Where is the Best Place to Invest in Triathlon?

Image copyright AMC

The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.

It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.

Good Value

Power meter

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Stages Cycling 105 5800 Left Crank Arm (RRP 449.99)

Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress,  power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.

Heart Rate Monitor

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Wahoo Tickr, RRP £39.99

If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.

High Quality Clothing

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Castelli Evoluzione Bibshort (RRP £80)

Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.

Tools 

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X Tools 18 piece set (RRP £39.99)

This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.

Elastic Laces 

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Xtenex Elastic Laces (RRP £9)

There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.

Good Quality Goggles 

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Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggles With Polarise Lenses (RRP £30.00)

Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.

 

Dumb Turbo Trainer

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Tacx Blue Matic Turbo Trainer (RRP £139.00)

Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.

Coaching 

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Coaching can be in the form of monthly training plans, or coached sessions such as an introduction to open water swimming (above)

 

Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.

Premium Tyres

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Continental GP400S II Tyre (RRP £60)

As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.

Appropriate Running Shoes 

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On Running Cloudflow Running Shoes (RRP £120)

A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.

Swim Toys 

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Speedo Power Paddles (RRP £13)

 

Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.

Clip On Aero Bars

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Token TK9741-2 Aero Clip On Bars (RRP 39.00)

Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.

Sports Massage/Physiotherapy 

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If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.

Bike Fit 

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Sigma Sports Bike Fitter James Thomas (image copyright Sigma Sports)

Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology

Triathlon Watch 

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Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS Watch (RRP £470)

With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.

Mid value

Hydration Systems

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Profile Design FC25 Hydration System (RRP £75.00)

The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.

Premium Tri Suit (£150)

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Huub Dave Scott Long Course Trisuit (RRP £190)

A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.

Clip In Pedals 

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Shimano 105 5800 Carbon SPD Pedals (RRP 99.00)

The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.

High End Bike Shoes 

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Specialized S-Works Trivent Tri Shoes (RRP £275)

This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.

Aero Helmet

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Lazer Wasp Air Triathlon Helmet (RRP £349.00)

A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.

Poor value

Triathlon Bike

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Cervelo P3 Ultegra Di2 (RRP £4,299.00)

I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.

Smart Trainers 

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Wahoo Kickr (RRP £999.00)

I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.

Deep Section Wheels 

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Lightweight Fernweg Clincher Wheelset (RRP £5,549.00)

Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.

High End Wetsuit

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Orca Predator Fullsleeve Wetsuit (RRP 649.00)

Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.

Components 

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The Brand New Shimano 105 R7000 Groupset (RRP varies)

High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.

Sports Specific Nutrition

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PowerBar Energize Bars (RRP 1.50)

Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.

GPS Bike Computer 

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Garmin Edge 820 (RRP £370)

GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.

 

You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.

Introduction to TrainingPeaks

If you’re reading this the chances are you have just started using TrainingPeaks or are thinking of opening an account, so I will start this with a brief introduction and rundown of the benefits of using TrainingPeaks.

First and foremost it is a completely different ballgame to Strava, and a huge step forwards from Garmin Connect. Strava is a social platform where people give each other a slap on the back and compete against each other over segments, where TrainingPeaks is a piece of industry data analysis software. Thankfully it is only as complex as you want to make it, and has the potential to be very user friendly. It helps you monitor your fitness, form and fatigue levels to make educated decisions about your training, or if you’re working with a coach such as myself, it allows them to analyse the data, make educated decisions about your training, and set workouts for you to follow.

There are two types of athlete account, basic and premium, the benefits of a premium account are:

-Advanced workout data, access to a seemingly endless list of customisable charts, and insights into your fitness.

