What can be measured can be managed… probably

I just watched a report on the BBC website about how technology is being used to help people measure every aspect of their fitness and well-being. You can see the report, from the technology show in Las Vegas here.

This programme got me thinking. I am not a huge user of fitness technology. I have a really knackered old Polar, that is now held together with super-glue and an elastic band, and apart from that, I don’t use any technology. Nike were kind enough to give me a FuelBand, but it doesn’t work now and even when it did, I didn’t think it was that much use for running.

But the technology industry is awash with gadgets that people can use to track their exploits – the ubiquitous GPS watches and heart rate monitors. There is the aforementioned Nike FuelBand and the competitor products that are coming out. There are dozens, if not hundreds of smart-phone apps that use the in-built GPS to measure speed, distance, altitude and so on.

The value of technology

But I wonder what the point of all this is? I understand that people training for a marathon want to know how far they have gone and how long it has taken them (and therefore what speed they were running at). But that can be done with an analogue clock and a map. Just ask Bill Adcocks, who I interviewed for Running Fitness magazine a while ago – in the 1960s he was running a marathon in 2’10” and there were NO GPS devices back then.

What about heart rate monitors? Well, again they are useful if you are training in heart-rate zones, but the best runners in the world rarely have access to them and there is the tale of Brother Colm O’Connell, the iconic coach in Iten, Kenya, who has trained innumerable world class runners, including the current global superstar David Rudisha. He was given a gift of a heart rate monitor by Swedish scientists hoping to discover the secret of the Kenyan runners. Many, many years later, Brother Colm admitted that heart rate monitor strap was never taken out of the box!

Shortly before his death, I met Caballo Blanco, one of the runners who shot to fame thanks to his prominence in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run. Micah True as he was also known, and I talked about technology. He was working for Saucony at the time promoting their super-minimalist shoe, the Hattori. I mentioned that the shoe was unusual in the lack of technology that the manufacturer was claiming went in to its development. Micah fixed me with a steely gaze and told me that all the technology we needed had been developed straight into our bodies over millions of years. There wasn’t much to argue with there!

Should you run free?

The reality is that if you are due to run hard, it doesn’t really matter much what your heart rate monitor is telling you – as an athlete, you should be developing a sense of what it feels to run easy, steady, at threshold, hard and all-out. If you need a mini-computer to tell you what effort you are putting in, I think you might want to go back to basics and just run a bit more.

Please don’t get me wrong – I love a bit of data as much as the next person. I come back from every run and have a look at my old Polar and see how far I went and what the average pace was. If I have been doing intervals I check to see what the intervals were run at. But that is a mixture of curiosity and the desire to make sure that I am progressing. I don’t check pace or heart rate during a run – if it is supposed to be an easy run and it doesn’t feel easy, then I slow down, irrespective of the pace or my heart rate. Invariably, the end result is right.

So how about you? Do you love a bit of tech? Do you measure and analyse? Or are you a bit more freestyle? If you are into checking the parameters of everything you do, why is that and how does it help you become the best runner you can be? And if you don’t care for all the technology available, how do you measure progress and performance? Please tell me what works and what doesn’t work for you.


  1. I’ve always hankered after a Garmin type device, convinced that it would help me up my speed but in reality I can feel when I’m going slower than my desired pace. That said I use the Nike Plus app on my phone as I find being told my average pace in a clear American voice enough to help me up the ante & I like that it tracks my miles as I think I’m too lazy to do it the manual way!

  2. Like you Simon, I’m remarkably low tech and enjoy running ‘freestyle’ and working to the way I feel for what I want to achieve in my training runs. My mum bought me a Timex lap watch for my birthday last summer which is useful on the track and in the pool but I still rely heavily on my ‘sense’ of speed and effort and just check out the lap times when I get home – they usually match. My progress measurement is in my race times. Coached sessions when Tom has the watch are also handy indicators as is running on a treadmill (rare) for giving a sense of leg speed to kph.

  3. When I started running, I didn’t have any technology, but coming from a cycling background I was used to having and working around a lot of data – heart rate, cadence, speed, distance, time etc.

    Having the data and learning how to use it in training definitely made a huge difference in my running, but after a while I got to know my body better and relied on it less and less. Still find it useful when training as a way to reign myself in and not do more than I’m supposed to, or kill myself too early in a session.

    I find it interesting is how ‘old school’ running has stayed. Cycling underwent a huge revolution with regard to using power and heart rate for training, and this is borne out in the increases in speed and power at the top level. (nowithstanding current ‘revelations’ in cycling, unfortunately I suspect similar things are happening in most endurance sports)

    I’d be interested to see if taking an already talented athlete and using such a studied and measured approach in running could result in big breakthroughs in performance and world records and the like.

  4. I like my toys. I really like my toys. I like my toys so much that when they don’t work, it puts a downer on my day. Having said that, I seldom look at my Garmin during a run these days not since my coach gave me a bollocking for checking my watch three times a minute during a race when he was running behind me. I will when I’m pacing at parkrun but other than that, it’s set to beep ever kilometer and I check it out of curiosity when it goes “bing.” I have two years’ worth of data now and I don’t actually do anything with it. What’s that saying? All the gear, no idea?

    I like the concept of naked running but I like to keep a record of where I’ve run and how long it took. Yes, I can plot it all on a map but it takes a technowally like me as long to do that on RunKeeper or MapMyRun as it does to do the run. Garmins and their like make all that so much easier.

  5. The only tech I use is mapmyrun on my phone to measure my distance. When I started running last year I did have the voice telling me my pace ever kilometre but I soon got sick of it and prefer running without headphones.
    I really find that running with just my phone in my pocket and not even wearing a watch really lets me get into the run and forget about anything else. I enjoy looking at the numbers when I get home etc but it only slows me down to look away from the road/pavement/trail to check a number which in the end doesn’t mean much on its own!

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