Data diet: How unplugging can actually improve your cycling (and your life)

by Dr. Kristin Keim


“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” — Anne Lamott

In our always-on and connected world, it has become far too easy to catch ourselves constantly staring at screens, at work, at home, and on the bike. We have become so connected and yet, at the same time, so disconnected from others and ourselves.

Digital overload is real and so is data overload in the culture of cycling. We are human beings, not human doings. Just as we need to unplug from our phone, computer, and the internet, we athletes also need to unplug from our data, numbers, and watts.

In recent times there has been an increased amount of dialogue around “digital detoxes” — a period in which you give up electronics. Perhaps just reading this sounds intimidating, as if you might lose your mind from full-on digital withdrawal. But there can be real value in going on a data diet. In fact, I’d argue that data diets can be a form of performance enhancement both in sport and in life.

Data diets

Over the years I have heard more and more athletes explain how their power numbers and other data outputs can sometimes cause anxiety. They feel as though they cannot perform optimally because they are not hitting target numbers. It is as if more athletes are training to train instead of training to race.

There seems to be a pervasive disconnect between the art of racing and coaching athletes to become their best physically, mentally and tactically, not to mention efficient with skills. Do not get me wrong, I fully understand and appreciate how power numbers and other performance gadgets have improved performance and perhaps even taken some athletes to an entirely new level. But as with all things, the use of data needs to be in moderation and that is why data diets can be so useful.

First, going on a data diet includes avoiding all forms of performance computers (e.g. Garmin, TrainingPeaks, Whoop, Heart Rate Monitors, etc.), scales to weigh your body and food, social media (e.g. Instagram, Strava, Zwift, Facebook, Twitter), smartphones, and training with music or audio books. Again, there is a time and place for many of these, but there is also a time and place to make sure you know how to train and race with your own mind completely focused on your body and how it feels in the moment.

Can you feel the beating of your heart and hear how your breathing differs when you are riding tempo versus doing sprints? Where does your mind go when you are ascending or descending a rocky cliff? It’s powerful to be able to listen to your internal dialogue and signals from your body. It’s something I feel that many of us have lost contact with given our saturated state of digital overload.

Reliance or even dependence on data can also create a false sense of security. I often hear athletes saying “But my numbers are so good, I just don’t understand why I’m not winning or doing better.” I am sure you have been there too. This loops back to the idea that numbers do not win bike races — athletes do. In order to be your best you have to train all modalities and this includes skills and tactics, which luckily there is not a computer to help with, for now.

Oh wait, there is: your brain. Think of your brain as a computer and do not underestimate the power you gain by reconnecting and training your mental skills too.

Perspectives

Below are some questions and answers from competitive athletes who have benefited from incorporating data diets into their training, racing, and daily lives.

Q: What led you to realize that you did not have a healthy relationship with data?

I don’t think I realized the depth of the issue until I went on the data diet. While I had ridden without power on the single speed, it had been years since riding without a Garmin. Upon reflection, it was like a bad relationship, where you don’t realize how bad it is until you are apart from that person.

Then, like when one keeps looking at the phone hoping for the text from their ex, I kept looking at my handlebars, looking for the Garmin showing power or heart rate. It took over a week before I was not looking for it every couple of seconds, and was able to keep my head up, and look at the world, see things I had ridden by hundreds of times that I had never noticed.

Secondly, I think having that data on your bars for a mountain biker is a mistake. If you are looking at the data on the trails, you aren’t looking where you are going. You are not looking through the corner or picking a good line through a technical section.

The power meter was more of a culprit for me to constantly look at because of that instant, real-time show-of-effort. ‘What power am I making up this five-second climb?’ or ‘I was at x power yesterday through this section, where am I today?’ It became a toxic relationship.

Q: How did data end up hindering your training and racing?

It was paralyzing. I would check myself on every ride. Making sure I was making the right number of power with the right perceived level of effort, ensuring that I had not lost my power since yesterday. I would do this on easy rides, just to make sure I hadn’t gotten slower overnight. I never allowed the number to have a realistic context within the scope of my training. If I did not make that certain number or better, it would really shatter my confidence.

Often, I would wish that I would get sick the next day so I would have a reason why the numbers were not where I wanted them to be. Then of course, after a ride, sitting down for half an hour looking at the charts and data, looking at my weight, and then trying to rank myself against other riders was the usual course. Never being good enough.

