Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently read and greatly enjoyed David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. It inspired my post about why foxes make better coaches than hedgehogs, and it inspires the present post about why a power meter is like a thesaurus.

There’s an interesting section in Range on the topic of analogical thinking. Here’s a bit of it:

Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface. . . Analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar, or takes the familiar and puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts.

Learning from Epstein’s book that smart people tend to use analogical thinking to solve difficult problems and generate novel insights boosted my ego, because I am prone to analogical thinking, and have been for as long as I can remember. For proof, look no further than past posts to this blog, such as the one where I analogize pacing to leaping across a ditch, or the one titled The Chased-by-a-Bear Analogy of Mental Fitness, or the one titled The “Price Is Right” Analogy of Marathon Pacing.

For my next trick, I will use an analogy to explain why the best use of power meters and other training devices is to minimize dependency on these very devices for optimal execution of workouts and races. But first let’s talk about thesauruses.

A thesaurus is a handy tool that writers can use to find synonyms of any given word. The synonym-lookup functionality built into word processing applications is another version of the same thing. Whenever you need another word for a given word, the thesaurus is there to serve. Here are some beliefs I have about this tool:

A thesaurus cannot make up for a poor vocabulary.

In principle, the thesaurus equalizes vocabulary across the writing population. With this resource at hand, the writer with the smallest working vocabulary has access to just as many words as the writer with the largest working vocabulary. In practice, however, no amount of reliance on a thesaurus can elevate the quality of a limited writer’s writing to a meaningful degree.

There are many reasons for this. One is that words aren’t just words; they’re concepts. Take the word anodyne, for example. A writer who does not know this word, which is subtle in meaning and has no exact synonym, is unable to think the thought “anodyne,” and is therefore unlikely to go looking for the word even if it’s the mot juste (there’s another one!) in a particular sentence.

Another reason why Bad Writer + Thesaurus ≠ Good Writer is that working vocabulary is only a part of language mastery. Even when they’re not using fancy words, skilled writers are able to craft more artful sentences than less skilled writers, and there’s nothing a thesaurus can do about it. And to that point, there’s a difference between vocabulary and working vocabulary. You can often tell when a writer has used a word they just discovered in a thesaurus. It has the feel of a mad lib—an awkward fit.

A thesaurus can be used to expand one’s vocabulary.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that the thesaurus has no value. Of course it does. While it lacks the power to turn a bad piece of writing into a good piece of writing by artificially propping up the writer’s vocabulary, it can be a tool in the process by which a writer improves their vocabulary, gains greater mastery of language usage, and becomes a more skillful writer. Routine writing practice, supplemented by voluminous reading, is certainly more effective in this regard, but a writer who consults the thesaurus whenever they get stuck on a word in the process of reading and writing will accelerate their development.

The best use of a thesaurus is to reduce one’s dependency on the thesaurus.

It follows from the first two points—that a thesaurus has little power to improve the quality of any given piece of writing yet can play a positive role in a writer’s long-term development—that the best use of a thesaurus is to reduce one’s dependency on this very tool to find the right words to use when writing. If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around the notion that the best use of a certain tool might be to render itself useless, consider the following analogy (I told you I love analogies!).

A few months ago my elderly father fell and broke his leg. For many weeks afterward, he was confined to a wheelchair, but through physical therapy he was eventually able to advance to walking with a walker. This in turn led to further gains in strength that allowed him to graduate to walking with a cane. And it is our hope that walking with a cane will improve his balance to the point where he can walk unassisted.

In this analogy, the purpose of both the walker and the cane is to render their user nondependent on these very tools, just like the thesaurus.

The less one needs the thesaurus, the more one benefits from its selective use.

The difference between using a thesaurus in writing and using walkers and canes for rehabilitation is that the thesaurus remains useful even when it is no longer needed by a writer who has developed a large working vocabulary. In fact, the most advanced writers are able to make the best use of the thesaurus because their overall mastery of language enables them to do so in sophisticated ways.

I have more than forty years of writing experience and I still consult the thesaurus every now and again. When I do, I very rarely (almost never, in fact) encounter a word that’s not already part of my working vocabulary. I use the thesaurus instead to weigh my options when I plan to use a word that has multiple cognates and I wish to pick the one that fits best tonally, or when I’m concerned about overusing a particular word in a given passage and I wish to explore my options for mixing things up, or when I’m aware that a word I’ve used is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers and I wish to explore my options for selecting a more demotic substitute.

