Running With Too Much Data
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I started running when I was twelve. I didn't have a watch, and didn't see a reason to have one. If I needed to time myself for something, I used one of my dad's old watch faces, but that was rarely necessary. I ran based on how I felt, and measured distance with the odometer of my family's pickup truck. When I was seventeen, my track coach insisted we all get watches. Nothing fancy, just a cheap Timex from Walmart. Mine was maybe ten dollars.
We timed our intervals; mile repeats, 800's, 400's, 200's. My coach recorded everything, but I didn't really think about it. I learned what running a 6 minute mile felt like, what an 8 minute mile felt like. I learned what pace I could maintain for a mile or two or three. I learned when my body would be able to push.
In college, I kept my Timex. We trained more by time than by distance, so if we had a 60 minute easy run on the docket one day, we didn't know (or really care) how far we ran. Our coaches measured loops for us on a golf course and we did interval work there. Sometimes we would wear heartrate monitors and every so often, we'd all do a VO2 max test. Our data was stored on paper in haphazard piles on my coaches desk. I largely ran on feel, and learned to push past discomfort and pain, even when I maybe shouldn't have.
I was in college when GPS watches started becoming popular, but they were huge, the size of a cell phone wrapped around a wrist. When I was a super senior, I got a Garmin. If I touched it wrong, it would stop recording mid-run. Eventually I upgraded, getting better watches and thereby, getting better data. Now, I can monitor my heartrate while I run and it's semi-accurate. I can monitor my cadence. My watch tells me when I should rest and for how long. It predicts how fast I can run a marathon or a 5k. If I upload a map to my watch, it guides me, step by step, along my journey. My Strava data shows improvements and setbacks over time, and while it can be useful to have enormous amounts of data at my fingertips, it's also a bit superfluous.
If I listen to my body, I know when my heartrate is high. If I listen to my body, I know when my cadence is good. If I listen to my body, I know when I'm rested and I know when I'm burnt out. It's useful to know how far I've run, but does it actually matter? A couple weekends ago, I ran 100 miles and less than three days later, my watch told me I was fully recovered. My body felt nowhere near fully recovered, obviously.
It's not all useless though. Tracking workouts can by motivating because you can see your progress over time. Having a community in person or online (like on Strava) can help motivate you and inspire you as well. But relying too heavily on a device to provide data and feedback can have the perverse effect of making you even more disconnected from your body. Not to mention they are not always the most accurate. A 2016 paper in the International Journal of Geographical Information Science determined that fitness trackers are guilty of a “systematic overestimation of distance,” as well as an overestimation of energy expenditure (calories).
Human bodies are complex, nuanced, and constantly changing. Relying on devices to make sense of our bodies is hopeful, but maligned. You are your own best data point, and you know your body better than any watch or computer. Watches are useful tracking tools and data is helpful when you need it. What's even more helpful though, is paying attention to the signals your body is sending you. Fatigue, sleep deprivation, stress, grief, work, travel, lifestyle, and diet can all affect how you feel, and your watch probably won't be able to capture it all.
My approach to running technology has become based around necessity and safety. I use a Coros Apex, which I bought for the battery life. My old Garmin would die after 12 hours, and I knew I'd want better battery life for my 100 milers. My Coros held up for about 29 and a half hours before it tuckered out. The ability to upload maps is useful in remote areas where phone signal is nonexistent. I think the most useful aspect of having loads of running data is simply the ability to see my progress and setbacks over time. After all, there's no better way to see how far you've come than by (occasionally) looking behind you.
P.S. Read about the best running watches for 2022 here, read about running "by feel," here, or buy a Strava Premium subscription ($5/month!) here.