-Notifications from your coach, and ability for your coach to receive notifications from you when activities are uploaded/comments added

-Ability to plan future workouts

-Sync your calendar with Outlook, iCal and Google

-Tracks peak performances to allow you to see your best efforts

-Data editing allowing you to edit your fitness files by removing/editing erroneous data and using elevation correction

As you start with a 7 day premium trial when you open an account, for the purposes of this article I will write this article with premium users in mind

To get yourself started you need to create an account, which is very straightforward. Once you log in you will be taken to your calendar screen where you will see an empty calendar just begging to be filled with workouts, there are three ways of filling this calendar.

Firstly there is manual data entry, click on a date on the calendar view, select a workout type, and you will have the option to simply input basic data such as time, speed, pace, average HR and many more as shown below.

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As you start entering data it will calculate values for you as long as the box in the bottom left is selected. The more data you can provide, the more data it provides you in return, such as Training Stress Score (TSS) and Intensity Factor (IF). However if you are entering data manually the odds are you don’t have elevation or heart rate data, which is normally associated with GPS devices which brings us onto the next option.

Most athletes sync data directly from their GPS device to TrainingPeaks, often through a service such as Garmin Connect or Map My Fitss. This takes the GPS and associated HR, power, cadence e.t.c. data and uploads it as a GPX file, seamlessly giving you data within moments of finishing your workout for full analysis by you and your coach.

The final option is for those who use devices that don’t sync automatically or are temporarily refusing to for whatever reason. You can upload most fitness files to TrainingPeaks and it will do the rest for you.

Now your data is on TrainingPeaks, what’s next? First of all the initial workout screen looks quite different, if we uploaded a fitness file most of our data fields will be filled, like so:

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Also there are boxes on the right for description as well as pre/post activity comments. The description will normally include information from your coach, where the pre and post activity boxes are for you to fill out and engage with your coach through. Even if you’re not working with a coach they can prove useful for reference in future.

As an example I’m going to pull up a ride I did recently to Windsor and back with the club. It was a headwind on the way out with a lengthy cafe stop and a more spirited ride home.

To get into the nitty gritty of our workout we click on the “Analyze” tab at the top right of the page, which takes us to a screen where we can view a map (if GPS data is present), and a selection of graphs, let’s take a look at the most popular charts.

HR only

This chart is simply referred to as “graph” by TrainingPeaks, and hopefully your GCSE maths will kick in to help you decipher the information. When you first open the chart there will only be limited data, sometimes just the elevation profile (greyed out area running along the bottom) and heart rate(red line). To start number crunching , we need to click on the data values in the top right of the graph. By selecting a data field we’d like to see, such as RPM (cadence), we simply click on the tab and select “show”

HR and cadence

Now we have our cadence data, we can review it and look for relationships in our RPM and HR. However looking at such a large amount of data it’s difficult to make out exactly what happened, there were lots of points where I was freewheeling which causes the data to jump up and down erratically. To help us get some quality data we can use the smoothing bar (top left of the graph) to remove some of the erroneous data and give us a clearer picture.

Smoothed

There we go, much better, and I can now see that as expected, my heart rate increased when my cadence increased, no surprises there. However what if we wanted to look at an area that interests us? We can select an area by clicking and dragging the mouse to draw a shaded section over an selection of data, and click zoom at the top of the page to punch in for a better look.

Zoomed

From here we can take a closer look at any data which interests us. It may be that you want to look at your data on a climb or if you see a particularly high/low reading and want to know what caused it. Here we can see a few gaps in the data which are likely the result of traffic lights, or perhaps data dropout.

However interesting cadence and heart rate are, we probably want to see the bigger picture and all the data available to us. To achieve this we click on another value we’re not seeing, such as speed (shown here as KPH), and click “show all”. This gives us a much more comprehensive graph as shown below. I also selected “show zones” on BPM to give us some extra data. This is represented by the red horizontal bars, the lightest shade representing zone 1, and the darkest red zone 6.

