The power of analytics – lessons from a world-class coach

Christoph Papenfuss
Cycling is a tough sport

Cycling Power Meter

A few months ago, I wrote about my personal use of analytics to improve cycling performance. This post continues to be quite popular. There are indeed a lot of parallels between the use of analytics in sports and in business. So, I thought why not learn a few things from one of the leading experts in this area? Why not learn from somebody who is driving the use of analytics in sports? Why not listen to the person who has developed one of the first software packages for analyzing cycling and workout data?

Please meet Hunter Allen. He is widely known as one of the top experts in the world in coaching endurance athletes using power meters in combination with powerful analytical software. Hunter and I met almost six years ago. He hosted a cycling camp in Solvang, California. During those seven days out on the road, he taught me a lot about using analytics to improve my cycling performance. And I was lucky to catch Hunter over the phone the other day.

Christoph: You started your career in professional cycling. Professional cycling, like other sports, has a lot of old-fashioned traditions. What led you to take a fresh look at the traditional training methods?
Hunter: Actually one of my coaching clients asked me to train them with a power meter and I figured what the heck, I can do that! He was a VERY early adopter of the technology and that forced me to really learn it and figure out how to understand what it meant from a coaching, sports science and racing perspective.

Cycling Power Meter
High Tech in Sports - A Cycling Power Meter

Christoph: You advocate the use of high-tech training devices like power meters for cycling, GPS and accelerometers for running. These devices record a lot of data about each workout: heart-rate, power output, pace and cadence to just name a few. Why record so much data? Shouldn’t an experienced athlete know how to listen and react to his/ her body?
Hunter: We have to listen to our body, but sometimes our bodies don’t tell the truth or can’t give us enough information to help us make the right decision. For example, this past summer, I was training for the Masters Nationals races and I was in the last two weeks of the hardest part of the training. Normally my Heart Rate would be in the 170-174 range when I am riding at threshold power (equivalent to your highest avg. power you can maintain for an hour), but my cardiovascular system was quite fatigued and I could barely get my heart rate to come over 158bpm. However, my watts were higher than ever and I was doing more work than I had in a long time. Had I been going on heart rate, I would have rested and denied myself optimal training. The more data the better, because it allows us to organize it into useful information from which we can make correct training decisions.

Christoph: Back in 2002 you started developing a popular and sophisticated software package called WKO+ (Workout Plus). It allows athletes to upload the data from their power meters and running watches. What happens with the data in the software?
Hunter: Our Software is no more than a fairly sophisticated program that can take multiple ‘channels’ of data, organize it into charts and graphs which are presented in an easy to understand fashion. One of the keys to this is the ability to chart the data over any time period you want to chart it. So, I can tell if an athlete has improved in their sprint power over the last year, last six months, last month or even week to week. Data is useless until you can intelligently turn it into information and we’ve done that through a visual software package that allows the user incredible flexibility.

Christoph: Can you give us an example of what athletes can learn from the huge amount of data? Can even highly experienced athletes that really know their body well use these insights to their advantage?
Hunter: One of the greatest things that an athlete can learn is their own personal relationship between a ‘training dose’ and their bodies ‘response’ to that training load. Once they know that two weeks of training in the mountains and one week of rest will give them the fitness needed for a race, then they can begin to plan and predict a peak performance. This is the biggest revolution that we have been able to create: Peak performance prediction. If I have enough data from an athlete, I can plan their training nearly perfectly so that on the exact day or week that they want to have the best ride of their life, they will. That’s “powerful”! 😉

Christoph: Athletes often have to make critical decisions about their training schedules, their race tactics and their general behavior out on the road? Does the information provided by your software help athletes make better decisions? If yes, can you provide an example?
Hunter: For sure, this is something that can help them make decisions. Some of the best data is their race data. We can learn if they are pedaling too much for example! It seems counterintuitive, but the best, most winningest road racers often pedal the least in races. Cycling is a sport of energy conservation and the best racers save the most energy and then use it when they need it. Another example could be in a long solo ride, as a rider might use their power meter for pacing their energy output so that they can finish strong.

WKO+
Analytics in Cycling - Software provides critical insights

Christoph: Athletes often work as a team. The team includes coaches and other athletes. Does your software make a contribution towards better communication and collaboration between these different parties?
Hunter: One of the benefits of using these devices is the added sense of accountability that an athlete has, since they have been given a workout prescription and if they don’t do it, then when they upload their completed training file to me, then I’ll know exactly what they didn’t do. So, it helps the athlete with program adherence and the coach with communication. Without this information, I can only guess if the athlete is training correctly.

Christoph: We see more and more athletes train and race according to your methods. Would you say that training and racing with a power meter can lead to a competitive advantage?
Hunter: It’s a competitive advantage if you learn how to use it properly. Just sticking one of these on your bike isn’t going to make you a faster cyclist. You have to know some of the basic power training principles and then follow them. If you do that, then yes, absolutely it’s an advantage.

Christoph: The world of sports is often characterized by a culture of old traditions. Do you find it hard to promote these new training approaches?
Hunter: I don’t find it hard, because I am by nature a very flexible and open minded person. I am always open to new ideas, thoughts and approaches, but not everyone is. Any change takes time and here we are nine years after our first software version came out and still I am teaching new coaches, new athletes about it. I look forward to learning about the next tech tool that will help my athletes as well!

