Head Games with Peloton Bike Statistics: the challenge of calibrating my nervous system  

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I have a love-hate relationship with my Peloton bike.

Love: Easy access, anytime, any length, intense workouts with great music—not just on the bike. I also do their Pilates and light weights strength classes.

Hate: I am always so discouraged on the Peloton. It’s the statistics. The Peloton bike offers metrics up the wazoo and I can’t get them out of my head or my body. The bike tracks cadence (leg speed) and resistance (how hard it is to push against the pedal). Resistance can be dialed up or down by the rider. And, as the instructors always say in the intro to their rides, those two numbers (cadence and resistance) come together in a moment-to-moment output number (measured in watts) and at the end of the ride I have a single total output number, against which to gauge my previous efforts. Instructors cue a range for each of those numbers during the ride—for example, cadence 90-100 and resistance 35-45. I can barely ever maintain even the minimum resistance and cadence. So, that’s disheartening.

Then there are the comparative stats—the leaderboard, on which I can choose to track two different rankings—where I measure up against others who are “here now” riding simultaneously, or I can track my performance up against all others who have ever done the ride. More disheartenment. I am always in the bottom 5-10% of all riders who have ever done the ride. Every time.

This “reality” does not match my self-identity as an athlete. Yes, I recognize that I’m 56 years old and not as strong as I used to be. And, I am still quite strong. When I’m outside running or biking, I observe that I am not in the bottom 5-10% of others engaged in the same activity. Yet the Peloton metrics feed my personal narrative of insufficiency and I doubt my own strength. This doesn’t make me want to work harder, to push through, to climb the leaderboard, it makes me wonder why I bother.

I had heard from friends with Peloton bikes that calibration was a thing. As in, some bikes are calibrated hard and some are calibrated easy. Information I heard intellectually, but didn’t actually relate to myself. My nervous system decided that my bike was speaking truth to me about my strength.

My eyes opened this past Labor Day weekend. That’s when I rode a friend’s Peloton bike, my first experience of a calibration gap. My friend told me in advance that her bike is calibrated easy. This was even confirmed by a second friend who has ridden both bikes. Friend 2 assured me that my bike is calibrated hard. I was still doubtful. Until I rode Friend 1’s bike.

I did a 45-minute climb ride with Christine. My previous PR for the same genre of ride, with the same instructor, was 218 total output. My new PR?  438.

In case you’re wondering if I’d revolutionized by workout regime in the interim and accessed new untapped wells of strength, the answer is—no. All other factors are pretty much the same. If anything, I’m going through a stressful time in my life. I’m more tired than usual. I feel less perky in my workouts. Yes, those assessments are completely subjective. I don’t measure myself anywhere on workouts, except on the Peloton. I stopped measuring when I realized that the downside was more discouraging than the upside was encouraging. I’d put pressure on myself. The joy of a success was fleeting, compared to the pits of the you’re-not-so-strong-today-are-you? days. I can confirm that my calibration with running partners had not changed, which tells me that I am not breaking new strength barriers.

The wild increase in my PR was all just calibration. I knew that. I really (really) knew that. And yet, as I was riding, I felt revitalized. Stronger. More willing to push harder. While the higher PR was all due to calibration, I’m guessing that there was some small portion of that increase that was the result of the extra motivation of hitting the bigger numbers, not always falling off the bottom of the proposed ranges.

My mind knows that nothing is different, except the numbers, which are untrustworthy in both directions. And my nervous system takes its motivational cues from whatever baseless stats it’s served.

What a head game! Compare and despair! You are your only benchmark! And so on. We’ve all heard these truisms a million times. When will that message hit my nervous system?

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