HR zones

If this is a bit busy for you, you can start to remove irrelevant information. While I appreciate the fact that my device recorded temperature, it’s not really providing me with any useful data aside from the fact it was warmer in my house than in the Berkshire countryside. To remove the data I can click on the C (celcius) button at the top and select “hide”. If I wanted to focus on a singular data field such as speed, I could even select it at the top of the page and click on “hide others”, which would isolate my speed reading. There’s hours of fun to be had here, hours I tell you.

The final area worth highlighting is the relationship between the graphs and the map. If I look at the huge peak in speed, cadence and heart rate, I can hover my mouse over it on the graph and it will also highlight the point on the map where I went guns for glory through the Waterworks. Standard.

Waterworks

Next up is a selection of graphs which you can choose from the graphs button at the top of page (bar chart icon to the right), giving us a visual representation of peak HR and speed, along with time spent in each zone.

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There is a huge library available for you to look through, some far more useful than others (second by second breakdown of your ride anyone?). You can organise your data page to include the graphs and charts that matter to you and this will be saved for future workouts of the same type. Swimming and running charts work in a similar fashion, but using different data.

So that’s the basic features of workout analysis, now we move onto the “dashboard” view where we find the most powerful tools in TrainingPeaks, those that summarise our total fitness and fatigue. Before we start, let’s have a look at the PMC (performance management chart)

PMC

Here our TSS is displayed as red dots, our IF as blue dots, CTL as a blue line, ATL as a pink line and TSB as a yellow line. But what does this mean? I’ll explain each of these metrics in detail. I recommend you get comfy.

Training Stress Score (TSS)

This is the most important metric used by Training Peaks, it gives you an insight into how much stress was placed upon the body during the session.There are various versions of TSS which I will go into shortly. True TSS only requires power and duration to calculate, as these are two very objective ways of measuring your effort. This is perhaps a subject for another day, but all other methods of measuring exertion; pace, elevation and speed by weather/bad GPS data, and HR by other physiological factors such as illness or stress. By calculating the amount of exertion in a workout, TrainingPeaks calculates how much it will have improved your fitness, and how long it will take you to recover from the effort. 

At this point it is worth giving you some context for your TSS figures, 100 represents an hour flat out, or it could represent two hours at 50% effort, maybe even 4 hours at 25% effort. It could also represent half an hour at 200% of threshold,  but if you manage that your thresholds probably need updating.

rTSS

Although running power meters are starting to become available, most people still use a trusty GPS watch to track their runs, and rTSS will help you calculate an estimation of fatigue in absence of accurate power data. To calculate rTSS more data is required, namely speed (pace), duration, elevation gain and elevation loss. Using this data TrainingPeaks is able to estimate the level of exertion during the workout. This is not as accurate as using a power meter, but is understood to be the second most accurate way of measuring TSS.

sTSS

This is used to calculate TSS for swim workouts, and is less accurate than rTSS and pure TSS. This simply looks at the distance you covered over time to give you a number. TrainingPeaks still consider sTSS to be in beta so may be subject to change in the near future.

hrTSS

This simply uses your HR data over time to calculate a TSS value, however this is considered to be one of the less accurate ways of measuring your exertion. This is because heart rate takes much longer to respond to increases or reduction in exertion than other methods, and as a result is more suited to longer, steadier workouts than interval based workouts.

tTSS

This catchy little number is an experimental version or hrTSS which takes into account your resting heart rate to calculate TSS, however is considered to be the least accurate way of measuring TSS as it is still in an experimental stage, and will only be used where insufficient data is available to give you any other TSS score.

All of these values require threshold data to give you a value.What is an all out effort for you may be a leisurely Sunday morning jog for Mo Farah, and TrainingPeaks needs to know what your threshold values for each sport are. This is functional threshold power for TSS, threshold pace for rTSS, threshold swim pace (normally calculated over 1500M) for sTSS, threshold HR for hrTSS, along with resting and threshold HR for tTSS. Anybody who has trained with me will be aware of the initial onslaught of fitness testing early in the programme to give us the numbers we need to train to, and calculate fitness.