Thanks for your time, Hunter!

About Hunter Allen:

Hunter AllenHunter Allen’s goal has always been to teach athletes how to maximize their training and racing potential through professional analysis of their power data. Hunter’s power training method has built success at all levels of cycling and endurance sports, training such well known professional & Olympic athletes such as Jeremiah Bishop (Volkswagen-Trek), 2008 US National Champion Mountain Biker, Daniel Lloyd (CerveloTest Team), 2008 Vuelta de Extremadura, Sue Haywood, 2007 World Mountain Bike 24 Champion, Dan Fleeman (CerveloTest Team), 2008 Winner of Tour of Pyrnees and with the 2008 USA Olympic BMX Team. Hunter is himself a former professional cyclist for Team Navigators and has raced for over 17 years in Europe, South America, U.S. and Canada and has over 40 career victories to his credit. Considered a great all-rounder, he was able to learn a wide variety of race tactics and skill necessary to succeed at the professional level.

Business Analytics and the art of cycling

Road biking is a big passion of mine. The other day I was out on a long training ride with a good friend. One of the nice things about biking is that you can talk a lot on those rides. Since we were talking about different aspects of our work, my friend finally wanted to know what was so special about this “Business Analytics stuff”. How do you best explain that to somebody who is only remotely connected to IT, Finance and management? Luckily, I had a great story to tell him. And it’s not just a regular story. It is actually my personal success story in cycling.

HIGH TECH

About a decade ago, modern technology entered the world of professional cycling. Smart technology became available to measure not only the typical parameters of cycling like speed, distance etc.. This new piece of technology was called a “Powermeter”. This high-tech gadget allowed cyclists to measure advanced data such as power output, pedal torque, cadence etc.. Today some of these devices even measure aerodynamic drag.  Powermeters help athletes like myself to learn about themselves and to perform better. Needless to say, I invested in this technology about five years ago. It is a CycleOps Powertap with Bluetooth technology.

THE ERP OF CYCLING

Ok. But what does that have to do with Business Analytics. Very easy. The Powermeter is my transactional system. It records my ‘business’ on the bike. Second by second. Mile by mile. While I am riding, I can check my speed, power output, cadence and many other things. Just like a good solid ERP system. The gadget allows me to manage the operational aspects of my ‘cycling business’, i.e. I can lower my power output, increase cadence etc..

ENTER ANALYTICS

After each ride, I can then download the ride data. There is an extremely awesome piece of software called WKO+. It was created by two smart cycling professionals that have conducted ground-breaking research. This application helps athletes analyze their ride data. The objective is to become smarter (think knowledge about your own body) and to make better decisions about your training. This is basically Business Analytics for cyclists. Let’s take a look at how this works.

THE DASHBOARD

After each ride, I can analyze a Dashboard. This dashboard provides me with an overview of my most important metrics such as power output, mileage, cadence, time in training zones, etc.. There is a daily and a monthly dashboard. This helps me identify potential issues and to check my overall performance and progress. In Business Analytics, we implement dashboards for our executives and managers. The only difference is that they look at different metrics like sales, margins, profits.

WKO+ dashboard
The cycling dashboard from WKO+

ANALYSIS

If I spot something curious, e.g. an unexpected poor performance on a ride, I can immediately drill down to analyze the detailed data from my ride. This analysis contains a detailed report of some metrics and I can visually analyze the ride second by second. Going through the data, I can spot interesting things like power spikes, rest periods etc.. This helps me put the overall picture together of why I performed in a certain way. The analysis also helps me learn more about myself: what are my boundaries, what are my strengths etc.. The same thing is true for Business Analytics. If we spot some problems or opportunities, we perform analysis using our rich transactional data. This helps us identify critical business insight.

WKO+ detailed ride analysis
The detailed analysis of the ride: power, altitude and more

LOOKING AHEAD

Now that I have understood how and why I performed on my bike I can start using this information to plan and adjust my upcoming training plan. There are some smart algorithms in the software that help predict future performance based on past power-output and training load. Using this inside, I can then fine-tune my training plan and hopefully scare my riding friends by outperforming. Many companies leverage Predictive Analytics to make sense of data and to look ahead. They want to identify customers that might be more profitable in the future. They might want to spot opportunities for cost savings. And they use the insights to formulate and update their business plans.

Planning ahead

THE ROI

My friend now understands clearly what Business Analytics is all about. Since I was able to seriously drop him on a climb he was curious about the ROI of this. Well, the technology has enabled me to learn a ton about myself. I know my boundaries and I am able to push myself much further than I ever have. I was able to survive a grueling 7 day stage race across the Alps and all that with a minimum of preparation. All that by being smart about my racing tactics and most importantly about my training approaches. The same thing is true for businesses. I have worked with companies that have literally transformed the way they do business using the insights offered by modern Business Analytics software. This software now represents the central nervous system of these organizations. Why don’t you try that yourself?

If you are interested in learning more about how I use a powermeter during training, please read my personal blog: