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Information Overload: Are Runners Too Tech-Dependent?

For better or worse, nearly every piece of data imaginable can be tracked, recorded and analyzed.

For better or worse, nearly every piece of data imaginable can be tracked, recorded and analyzed.

Runners today are surrounded by a vast number of training tools and advanced technologies science couldn’t supply to athletes of the past.  We have watches that tell us our exact pace at that precise footfall and will track our distances to the hundredth of a mile. We can be synced with heart-rate monitors that will beep at us until we are in the correct training zone, then later we can go home and pour over the collected data like a scientist working for NASA.

Our training shoes are lighter, our racers darn near weightless and there are social networking tools that will announce to the world that we are, in fact, going for a run. Other gadgets can track our energy expenditures throughout the day so that we can plan our diets accordingly. But, do we really need all the split times, heart rates, calories burned, etc., or could it all be information overload? Is there a point of techie-saturation?

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“Yes, I think enhanced technology…can give people too many numbers and if they don’t have the right mindset towards those numbers, then they will live and die by them and never think to be rational about anything,” states Krista Austin, Ph.D., sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist out of Colorado Springs. “Plus, they often stop listening to their own bodies, which is never good.”

Runners are competitive by nature and getting too wrapped up in the numbers can be a slippery slope. Tracking the pace of each and every run could lead to ‘racing yourself’ every time out the door. Pressing too hard to hit a certain time because you think you have to surely can hamper your recovery, especially in the case of what is meant to be an easy run.

However, that’s not to say that some athletes don’t thrive off this greater knowledge base. “I am a fan of the GPS enabled watches such as Garmins. I think that they are a fantastic tool to measure effort and progress,” explains Dave Ross, both runner and coach of Ross Running. “I use it to track mile splits and pace on almost all of my runs.” There’s no question that the ability to see your improvements over time is motivating, and having a watch alert you to pick up the pace when you need to can keep you on the right track towards your goals.

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Garmin-sponsored athletes like Josh Cox and Deena Kastor are able to proactively integrate these advanced watches into their training routines too, and have become fans. “I have quite a number of elite runners and triathletes that use Garmins,” remarks Austin. “They love them, but I also have a handful who don’t use them at all.”

How useful are products such as the new Nike+ FuelBand and similar energy tracking devices to runners and competitive athletes?

“I like products like the Fuelband because it’s a great tool for behavior change,” notes Austin, “That is what most of my clients use something like this for–it’s a reminder that drives them to meet their goals…[but athletes] aren’t ‘normal’ and the further you get away from the norm, the less accurate these tools are.”

Technologies such as the FuelBand could be insurmountable in America’s fight against obesity and work well as a catalyst for change and increased personal accountability. But, for people who are already highly active and in training, that piece of the puzzle is already in place.

Runners also operate much more efficiently than the general population; our muscles and bodies respond differently due to our high level of training and conditioning. This means the caloric burn of activities will be different based on the individual and their level of fitness. “[These products] give a good relative estimate but even the most accurate ones are often anywhere between 300-500 calories off from the actual calories burned–and that can be in a deficit or in excess,” cites Austin.

Athletes also tend to be better in tune with their bodies, they have to be in order to perform at their optimal level. Listening to the signals our bodies are sending us is a crucial part of our sport, it then becomes a matter of picking which tools help amplify these messages and avoiding the ones that may dull out or cause us to ignore them.

Just as training is highly specific to the individual, so is determining which gadgets are helpful and how much information you can handle. “Some can handle a bunch and they do really well with lots of ‘data’ and feedback where as others should only be shown the bare necessities,” advises Austin.

Many athletes intuitively know, or find out through trial and error along the way, which tools will work for them and what may be just too many numbers.

How can you find that balance? Ultimately it comes down to knowing yourself and recognizing that if you tend to get a little obsessive with the numbers game, don’t tempt yourself; sometimes less is more. That’s not to say you need to toss your GPS unit, heart-rate monitors, etc. out completely, but at least set limits.

“I do recommend that my athletes run by feel at least once a week,” explains Ross. “I create fartlek workouts that are measured by perceived effort as opposed to pace or distance covered. I think that it’s a good thing to leave the watch at home once in a while and really go out and enjoy your run.”

Knowing the paces of your tempo and interval sessions are important — keeping tabs on each and every recovery run…maybe not so much.


About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner she works as a freelance writer and artist.