There are probably some writers out there, more skilled than I, who take pride in never consulting the thesaurus. But I believe that no writer is truly “too good” to benefit from this tool, and again, the best writers are able to make the best use of it.

Now Back to Power Meters

Everything I’ve just written about the thesaurus is also true of power meters and other endurance training devices. To succeed in the objectives of completing races in the least time possible and performing workouts at just the right intensities to maximize their benefit, endurance athletes must be skilled at perceiving, interpreting, and controlling their effort. Power meters and other devices can aid both objectives, but they do not have the power to guarantee successful race or workout execution when used by athletes who aren’t very good at perceiving, interpreting, and controlling their effort.

The reasons are twofold. First, endurance performance is limited by perceived effort, which power meters can neither measure nor regulate. Second, each race and workout is unique. Athletes begin each workout and race in an overall state that is slightly different than any past state, and the situation they encounter is at least slightly different from any they’ve encountered in the past. This makes it impossible to predict what optimal execution of the race or workout will look like, requiring the athlete to be reactive and adaptive. Consider the common scenario of an athlete who experiences a rough patch during a long race. Athletes who make the best of these moments and thereby salvage their race do so by backing off, gathering themselves, controlling their thoughts and emotions, and perhaps taking practical measures such as consuming extra nutrition or dousing themselves with cold water. Then, when they feel better, they pounce. Can a device do all of this for an athlete? Absolutely not.

In workouts, the stakes are lower, but an athlete who is able to meet their body where it’s at each day and execute every workout optimally will gain significantly more fitness over time than an athlete who’s a slave to their device. Consider the following workout:

15:00 warm-up
5 x 5:00 @ Critical Power/3:00 active recovery
15:00 cooldown

Critical power is defined as the highest output an athlete can sustain in a relatively stable metabolic state, which is equal to the highest output an athlete can sustain for 20 to 30 minutes. Sounds very scientific, but it’s impossible to pinpoint this threshold with exactitude outside of an exercise laboratory, and in any case it changes slightly from day to day depending on fitness, fatigue, and other factors. What’s more, there is no evidence or reason to believe that hitting critical power with absolute precision in workouts offers any more benefit than getting close to it. From my perspective as a coach, the athlete for whom the example workout is prescribed will get the most out of it if they maintain a very steady output within and across the five repetitions, with a general trend toward increased output as the workout unfolds, and if the athlete’s perceived effort rating is above 9 and below 10 on a 1-10 scale during the final rep. They will pay attention to their device, but in a peripheral way, using it merely to track their performance and make small adjustments. Only an athlete who is skilled at perceiving, interpreting, and controlling their effort can pull this off. An athlete who lacks these skills but “knows” their critical power and tries their best to stick to it throughout the workout is unlikely to get the same result.

As with the thesaurus, though, power meters and other devices can be helpful in developing the ability to self-regulate effort and pacing. My book On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit offers guidelines on how to use training devices to overcome dependency on these very devices for effective pace and effort regulation. If you want a specific tool you can put into use immediately, try this workout.

Again, the endpoint of this process is not throwing your power meter into the ocean but using your device in sophisticated, nondependent ways that are akin to how skillful writers use the thesaurus. I mentioned above that I have more than forty years of writing experience. Well, by the time long covid took away my ability to run in 2020, I had more than 30 years of running experience, and had long since arrived at this endpoint. Here’s an example of the sort of use I made of my Garmin Forerunner before my health imploded:

One of my favorite workout designs that I came up with as a self-coached athlete is what I call a relaxed time trial. It entails running a standard race distance (usually 5K or 10K) at a 95% effort, or 5% slower than I feel I could do in a race. It is important to go completely by feel in a relaxed time trial, ignoring your device, because the idea is to discover your current performance capacity rather than predetermine it. In June 2020, when I was feeling fit but there were no races to run, thanks to the pandemic, I decided to run a relaxed 10K time trial followed later by a solo 10K time trial. I completed the former in 35:04, going completely by feel as the rules require.

