Zone Training With LEDs

Data have always been critical to endurance athletes and coaches. But as computing power has allowed for increasingly powerful number crunching in increasing smaller packages, the amount of data available can become noisy, overwhelming, paralyzing, and – at worst – totally useless. Wahoo’s series of ELEMNT cycling computers presents more data than any cyclist could ever need, but they also offer a simple – yet surprisingly effective – and unique method of displaying those data that make them accessible in a truly valuable way.

The full-sized Wahoo ELEMNTs – both the original ELEMNT and the more compact ELEMNT Bolt but not the ELEMNT MINI – have a strip of colored LEDs at the top. The ELEMNT can light up any number of the eight pill-shaped LEDs as well as change the color of the LEDs it chooses to illuminate. I discovered the value of these LEDs as a result of training on the velodrome, where the high speeds and tight corners make it hard to focus on anything other than the black line you are trying to hold. When I ride on the track, I have my LEDs mapped to my power zones, but they can also be mapped to HR Zones, to your Strava Live Segments, or to turn-by-turn directions. They can also be set to indicate speed zones of text/phone call alerts, though I find that to be of limited use.

The real value for me is in the power or HR zones. On the track, I have them set to power zones, because at race efforts – riding well over 50kmh (30mph) on a 250m track, I can pick up color. I know the power band I want to stay in on the track, and while I can’t see numbers, I can use the LED color to make sure I’m in my zone. A string of five orange LEDs means I’m right where I should be, even if I am hurting and wish I could let them fade into yellow or green.

On the road, I more often use them to indicate HR zone. I’ve spent a long time training primarily – and even exclusively – by power, and that’s still the number I care most about, but I find it useful to keep track of my HR zone and, especially, to correlate it with my power output. I don’t care much about my specific HR; but I do like to know what zone I’m in, and especially to know if it correlates well with my power output. I find the colored LEDs a less intrusive check that pairs well with a simple large display showing power and time. Could I simply display my HR or HR Zone? Of course. But that becomes yet another number that I have to pay attention to and process. Set up this way, I feel like I can commit one part of my brain to thinking about colors and another to thinking about numbers, and that just seems easier. Most of the time, the LEDs just are a subtle reminder in the background that I can tune out and focus on power. But if my HR starts to drift up because I’m tired, or because it’s hot, or because I just don’t have good mojo on the day, they can be a gentle reminder to factor that in. Likewise, if I see my HR lagging a lot as my power spikes up, that’s another simple yet effective cue about how much training load I might be carrying.

At the same time, if I see the LEDs jump up and also fall back down in tight rhythm with my power output, that’s a nice indication that all systems are working as expected.

Now with almost 20 years of data-intensive training behind me – first as a rower, then as a triathlete, and now as a gravel-racer and track-cyclist, I’m increasingly a believer in the value of listening to your body. And data can help with that. As long as you don’t become a slave to the numbers or to precision that simply is not there. It’s a lot harder to look for a signal in the noise when the signal is as simple and basic as a color-coded zone. To the extent that the ELEMNT’s LEDs have made data simpler, they’ve also made those data more valuable.

Disclaimer: The gange at Wahoo sent me the two larger ELEMNT computers after Dirty Kanza free of charge. But I bought my KICKR. And I was not asked to write this nor compensated for doing so. The Wahoo folks won’t even know until this gets published. I originally wrote it for Zwift’s Tri Team blog, but I don’t think it ever got published. And I thought it was generally useful enough to share…

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