IBM’s own Iron Woman talks about data driven training

By | 4 minute read | July 26, 2016

leadspace image for usa cycling starter counter

In Pursuit: Chasing down data and stronger performance

In 2008, I saved the little bit of energy I had left in my tank to unleash a huge smile as I crossed the finish line of Ironman Lake Placid. I was overjoyed to have completed racing 140.6 miles – which included my first marathon. For six months, I followed a classic endurance training approach: Base, Build, Peak. IBM's iron woman at the finish line seeing the results of her training

Five years and three Ironman races later, I discovered the difference of power.  Threshold tests, max aerobic test, and sprint tests became a regular part of my Tuesday and Thursday mornings at M2 Cycling in San Francisco. I knew my average watts. I relished if I could break 330 watts in sprint test. I talked watts with my friends. And this attention to data paid off. Back on the same cycling course for Ironman Lake Placid in 2013, I finished the bike portion 23 minutes faster. The following year on a flat course at Ironman Maryland, I cut 29 minutes off my cycling time across 112 miles. I was finally learning to embrace data to drive my performance.

Optimal Performance

usa cycling team on a training lap

“They put in what kind of power do we need to produce in order to ride whatever time that we are wanting on that day. And then we can see whether we are above or below that. And it is very simple color coded on whether you are in the red or you are in the green. Did you go too hard? Did you go too easy?”   – USA Cycling Team, Sarah Hammer

IBM recently began a project with USA Cycling Women’s Team Pursuit to use real-time data collection and wearable devices to feed live performance.  While many cyclists (like me) focus on speed, cadence and power, the new data capture mechanisms – like BSXinsight – are allowing the team coaches to collect muscle oxygen information and soon psychology.  They are feeding information back to the cyclists immediately after a workout and real-time during a race through smart glasses.

This data and real-time feedback improves the cyclists efficiency, guides them when to push more, and helps them avoid the dreaded “bonk” when your tank just runs out of fuel.  The results are impressive so far for Team Pursuit – they took home the gold at the World Championships and are on their way to be the best in the world.

Applying Data Driven Training to the Weekend Warrior

Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a 10k enthusiast, an aspiring Ironman, or a regular podium finisher, there are a few essential tips we can all put into practice thanks to the work of USA Cycling and IBM.

Neal Henderson believes that most athletes train in the middle level intensity.  And, even with all the data we have now from Garmin, fitness apps, power meters – we might have too much information to be able to focus. Here are a few practical ways we can put the work of USA Cycling and IBM to work for us:

1) Focus on what’s critical

usa women's cyclist reflects on her performance

“Sport always evolves, sport always changes. That is why records are always being broken. It is not necessarily that you have better athletes. It is that people are learning different methods. And if you are not up on that technology, then you know you are going to fall behind.”
– USA Cycling Team, Sarah Hammer

2) Inspect at your individual response

usa cycling training lap

“We can make changes immediately. We can get our feedback immediately.”
– USA Cycling Team, Sarah Hammer

While you can compare your results across communities like Strava, Runkeeper, and Fitbit, you’ll gain the most improvement by focusing on your own response and output.  Imagine if we could all have dashboards like the one of USA Cycling – or feedback from our treadmill at the gym to help us meet our targets?   Runkeeper is using IBM Cloud to layer in insights from Watson to its running training and routing.

3) Be willing to abandon old models, and use the data to drive results

usa cycling on the start line

“when you feel like you have the tools that you need it just makes you that much sharper.”
– USA Cycling Team, Sarah Hammer

4) Look for tools that will improve your training and racing psychology

usa cycling team review their performance


Neal Henderson believes that psychology can be trained.  Can you become more motivated or more competitive? How can we infuse that mental training into our apps and get actionable insights from the data delivered?  What will a cognitive fitness app look like in 2017?

I’m more excited than ever to map out my training plan for Ironman Lake Placid 2018.  I can’t wait to see the results 10 years after my first race – once I’ve applied real-time analytics, and individual responses to my training program.

You can follow my progress at @stropes or at and learn more about USA Cycling’s technology solution in our 8-week photo essay series.

relief and congratulations at the finish line