Running is now a very different sport than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. We have a vast wealth of information and technology at our fingertips, but is it all beneficial? Alex Teuten discusses.
I was an old-fashioned runner for years and years. While everyone around me was investing in GPS watches and other wearable technology, I was still using a wristwatch and guessing my weekly mileage! And if I’m perfectly honest, it didn’t do me any harm. But I finally succumbed when I received a GPS watch for my birthday at the start of 2015 and from there I never looked back.
I still reserve that the best way to improve in running is to get out there and run, but I must admit that there are some benefits to such devices, for both the elite and recreational runners.
Let’s start with the basics: a GPS watch uses satellites to triangulate your position, and with that enables your distance and speed to be recorded.
That alone provides a more accurate determination of your weekly mileage and is a useful method for recording runs and sessions. Many athletes keep a running diary but for me it’s an unnecessary task since all the information is there, in one convenient place. All you need to do is remember to do is put your watch on charge now and then, and put it on in the morning!
GPS watches can do so much more than that now though. Many come with heart rate monitoring as standard, which adds a new dimension to the analytics of running.
If (and this is a big if!) the information is accurate and used correctly it can optimise your training and even racing program. But caution should be exercised (no pun intended!), because not only can the data prove inaccurate (especially the use of a heart rate strap which can incorrectly ascertain HR), but also relies on specific HR analysis, conducted in a VO2/lactate test.
These can prove costly and may be seen as an unnecessary expense to many athletes, especially as it only takes a “snapshot” of what fitness you are currently operating at. Fitness changes throughout the year and with that so will your HR zones. There are tests that can be conducted without specialist equipment, which can provide good estimates and “up to the minute” indicators of fitness, and I would recommend these for athletes interested in training using this method.
Once you have your HR zones, an athlete simply stays within these boundaries for their sessions and easy runs, according to what energy system one is trying to optimise. The advantage of HR training is that it takes into account external factors such as stress, fatigue and illness. So if you are not fully fit on a particular day, you may be operating within the desired HR zone but running slower than you normally would.
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Psychologically that is beneficial; I can vouch that it is frustrating to not meet time targets for training! I am soon to have a VO2/lactate test and look forward to seeing the results, but whether I use it to its full capacity or not remains to be seen. The theory behind it is hugely promising but there is a significant margin for error and requires an investment of time to fully exploit, which is a premium when it comes to having a full-time job!
Furthermore, the use of this technology is limited when it comes to middle-distance running; the real benefits of it lie in marathon and ultra running. Rates of calorie consumption can be accurately calculated in association with the fitness tests, and the information from that can be used to develop effective nutrition plans for racing and everyday life.
There is more technology to consider for runners. Many will be familiar with the Nike “Breaking2” event, where Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese attempted to break the 2-hour barrier for the Marathon, using specific lightweight clothing, runners acting as pacemakers and the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% “super shoe”.
The 4% refers to Nike’s claim that the shoes will make runners 4% more efficient compared to Nike’s previous fastest marathon shoe. The debate will lie with the evidence to that claim.
This point introduces another interesting point that is gait analysis. Used correctly it can improve running efficiency and in the long-term reduce injury risk.
However, speaking from experience it can cause more problems than it solves. Attempting to correct one’s gait can apply more load to different muscles and so great care is required to not overload. The process takes time, which is a problem because athletes are inherently impatient and are hesitant to reduce their training, even if it’s of benefit long-term.
Moving forward or backwards?
So has the technology I’ve highlighted meant that running and athletics have taken a step back in progression? I certainly believe that some of the equipment is useful, but whether I’d invest my own money into it is a different story. In the case of the Nike Vaporfly trainers that’s off the table anyway, but if they were I still wouldn’t.
I believe an athlete can become over-dependent on these sorts of technologies, believing that they hold the key to progression and success. And whilst that might be partly true in a sport of fractional gains but it’s important to never take one’s eye of the real performance enhancer that is the running itself! If technology can ultimately make you train more effectively, then it’s worth it.