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Learnings from a Conversation with Kilian Jornet

Domain knowledge and field experience are key to creating impact through data science. For our projects, we rely on surrounding ourselves with world experts in their fields. With them we have opened our YouTube channel, to kick off with the series of interviews: Driven by Science. For the first episode, we spoke with Kilian Jornet: the ultimate mountain athlete. We discussed sports performance, mental health, technology, nature preservation, and, of course, data science. Kilian openness provided us with very interesting insights. And actually, the video triggered quite some online discussions around feeling and data in sports. We reflect on that here.

A Conversation with Kilian Jornet | Driven by Science #1, by PickleTech.

Sports Science has been shaken by the increasing amount of new data recording devices available for training: sports watches, HR bands, multiple portable sports specific sensors, such as power meters; lactate or glucose level kits, plus all the sophisticated lab equipment. The amount of data to analyze has increased to the point where it is just not easy to make sense of all that, and maintain a scientific perspective.

It is thus not surprising that out of all the interesting details Kilian provided on how he approaches training, his explanation on the use of data and feeling prompted quite some engagement and interesting discussions online.

Data vrs. Feeling Data & Feeling & Science

Some people have interpreted his words to raise up a data vrs. feeling dichotomy. That is far from our understanding of it. Kilian emphasized a recurrent issue we have seen in sports. The data and technology available are impressive. Yet, there are aspects of the athlete’s training load and adaptations, like its stress levels, that are not properly captured by data-driven solutions. However, these are still expected to heavily impact its performance. In order to perform a comprehensive analysis of the athlete’s records and sessions, on top of the available data we benefit from incorporating the athlete’s perceptions on its own mental and physical status as analysis variables. This requires years of experience, and above all, a systematic approach to training preparation for a meaningful calibration. It is not about data vrs. feeling, it is about being scientific with the training preparation while considering all these variables. No doubt Kilian is, given how he monitors his training. Actually his views on science are all over the interview, and he has mastered validation like no other mountain athlete.

Capturing the athlete’s perception, the feeling, and aspects of the athlete’s mental health status, is the driver of one of the main research projects at PickleTech. We are aware of the many drawbacks and limitations of some hyped AI solutions. But we also believe data science and advances in Machine Learning should not be disregarded here. Coupled with physiology and sports science experimentation, these have the potential to provide athletes and their teams with tools to better understand, monitor, and systematically act on the athlete’s feeling.

Powered by Data, Driven by Science

Kilian is certainly not the only elite athlete to perceive his feeling as a major driving variable for training preparation. While his story had already been in the spotlight, these last days an article on the amazing case of Norwegian Olympic men’s triathlon champion, Kristian Blummenfelt, was published by The New York Times. Triathlon involves three disciplines, so mastering performance and training preparation is by no means a child’s game. Kristian’s story goes on how together with his performance team, using sensors, masks, nutrition, heat control, and even oxygen isotopes, but above all, through systematic experimentation, they accomplished major results. Last year Kristian became the new triathlon olympic champion, and in addition he became the person with the fastest (or best?*) time to complete an Ironman. While this is another case of science success, Norwegian Triathlon Olympic team coach, Olav Aleksander Bu, one of the main characters behind the success story recently said on a very interesting interview: When it comes to training load, “the gold standard is the feedback from athletes, how they feel and their reflections, and then, all the other metrics become supportive”. Sounds familiar?

Nature Preservation

Before ending the post, we can not help but acknowledge the views and work the Kilian Jornet Foundation does on nature preservation. Kilian’s genuine desire to preserve nature can be seen in many parts of the interview. It is inspirational to learn this is articulated into educational and scientific projects that aim to impact the world we live in. We all have a lot to do on that, through our daily habits. And if we think in particular about sports, data, and technology, the combination of tools that we could develop are endless. These could help on projects that aim to reduce our negative impact on nature, preserving the mountains and the environments where we all love to exercise. However, we should not wait for someone else to do it, we are all responsible in this quest!


*To read about the challenges of figuring out world best times, and swim strong currents, have a look here or here.

[1] A Conversation with Kilian Jornet | Driven by Science #1: https://youtu.be/ECptJ3giLrw

[2] Why Do They Swim-Bike-Run So Fast? Data: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/18/sports/triathlon-kristian-blummenfelt.html?smid=url-share

[3] Applied triathlon science with Olav Aleksander Bu (Norwegian Triathlon Olympic team) | EP#264: https://scientifictriathlon.com/tts264/