ARTICLE: Measurement for Mountain Runners

I picked up a copy of Runner’s World and Irish Runner before heading home to the flatlands and read with great interest Lindie Naughton’s article in the latter publication about Eoin Keith and his record-breaking run on the Wicklow Way.

It was a good article that I recommend you have a read of, but it was something other than the article’s main topic that caught my attention. Eoin had an interesting comment that inspired me to write a piece about how to use measurement devices. He was quoted as saying: “I don’ look at watches and I never use a heart rate monitor. Too many runners these days are obsessed with timing and over-analyzing everything. They end up over-training or burned out.” (Irish Runner Vol. 28, Annual 2009).

At first this jumped at me, not so much because I rather enjoy using watches myself, but more because the comment seemed to be a non-sequitur (for those unfamiliar with the field of formal logic this simply means an argument where the conclusion doesn’t follow the premises, e.g. a form of fallacy).

Over-analyzing sounds perilous alright (indeed the word carries negative connotation automatically), but there’s no reason to believe its linked to over-training (a case could be established that it leads to mental burn-out, indeed I would offer personal anecdote of that!). What seemed more fallacious to me, however, was the implicit argument that watches and regular timing cause over-training and burn-out. A read of the major literature on the field and my own experiences seem to suggest that watches and measurements are more likely to prevent over-training than to cause it (they may have other negative side-effects and I’ll talk a bit about that later as well).

So inspired by this line of thought, I felt it was time to look into whether or not measurement tools are really good or bad, especially for hill runners, or if it all depends on how you use them.

Measurement Tools
As a runner you can measure yourself using 4 factors: speed, distance, heart rate or perceived effort level (the latter is subjective whereas the three first factors are not) (Noakes 2003).
There are a variety of tools available to do this: Mapping websites, heart rate monitors, and GPS watches. The norm today is to use the hybrid watches that combine the ability to measure your speed and distance run with a working heart rate monitor (and quite often a substantial amount of other features). In the recent review in Runner’s World, the Garmin ForeRunner 405 came out easily on top as the best measurement tool on the market. While I don’t own one myself (I have the 305), my girlfriend Aoife recently got one and professes to be very happy with it.
Now, this all sounds uncontroversial. Within running a school of thought exists that frowns on measurement devices and another that adores them, but neither school would contest the usefulness of measurement tools when used properly, and this brings me to my exact point: A measurement tool is needed to measure performance not to control performance. If overtraining and other maladies follow the use of measurement tools, it is failure to adhere to this principle that causes it, not the tools themselves.

When used in the first context, the criticism of these devices is wholly unwarranted, when used in the latter context, they point out a critical mistake made by many runners. I have certainly made mistakes with measuring devices myself, and don’t beat yourself up if you have too, all things have a learning curve and so does using measurement devices.

Fait Accompli
So it may come as a surprise to some readers of this Blog that I agree with Eoin’s earlier statement if he meant to imply that watches and other measurement devices used for timing cause over-training and burn-out when used incorrectly.

When it comes to training you need to have some way of measuring whether or not your training works or not. While you need to have fun with your running, you still essentially perform a scientific experiment every time you go training: e.g. if you have a goal and set up a training plan to achieve it, you are testing a hypothesis just as a scientist in a laboratory would be (your hypothesis being that “this training programme will enable me to achieve goal “A”” etc.). You can train without target and without evaluating your results, of course, but no matter your talent, you will need to bank on a great deal of luck to achieve your goals this way. This form of training is akin to stabbing in the dark: You don’t know when you hit a “bad guy” or a “good guy”!

No matter what measurement device you use, don’t let it control your running. There devices were not designed with that in mind (unless you program it to run a certain session, in which case the watch simulates a race between you and someone else. This is the exception to the rule and a rather enjoyable one. If you set the watch to run at “Haile-speed”, well then prefer for the slaughter!).

A watch like the Garmin ForeRunner allows you to analyze what you did and monitor what you are doing and this seems the correct way to use it. Once you’ve decided on a session, you need to allow the perceived effort on the day to overrule any targets you’ve programmed into the watch. The best coach or the best exercise physiologist in the world cannot predict exactly how you’ll feel on any given day, how the weather will be, the terrain, or your emotional state. Why would you expect a hand-held computer to be able to do what they cannot? (a computer may come along who can account for all factors better than any human, indeed, this is likely, but we are still some time off that point).

As a famous coach (I think it was Lydiard but need to reread my books) said: “The urge to accelerate should come naturally.” A bad coach is someone who insists on athletes completing drills at a given pace even when they’re not up for it on the day. By having the watch prompt you to do the same, you’re merely being your own “bad coach”. To make the watch responsible for your mistakes is counterproductive to your own personal learning. Most great champions held themselves personally accountable and were very intelligent in their approach to training (Lydiard 2008).

Using “Gadgets”
So, as I said, the most effective way to use measurement devices is to analyze the data they collect post-run or to use them as guidelines during racing or training.