Based on this result, I concluded I had a chance to improve upon my old 10K PB of 33:34. So, nine days later, I wheel-measured an exact distance of 10 kilometers and then covered it as fast as I could. In contrast to the relaxed time trial, this time I glanced at my Garmin fairly often, not so much for guidance as to keep a fire lit under me. Whenever my current pace reading slipped above 5:25 per mile, I nudged my tempo upward just a mite. The final kilometer was exquisitely painful, as I was deep in oxygen debt but still on track to achieve my goal. I stopped the clock at 33:25, 4.8 percent faster than my relaxed time trial, having racked up 1K splits of 3:25, 3:21, 3:19, 3:19, 3:20, 3:21, 3:21, 3:21, 3:19, and 3:13. A work of art!

This is the sort of thing an athlete can do when they’ve achieved a degree level of mastery of effort management and pacing. Devices play a role, but they’re not calling the shots; rather, they are being used and exploited in selective ways by the athlete. To reach this level of mastery, less experienced athletes must not blindly indulge their dependency on their training devices, as so many do, but instead use their device with the specific intention of overcoming their dependency.

This concludes my analogy between power meters and thesauruses.

Fifty years ago, a runner who had been doing all of his recent training before the sun rose shifted to a new schedule that had him running later in the morning. To his surprise, his first several daylight runs felt harder than normal, and it took him longer to complete his usual routes. (This was before speed and distances devices existed, so completion times were the only practical means of measuring performance away from the track.)

The runner (let’s call him Bob) couldn’t help but wonder what was behind these sudden changes. He even briefly entertained the thought that he wasn’t good at running in the sun and should go back to predawn training. But then he caught himself, laughing inwardly at his momentary loss of reason. Running is running, he remembered. Whatever might be different between running in the dark and running by daylight, that difference couldn’t possibly be more than superficial. Instead of wasting energy worrying about it, Bob realized, he should just keep running and trust that his body would soon adjust. So that’s what he did, and that’s what happened, and Bob lived happily ever after.

Fifty years later, a different runner, Sally, had a similar experience. Like Bob, Sally did all of her training before the sun rose but then shifted to a new schedule that had her running later in the morning. To her surprise, she found it harder initially to stay in the intensity zones dictated to her by her Garmin Fenix 6, which reinforced this perception by telling her that all of her runs were “unproductive.” Sally became so alarmed by the situation that she hurried online to share her concerns in an athlete discussion forum, initiating a lively thread in which other athletes traded theories about what might be wrong and what Sally ought to do to fix it.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the growing problem of overdiagnosis in medicine, sports medicine in particular. An example of my recent reading is an educational review published a couple of years back in the British Medical Journal under the title, “Preventing Overdiagnosis and the Harms of Too Much Sport and Exercise Medicine.” In it, authors Daniel Friedman of Monash University and Karim Khan of the University of British Columbia describe the emergence of a sports medicine establishment that empowers clinicians to turn athletes into patients the moment they experience any pain beyond the norm. The four key elements of this system, according to Friedman and Khan, are 1) the belief among clinicians that more intervention yields better outcomes, 2) so-called diagnosis creep, whereby the definition of injury keeps expanding, 3) the widespread commercialization of sports medicine and injury treatment, and 4) increased accessibility of sports medicine and injury treatment services.

In short, we now have a system in which (to exaggerate only slightly) athletes experiencing pain automatically call the doctor, doctors automatically subject athletes to diagnostic tests, and diagnostic tests automatically find some “abnormality” that is automatically pegged as the cause of pain. Now, you might be thinking, “Where’s the harm? Better safe than sorry, right?” Wrong. The overmedicalization of athletic pain and injury causes a good deal of harm, and in more than one way.

For starters, medicine’s domination of pain and injury management systematically deprives athletes of agency, robs them of the ability to make their own decisions, trust their own perceptions, and feel in control of the process. Second, the imaging and other diagnostic tests used to slap labels on pain experiences are wildly unreliable, producing scandalous amounts of false positives. These false positives, in turn, cause stress and anxiety and lower outcome expectations, which become self-fulfilling. And to top it all off, the medical narratives in which diagnosis and treatment are couched—“Your tissues are degenerating because you have flawed biomechanics because your muscles are abnormally weak and tight—engender a sense of fragility in athletes that, too, is self-fulfilling.

