Technology vs. Zen

This topic surfaces a good deal when I discuss proper goal setting and pacing in the weekly replies to my athletes.  There is a crucial distinction between pace and intensity, with intensity being more important due to the myriad factors and extraneous variables that can affect pace.  Many runners love numbers and data, which means they love pace.  However, trying to maintain a given pace without accounting for variables like temperature, humidity, dew point, terrain, wind, hydration status, energy levels, clothing selection (ability to sweat), and experience may do a runner more harm than good.  When the variables are favorable, then it’s very possible that holding a given intensity will lead to the goal-pace (or vice versa), but the aforementioned variables and the body’s real-time status should be considered first. This may sound like common sense, but why then are so many runners not at peace with their finish times?  Perhaps it’s because a runner’s craving for data is too strong.  So let’s hear about Garmin watches.

The same personality trait that wants to buy the Garmin in the first place is perhaps the same personality that has the potential to overanalyze data mid-race or post-race.  Obviously, this does not describe all Garmin runners, but in my experience as a coach, a Garmin watch often ends up being detrimental because it tells a runner that he, technically speaking, could have run faster, which often leads him to think that he was “slow.”  Either of these thoughts can lead to a dose (great or small) of feeling unsuccessful.  As much as a Garmin runner may say, “It’s a hilly course; I’ll just run based on feel,” I find that he will forget all about that idea once the starting gun goes off and when he takes that first peek down at his watch and mutters, “Gee, I’m way slower than my PR pace.”  Post-race, that same runner might say, “I was pretty slow on the hills…not a good race for me.”  If the hills were supposed to affect pacing, then why would the runner use the phrases “pretty slow” and “not a good race”?  How can we address this mentality before the race or workout even begins?

Using data to help guide training is perfectly fine; it’s natural.  However, my conjecture is that a personality that adores data and numbers is more attracted to faster paces on the watch, so those numbers (faster numbers) become the dominant thoughts mid-race and post-race.  In turn, this data analysis may create an unwillingness to accept the slower paces that are actually predictable based on race conditions (i.e., terrain and weather).  Ultimately, a runner is prone to feel slow or less likely to feel successful.  I too frequently see this distinction between the runners I coach who use a Garmin versus those who have a simpler watch using only elapsed minutes and seconds.  With this in mind, you can imagine the extra processing that takes place midrace if the GPS signal cuts out.

I can recall a particular Time Trial I coached on the track when some runners were bamboozled when their Garmins told them the distance of the TT had elapsed when there was still a half a lap to go.  A regulation track is 400m, so the track is never wrong.  Keep it simple when using the track; set the watch to timer mode and just peek at the watch every 200m or 400m to check splits (elapsed time).  Other times during races, Garmin watches have signaled that a mile has surpassed some distance before or after the course mile markers.  Rarely does a runner finish a race with an accurate GPS readout according to the official race distance.  This discrepancy is due to GPS/satellite interference, as well as the fact that it’s not always feasible to run the course exactly the way it was measured by a race official.  I attempt to convince runners to ditch their Garmins more regularly, which has positive effects on race day, especially in the long-term.

The idea of running based on perceived exertion (intensity) is new to everyone at some point in his/her running career.  Some runners are more experienced in this way and may not even own a watch.  Eventually, it should be easy to pace well on a trail without mile markers or to know the exact pace 20 seconds after a race starts.  Garmins will not always be proper guides in a race setting.  We need to know our limits and what we’re capable of achieving based on how the body feels and what it’s saying.  In this regard, it can be more useful to monitor heart rate (HR) as opposed to pace, but more on that in a moment.  Garmins should not be telling us how fast to run during the middle of a race; rather, they should merely be satisfying our curiosity.  Knowing how the body is reacting in real-time is more important than the actual pace maintained.  For instance, becoming very in tune to rhythmic breathing and stride length during training will enable one to know what kind of effort can be sustained during a race.  Moreover, sometimes the weather for a weekend run is too perfect to get caught up with numbers, and this falls in line with Zen running—race day can be a part of this practice, too.

I once attended a collegiate baseball game and hung out by the field before the game started.  I listened to a pitching coach, a former two-time NCAA World Series MVP and MLB player, as he was coaching a freshman pitcher during pre-game warm-ups.  In order to coach the pitcher how to throw pitches to targets everywhere in the strike zone, the coach emphasized the point of focusing on how the pitch delivery felt.  The coach repeated, “Stop aiming it and just throw it!”  He even positioned the catcher ten feet outside the strike zone, just to teach the young pitcher that he should have the ability to throw to any target by knowing what it feels like to hit a target.  I feel the same about learning different running paces.  A runner should be able to hit ten different speeds in a run with relative ease, without a Garmin or HR monitor as a guide.  To paraphrase the pitching coach, “Stop aiming with your Garmin and just run it!” 

Personally, I typically run without a watch and can therefore easily convince myself after any run that it was the fastest I’ve run a particular route.  Without anything/one to tell me otherwise, I’ve been riding a PR-high for over 10 years, which doesn’t allow for many gaps in my confidence.  If, on the other hand, my track splits were off the mark and my race times remained stagnant, then I could say that I’m not running hard enough during my weekly jogs, but as long as my track data continues to be on par, then it’s a good system for me and a good mental tactic to incorporate into training.  The main coaching service I offer is not the training programs (on paper); rather, it’s the mental approach to training and racing.  I haven’t had a “slow run” in over 10 years of training, unless selective amnesia is doing its job (a marker of elite athletics), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel “slow.”  That mentality builds tremendous confidence.  I can’t open a lid on a runner’s head and dump confidence into his brain, but this tactic just described is a great way for a runner to increase confidence himself.

Train hard!


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