If you have picked a strategy for a race, for instance, such as running a negative split or holding back a bit on the first half of the Wicklow Way Trail, you gain useful information from a device that tells you how you’re progressing time-wise. You can then mentally cross-check this with how you’re feeling. If you’re behind schedule but feeling good, the only right decision is to “speed up”, if you’re behind schedule and dying, you probably have to re-evaluate your targets on the day or decide to go for an all-out effort to salvage your ambitions. As long as you consider the risks, this constitutes clever usage of your device. Champions are forged in the furnace of tough choices, and sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but that’s still better than always playing it safe.
In training, also ensure you don’t make your watch into a straitjacket, but if you’ve planned to do 40 minutes or 10km, the watch can tell you to do this without needing to plan the route thoroughly in advance. Still the previous advice on not sticking rigidly to plan if you don’t feel like running that long or that far must apply, so cut short if you need to cut short, and run further if you feel fantastic.

You can measure without the use of any gadgets as well, if you feel really predisposed against technology (or you’re an outright Luddite!). For instance: you could use natural landmarks to estimate your progress from week to week and you can use your subjective feelings of perceived effort to gauge if your running seems to get easier or harder. Indeed, no matter what measurement you use, subjective feeling should always be your first guiding principle when on the run. Your body is a physiological system that contains a feedback loop to the brain and you should ignore this feedback loop at your own peril.

Beware Anti-Science
One of the reasons, I always feel it’s important to stress proper use of tools that are considered “scientific” is a wider public malaise spreading in the world today. Figures of authority are viewed with distrust and a culture of embracing personal anecdotes as being on par (or superior) to actual evidence finds itself on the rise (for the philosophically inclined among readers, this is part of the rise of postmodern relativism described by Richard Dawkins: "I think we face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left, in the shape of cultural relativism - the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged" (Dawkins 2006)).

Multiple good reasons can be found to combat this view wherever you encounter it, even in sport. For those who understand the rigours of the scientific process and the quality of the results it yields, will understand the tragedy of having its conclusions lowered to the level of personal anecdotes (which carry no more weight than “circumstantial evidence” would in a court case). You don’t ever want such spurious “evidence” to guide you, not in life, not in work, and certainly not in pursuit of your hobby.

A second point, you can borrow from science, when analyzing your data, is the statistical principle that “correlation does not equate causation” or, in laymen’s terms: just because some things seem related or connected doesn’t mean one thing caused the other. You may take on a new pair of runners and have a bad run and then conclude the bad run was because of the new runners. That may be true, but you need to consider all factors first, or you’ll be jumping to the wrong (and expensive!) conclusion when you discard your new runners. The more data you gather and record with devices, your training diary, and your memory, the more educated conjectures you can form around your training. The distinction between conjectures and conclusions are important, because in running you will never obtain 100% of the data you will need to speculate on why you are performing the way you are at any point in time. So when you deal with incomplete evidence, your “conclusions” are always “conjectures” and faulty conjectures can so easily be arrived at even for trained professionals.

Thus, conducting analysis of your own data requires a good deal of skill, practice, and experience. As you gather data you will start to develop methods for looking at trends in your improvement, you will know when regression doesn’t indicate that you’re losing fitness, and you will develop a more thorough understanding of all the factors that influence your running results. The key is to keep a sombre head through all this analysis. Another great attribute we runners can adopt from scientists is not jumping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence and to remain sceptical at all times. Take time to observe your trends before you start changing your training, and question your analysis if the conclusions you draw from your “numbers” conflict with what your body is telling you about how you are progressing. Most of all, remember that the simplest explanation usually constitutes the correct explanation, and always consider you own biases. No room exists for wishful thinking and personal bias in science, and it will benefit you to take these predispositions out of your training as well.

Scientists never claim to know something they clearly can’t know anything about, and they are honest about this, unlike the vast majority of the rest of the world. You don’t have to don a white robe and join a university to think like a scientist, just follow the guidelines above and you’ll always be as close to the truth about your training as you can be, and, more importantly, it’ll help you be honest with yourself and where you are at with your running.

Final Words of Caution
If you observe these precautions, then there is no danger at all in using measurement devices in your training and it won’t lead you into overtraining. On the contrary when properly used, measurement will allow you to control your training more rigidly and minimise the risks of ramping up the volume of training to quickly (and dangerously).

That being said, any runner can benefit from leaving the watch at home from time to time. If I’m coming back from injury I sometimes leave the watch when I go for a “test run”. There’s no need to remind yourself of the speed you’ve lost if you know it will only upset you and if your only objective is to see if your legs are working. Later on, as you start training properly, the watch becomes an important friend in telling you at what level of fitness you have returned. If you use this as a guideline, rather than a depressing reminder, that is, if you take on a positive constructive attitude to the task at hand (e.g. “restore previous fitness level”), the watch will help you ensure you don’t rush back too quickly and to keep track of your returning fitness as the weeks go by. Again, you must stay mindful of your subjective feelings of perceived effort as well, and because of this it’s essential to combine the use of measurement devices with a training log or a training diary so you can go back and see any notes on how you felt on any given day. This offers invaluable support in tracking the progression of niggles and injuries later and helps avoid the pitfalls that caused them in future training.


can't believe you didn't mention the mighty Naylor in Runner's world :)
Renny said…
A very good comment! There is indeed an excellent one-pager on "Iron Joss" in the last issue of Runner's World and as always his thoughts on the world of running make you sit up and take notice, however simple.

I definitely second the recommendation!