll pay attention to is my CTL, or Cumulative Training Load, also referred to in the sport as “Fitness”. The primary input for CTL is the Training Stress Score (“TSS”), which is explained in this post by Training Peaks.

To measure and track Fitness, each time I train I’ll need to know the TSS that is derived from duration, distance, heart rate and intensity for each activity. For additional accuracy, I’ll also need to track and adjust for elevation gain/loss in each session, which impacts the intensity metric. To do this for each sport requires a thoughtful measurement, instrumentation and reporting plan.

Create Your Measurement and Instrumentation Plan

My training activity needs to be measured across three different sports: swimming, biking and running. Each sport requires a different strategy, due to the respective challenges of each and their relative importance to the overall time goal.

For swimming, my strategy is to focus on technique since I’m new to swimming. To help me improve my technique I need to track metrics like Swolf score (combines speed with number of strokes per length – a lower score is better). To do this, I need a device (tag) that I wear during my swim training that can track my swim strokes and speed. After much research, particularly this post from DC Rainmaker (make sure you read at least until the Oreo Cookie), I’ve chosen a Garmin 735XT watch for this purpose. The watch is waterproof, supports multi-sport tracking and gives me the data I need to measure my swimming progress. Since I also need to make sure I’m accurately measuring TSS, accuracy of the distance and time metrics are critical.

For biking, the sheer volume of training and duration in the race requires a different approach. The strategy is mostly about having a bike that fits right, so this is as much about setup as anything else. Same can be true for web analytics – making sure that the entire site is instrumented (tagged) is one of the first things we’ll look at when auditing a site for analytics. I also need to be able to measure my bike training indoors, since it tends to rain a lot here in Seattle. To ensure I get the same bike data regardless of being on the road, or on a trainer, I need to instrument my bike to track speed and cadence even when stationary. Again, I’ve chosen Garmin speed and cadence sensors for my bike because they integrate seamlessly with my primary device that I use to track all my activity.

Finally, I need to track my running training. Since running is the activity where I’m most likely to suffer an injury, I need to make sure I get the most out of each running session. Running dynamics data is critical for me, since injury prevention is so important. I need to make sure that I am maintaining the right cadence to reduce orthopedic load on my feet, and that my stride is even between right and left feet. To enable the collection of this data, I’m using the Garmin HRMrun device that I wear across my chest during runs. This device includes sensors that measure stride length, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, etc. Another key metric for running is my heart rate, since this is the metric that helps me calibrate my effort during my runs so that I’m hitting my workout target and getting the most out of each. My measurement plan must also measure this key metric so that I can track improvements in my lactate threshold and VO2max. Again, the Garmin watch is my container for this data and presents it in context with the rest of my training results.

The upshot of the Garmin watch is that it acts as the container for all my analytics. It also rolls-up data from each activity so that I can get a high-level view of my training. This is much like having a roll-up view of multiple sites or domains so that marketing and leadership can see performance of individual elements in the larger context of the business.

Given the requirements of my measurement plan, the tagging plan looks like this:

Design a Reporting Plan

With all the data I need being collected, I now turn my attention to visualizing the data so that I’m paying attention to the right metrics. For this step, I turn to a program designed for creating and tracking training plans, called Training Peaks. When I first set out to train for an Ironman, I knew that I needed a detailed plan to keep me on track. Using Training Peaks, I’ve created my Annual Training Plan (“ATP”) that helps me plan my workouts week to week. This platform also serves as the reporting engine that rolls up all my analytics and reports on my most important metric, my Fitness. Using the data collected from my analytics implementation, I can see how my training maps to my plan:

Each of the bars represents the number of hours I need to train each week to be prepared for the race. This view tells me at the highest level how well my training is going.

Monitor Progress Against Goals

As determined at the start of this process, the most important metric that I’ll need to track is my overall fitness. For this, I again use Training Peaks which uses Training Stress Score (“TSS”) to measure the level of stress that each activity imparts. These metrics are then visualized in a way that allows me to know when to ease off training and rest, or that my training is having the effect I’m looking for in my overall fitness. This gets displayed as a Performance Management report that looks like this:

The blue line is my overall Fitness, which is my primary KPI. Other metrics displayed put my Fitness in context, helping me understand when I might be over- or under-training. The pink line is the fatigue created by my recent activity, and the yellow line is my readiness to race. The red dots are the training stress scores for each actual (and planned) activity. The solid lines are actual values, the dotted lines are projected. As you can see from this report, my Fitness is at an all-time high, about 10 weeks before my big race.

Analytics Instrumentation is Critical to my Training, as it is in Business

A successful triathlon training program requires great analytics, in the same way that business success does.

  • Each need a clear goal so that we can know what we’re trying to achieve, and so that we know what to measure.
  • Each need clarity around exactly which metrics are mission critical – it’s easy to report on everything, it’s much more difficult to identify the one key metric that really matters.
  • Each need a solid measurement plan so that the right metrics are gathered consistently and accurately.
  • Each need a way to visualize the data that’s collected so that the right metrics are reported in meaningful ways and so that they can be reviewed within the proper context.
  • Each need to maintain focus on the goal, the primary KPI that will help us reach that goal.

I’ve got a lot of time to think during my long training sessions. This is the kind of stuff that I think about…

By Paul Weinstein