I remember telling myself that I would have race confidence if I could get to x watts a kilo for threshold — it would be good enough and I could go into a race knowing I was fast enough. However, when I got there it made no difference in my race confidence. In fact, it may have made it worse, because that number gave me no excuses for why I shouldn’t win. But I was paralyzed, so afraid of not winning that often times I would not even toe the line.

Q: What did you learn from the data diet?

There is so much more that goes into and comes from riding a bike. I think the unreasonable focus on data is just a symptom of modern society, like not listening to each other or listening to our body … like looking at social media and believing what is reported on social media is all we need to know about our friends.

We sell ourselves short, solely focusing on the power numbers, irrespective of how we felt on the bike, how fast we really went, or any techniques we might have learned during the ride.

Q: Do you have any advice or thoughts you would like to share with other cyclists and coaches about the downside of data and the importance or data diets?

I have always approached life’s decisions and changes by looking at the possible downsides. So as applied to this, what are the possible downsides to riding without power for say 30 days? Or only riding with power during those certain workouts where it really provides an advantage?

Honestly, this is something I could have done, and many times would do on my own. I think the data diet (or “data divorce” as I like to call it) takes courage and confidence from both the athlete and the coach. Confidence in each other’s ability to train or coach. I think one other thing I noticed is getting off the power train allowed me to cross-train without guilt. I was so focused on the KJ burned that I did not feel good unless I had that number.

Unplugging every now and then can be a positive mental training strategy or even addiction intervention. I typically advise that athletes take a few days a month without data and especially that they do not rely on data or devices during group rides or what I call soul/fun rides. Also, try racing without data and see how this impacts your focus and confidence. There is no cookie-cutter answer, but I hope this at least gets some of you to rethink your connection or your athletes’ connection to data.

Reasons to unplug

In summary, here are four reasons unplugging can improve your training, racing, and life outside sport:

1. Reset: We need to reset and rethink how much power we give to our devices and data and if we have lost a connection with our mind and body. Data diets are about finding time to work on other skills and internal/intrinsic motivators that will help you perform optimally in sport and life. You have to reset your computer periodically, so why not make it a goal to reset yourself too?

2. Reboot: If you are due a data diet it is best to try and reboot on a group ride, during your transition/off-season or training races. Unplug for a day, week, or training block in order to learn how to connect back to riding and training by listening to your mind and body. Have an honest talk with your coach and see where you might be able to utilize a break from data as part of your training progression. Go for soul rides, and remember why you first started riding and racing. I doubt any of us started riding because we could not wait to check our power numbers or Strava.

3. Reassess: What can you learn from the diet and how can you improve your connection or overcome data addiction and have a healthier relationship with data and devices? This is a good time to reassess and unplug from all devices and take the opportunity to focus on other aspects of your life and communities outside of cycling.

If you find that everything revolves around cycling, it might be time to find other identities and activities. Add more balance and substance to your life and relationships. The detox is a powerful way to look at yourself in the mirror and see how negatively you can be impacted by constantly comparing yourself to others, to other people’s training and life. Many people also tend to have improved mental health while on the data diet.

4. Reconnect: Going on a data diet can actually help you become a happier and possibly faster athlete. It can reconnect you to the great things about cycling and racing friends, teammates, empowering/inspiring others, gaining more control over your physical and mental well-being, and having a renewed and more realistic relationship with data and the digital world of sport and life.

Today riding is my form of meditation because I head out on my bike without a computer or any form of data. Instead a canopy of Pacific Northwest evergreens accompanies me. The point of the data diet is not to eliminate gadgets from your life, but instead to assign them the proper space and role in your life, on and off the bike.

Remember, sometimes we need to unplug from the data in order to re-plug into the human side of sport. You are always more than a number. And at the end of the day, numbers really do not win bike races.

About the author

Dr. Keim completed her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a focus in Health Psychology, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Sport/Performance Psychology, as well as her M.A. in Sport Psychology. She is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and Member of the US Olympic Committee Sport Psychology and Mental Training Registry.

Dr. Keim is the owner of Keim Performance Consulting, LLC and has experience working with athletes of all ages, levels, and abilities. Her research focuses are on mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs) in athletes, mindfulness, depression in athletes, athlete identity, and the transition (retirement) out of sport. She attended the 2016 Rio Olympics where she worked with Olympians in both cycling and triathlon events. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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