Phew! That was tough work I know, hope you’re still with me. Thankfully it’s all downhill from here. The next metrics we need to look at are CTL, ATL, TSB and IF, apologies for all the acronyms, it shall all become clear soon.

Critical Training Load (CTL)

This is represented as a thick blue line in the PMC and represents your long term training load. TSS can vary wildly throughout a week, shooting up on tough days and then dropping to 0 on rest days,  CTL averages this value and measures your training load over time. In an ideal world this would be gently increasing for the majority of the season, with ebbs and flows along the way as we recover from tough weeks of training and/or races. However we don’t live in an ideal world and this line will raise and fall as work, illness and family get in the way of structured training. On weeks like this the line will drop slowly though, and is there to ease your anxiety at the prospect of seeing a week of zeros in there TSS column following a period of illness or work commitments.

Fatigue (ATL)

This number averages your TSS over the last seven days to give you a figure to represent fatigue as. If this number is high your are promoting a change in your fitness, if this number is low you will likely perform better during workouts and at events. This line needs to ebb and flow more than others to ensure you are getting enough rest.

Form (TSB)

This stands for Training Stress Balance and is a mirror image of fatigue, representing how well you will perform at an event. You want your fatigue to be low and your form high when you take the start line at an event, and this can be achieved by using the dotted lines at the end of the PMC to calculate what form you will be in come race day. You can use this line to maximise your form on race day by adding and editing workouts in the days running up to your race to try to perfect your taper. This is trial and error for the most part, but you’ll get a feel for what works for you over the years.

Intensity Factor

Represented by blue dots on the PMS chart, this shows us how intense a workout was, short and sharp sessions will give a high value, with longer/easier workouts giving a much lower number. These blue dots at a glance can give you an impression of how intensive your workouts have been, and whether you need to increase or decrease the intensity of workouts given your goals and point in the season.

Along with the PMC are a number of other, more self explanatory charts available on the dashboard, such as pie charts denoting time spent training in each discipline, bar charts listing elevation per week, time spent in HR zones, pretty much all the data you could wish for.

That’s the very basics of TrainingPeaks, how to analyse a workout and how to analyse your overall fitness. Well done for making it this far through all the acronyms, I’ll reward you with a few top tips for getting the most out of the software.

-You can add target events by clicking on the day the event is held on in calendar view, and selecting events from the list of activities that appear. Here you can not only add the race type and targets, but it also gives you a countdown to your event on the home screen view, including predicted race form to keep you honest.

-If you upload an activity from a generic fitness file, or from devices that don’t recognise certain sports, click on the small logo (normally defaults to a stopwatch if unsure), and it will allow you to change activity type, ensuring it goes towards your totals.

-The data range on all charts can be changed, allowing you to evaluate your progress outside of the default 90 days. Settings for charts can be found by clicking the three horizontal lines found when you hover your cursor over the chart in question.

-All charts can be made full screen by clicking on the two arrows in the top right hand of each chart when your cursor hovers over it.

-Ensure all your data is up to date, threshold pace/power values should be updated every two months, along with your weight, threshold heart rate, and any other data TrainingPeaks asks you for, this will all help with accuracy of the data.

-TrainingPeaks can be used to track your equipment, allowing you to keep up to date with how many miles have gone on your shoes, wheels or tyres. These can add up rapidly without you realising and it’s important to replace them before it’s too late, in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

-TrainingPeaks can also be used to track calories, weight, sleep quality, hydration, steps, and many more values. Click on the appropriate day, select metrics, and input as much or as little data as you like. This can all be tracked via graphs on the dashboard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, listen to your body over the numbers. TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool and when used correctly will go a long way to improving your performance on race day, but at the end of the day you are the only one who really knows how you’re feeling. If TrainingPeaks is telling you to push but you feel exhausted, listen to your body.