In reaction to this anti-Hippocratic state of affairs, a movement toward “dediagnosis” has sprung up within the medical establishment. In a recent paper, two leading champions of this movement, Marianne Lea and Bjorn Morten Hofmann of the University of Oslo, declare, “We define dediagnosing as the removal of diagnoses that do not contribute to reducing the person’s suffering, i.e., when the person is better off without it.” And where nontraumatic sports injuries are concerned, the person is “better off without” a diagnosis most of the time. For example, in a 2021 study by Indian researchers, forty-four individuals with low-back pain were given MRI’s, after which half of them were given a factual description of the findings and half were told that the findings were normal regardless of the results. Six weeks later, according to the study’s authors, members of the first group had a “more negative perception of their spinal condition, increased catastrophization, decreased pain improvement, and poorer functional status.” That’s not exactly an endorsement of diagnosis.

At first blush, all of this business about athletic pain and overmedicalization might seem to have nothing to do with Bob and Sally, our two hypothetical runners who had difficulty adjusting to a shift in their daily run time. In fact, though, it has everything to do with it. Increasingly, the devices that athletes use to monitor and regulate their training are doing the same thing doctors and diagnostic tests do to athletes. As device features and metrics multiply (Garmin’s new “body battery” takes the cake), so does the number of things that can go wrong. Worse, at the same time these devices raise (mostly false) alarms, they insidiously drain athletes of their autonomy, lulling them into placing more and more trust into the plastic oracles on their wrists and less and less into their own perceptions and judgments.

Someone should do an experiment where sports devices are coded to randomly produce an alert message reading, “You’re having a terrible workout.” I’m willing to bet that a majority of today’s tech-dependent athletes would take this message seriously, rattled by it even if they’re in the middle of a terrific workout when it pops up. Laugh all you want, but this thought experiment is only marginally more absurd—and disturbing—than Garmin’s all-too-real “unproductive workout” alert message and a variety of other device features and metrics.

What bothers me most is the effect technology is having on athletes’ appreciation for the value of self-trust. The most self-trusting athletes are the most successful athletes, plain and simple. And self-trusting athletes have a high threshold for becoming alarmed. Like anyone else, they pay attention and notice things, but they shrug off most aberrations. When such an athlete is caught off guard by some unexpected difficulty like adjusting to a shift in their daily run time, they lose no sleep, telling themselves, “It’s probably nothing. I’ll give it a week to resolve itself, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll troubleshoot.”

In the old days, before the advent of sophisticated sports trackers, athletes had little choice but to allow small imperfections in their training to resolve themselves, or not. Nowadays, only the most self-trusting of athletes are able to resist sweating the small stuff, because temptations to do so have become almost atmospherically ubiquitous, a digital torrent of alerts and warnings and disappointing numbers to worry about shoved in our faces by our Garmins and Polars and Suuntos and Whatevers. It’s the training equivalent of an overzealous sports orthopedist moving into your home with all of his diagnostic equipment, hell-bent on finding something wrong with you.

Analytical reductionists—the kinds of people who are prone to say things like, “I’m trained in mathematical statistics and so inclined to examine numbers before making conclusions”—don’t understand this. They push back on the notion that there is harm in taking each and every device warning seriously. I call this hoarder logic. Have you ever tried to reason with a hoarder? It’s impossible! You choose an object from the pile and ask them if they really need to keep it. They respond with a pretty solid reason for keeping it. You then choose a second object from the pile—and a third, and a fourth—and they do the same, winning every battle yet losing the war. What makes hoarding a mental illness is not the hoarders’ specific reasons for holding onto individual objects but the very impulse to find a reason to keep all of them.

Analytical reductionists are the hoarders of the sports realm. They have solid reasons for taking each blip in the data stream seriously, but it is the underlying impulse to do this that’s the problem. Again, this impulse stems from a lack of self-trust. The ones who can’t stop troubleshooting are missing that assured sense of being in control of the overall process that makes the most mentally fit endurance athletes seem almost blasé to analytical reductionists, who look at them with mouths agape, wondering, “Don’t you even care? Shouldn’t you be worried?”

Regular readers of this blog will have noted that I’ve been beating the drum of device overdependence rather hard of late. Some of these readers might even suspect I have entered my crotchety old man phase, shaking my fist front my front-porch rocker and railing against technology, not because technology is so bad but because I’m weakening and beginning to feel left behind. That’s fair. If I were alone in my railing, this speculation might be worth entertaining, but in fact I am not alone. As I have taken pains to point out in past articles, growing numbers of scientists—the kind who are capable of big-picture, systemic thinking—are sounding the alarm as well. And it’s not just endurance athletes they’re concerned about.

