When Numbers Overshadow Values

Analyzing numbers are a great tool for training and tracking progress – in cycling, the feeling of hitting your target watts perfectly on a set of tough intervals, or reaching a new fastest time up a strava segment is exhilarating. However, intensely tracking numbers became a slippery slope for me, when my focus on numbers began to become more important than their inherent value.  I started thinking about numbers more recently after my coach and friend Nina started a great social media page, @athletemindspace, that “talks about the tough stuff athletes face.” The post below surprised me with how prevalent eating disorders are in collegiate athletes:

Always seeking improvement is important as an athlete, and I’ve always liked feeling “in control” – so being able to analyze, track, control, and improve my numbers in cycling has always been exciting to me. I wanted to track every number in my quest to continually reach new personal “high scores.” However, the numbers began to matter to me more than the actual value or context. If I came in first place at one race, surely anything less than a podium at the next race would be a failure, right? But I was only thinking of the raw numbers – of my power average, of my weight, of my finishing place, of my target heart rate, of my mileage and speed – not of the value of the experience, my improvement, or the factors that put those numbers into context.

In college, that desire to track numbers spilled into my relationship with food, and I began tracking every calorie, planning everything I would eat that day in advance, and controlling what kinds of food I would “stay away from.” I thought that restriction and tracking was what I needed to do to be dedicated. I thought that there was a golden number I needed to hit on the scale, and that anything smaller would be faster. Trying to reach the “right numbers” clouded the real reason I was riding.

Though I didn’t think that doing the habits above were harmful, I was lucky to realize that I was engaging in disordered eating practices and begin to change them, before they developed into a full eating disorder. 

When I lost some weight before a race season in college, a fellow cyclist asked me, “you must be training hard, have you lost weight?” It was meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such – but in my “always be reaching the high score” mentality, I thought about how now I could never let my weight fluctuate back up again after the season, or else I might seem like I’ve “let myself go” or become less committed as an athlete. In reality, daily weight fluctuation is normal, as is weight fluctuation outside of a race season. Looking back now, that kind of thinking was harmful, and unrealistic, but I thought that calorie restriction was just another way I could be dedicated and committed.

The power to weight ratio in cycling is real, but you can’t look at the numbers alone. Quickly losing weight in an unhealthy way will only hurt your power output, since performance needs to be fueled. Once the weight and results numbers I was tracking started making me rethink my personal value and self-worth, I knew it was becoming a problem. I was never at an unhealthy weight, but I didn’t realize that the mindsets and habits I had around food were harmful until I heard the stories of other athletes. Thanks to them, I was lucky to realize that I was engaging in harmful eating practices and could begin to change them, before they developed into an eating disorder. 

Me and a college teammate, elated after a tough race, smiling because I love bikes and I wasn’t thinking about arbitrary food rules.

Throughout this past year and all the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, the forced lack of control in other aspects of life has made me realize that I don’t need to obsessively track and control every number in order to improve or be a stronger athlete. I’m not as lean as I was in college, but I’ve continued to get stronger. I don’t track all my calories anymore, but I haven’t suddenly gained a ton of weight (which was the irrational fear I had around calorie counting). I can’t always control my schedule, but I don’t feel extremely anxious about rearranging my workouts if it’s necessary. I still struggle with body image and occasional guilt around food (as many women and athletes do), but now I know that I’m not alone in those thoughts. 

The impact of Covid-19 changed my relationship with this sport, by showing me that not being able to control everything doesn’t mean I won’t improve or be as committed as an athlete.

One of the silver linings of Covid this past year was realizing that I can’t (and shouldn’t) rigidly control everything. Relaxing that control has given me a huge amount of relief and freedom, alleviating training anxiety and allowing me to refocus on the value of cycling. I’m trying to focus on improvement and quality in my training, rather than just the raw numbers without context.

Balancing self-love and self-improvement is a continuing effort for me – I was told once that the act of riding a bike is just the relentless pursuit of balance, but that’s what all of life is in the end. You have to set aside time in life to devote to training, but too much focus on the numbers and you forget the big picture. I’m still learning that being an athlete isn’t a cookie cutter image, and fitness isn’t something you can measure on a scale. Every time someone shares their story on how weight and sport have intersected for them it helps me, so I hope that these thoughts might resonate with someone else too.  

Me at “The Snake time-trial”, the only race I’ve done in 2021 so far – I can’t wait to get back to more racing in the sport I love this year!

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