Among the scientists banging the same drum as me are Peter Gamble of Auckland University of Technology, Lionel Chia of the University of Sydney, and Sian Allen of Lululemon Athletica’s R&D team, whose paper, “The illogic of being data-driven: reasserting control and restoring balance in our relationship with data and technology in football,” was published last year in Science and Medicine in Football. In it they write, “We propose that there is a fundamental need to reframe how we are seeking to employ data and more specifically make the necessary switch from being data-driven to data-informed.”

Remember Bob? Arguably, he was neither data-driven nor data-informed, if only because he ran fifty years ago when there wasn’t much data. But he was better off for it, at least compared to Sally and her fellow endurance athletes of today, who are data-driven without even realizing it. And what their device data is driving them to do, specifically, is train in a nearly constant state of troubleshooting, trying desperately to make up for a lack of control over the training process by responding to every cry of “Wolf” from their wristwatches with a full-scale wolf hunt.

How do you know if you’re in control of your training or not in control? How do you know if you are data-driven or merely data-informed? Here’s how: Imagine you had to train the way athletes did 50 years ago, trading your current gadget(s) for a basic stopwatch. If you are confident that this compromise would have little or no impact on your fitness development or competitive performances, then you are in control of your training and are not data-driven. The irony of it all is that you kind of have to get to the point where you don’t need your fancy athlete smartwatch to gain any benefit from it.

I ran 20 miles the day before my first marathon. At 17, I didn’t know any better. Whether by choice or chance I had no running mentor, no athletic background, and this was long before the internet. I intuited (correctly) that the best method to prepare for a marathon was to work slowly towards a 26.2-mile run but implemented it (incorrectly) by increasing my daily run by 1 mile and running 19, 20, and 21, miles each day until the morning before the event. I entered the marathon…fatigued.

I’m reminded of this experience each time I load my Garmin Connect app, which uses the unfortunate slogan, beat yesterday. I disapprove of this message. It’s the antithesis of the 80/20 training philosophy. I’m sure Garmin would confirm that this mantra is obviously marketing, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s an ideal, a motive, a state of mind. My rebuttal is when someone in authority uses what they later claim to be hyperbole, a sizeable number of followers take it at face value with potentially dangerous consequences. I’m confident there are a significant number of beginner athletes using the Garmin Connect app who really do believe that to become a better athlete they need to go longer or harder every single day.

But you, dear reader, are not one of those beginner athletes. You understand that peak fitness is the result of the balance of stress and rest and ignore such temptations. You are a disciplined athlete, not influenced by gamification, cheap marketing slogans, Zwift rivals nor friends on Strava. Right? Right?

But…doesn’t seeing beat yesterday in your primary exercise app sort of gnaw at you? Seed some self-doubt about your course of action? Maybe turn an easy run or two into something more? Because it sometimes haunts me, and I’m as dedicated as it comes to adequate recovery.

Therefore, as a public service I have prepared alternative and responsible slogans for the app. I present these to you, Garmin, royalty-free and without claim. You’re welcome.

Just did it

Sure, some potential trademark issues, nothing we can’t work out with the other guy.

Improve upon your previous season’s performance by executing a best-practice training regimen that includes an optimal distribution of frequency, intensity balance, duration and specificity

Wordy? Maybe, but I’m sure that’s what Garmin actually meant to say.

David Warden is exceptionally handsome

Just throwing stuff on the wall, seeing what sticks. This is the slogan I repeat before every workout.

Buy more of our stuff

Some say we’re living in a post-truth world, but Garmin, you can draw a line in the sand!

Get faster

Whoa. I think we have it. Simple, accurate, and unlike the current slogan, possible. I may have to register this slogan myself after all.

The next time you’re tempted to beat yesterday, pause and consider the purpose of the workout at hand. That purpose could include recovery, technique, aerobic base or many other objectives unrelated to record speed or distance. Some days, you really will beat yesterday, and those days will become more frequent during periods of the season. Many of your workouts, however, should be slower than the day before which is exactly how the pros train.

Or, you can choose to beat yesterday and train like an optimistic but inexperienced 17-year old. Personally, I’d rather just Get faster™.

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