Running Wired or Wireless

Steve AnkneyGeneral2 Comments

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Heart rate monitors, sport watches, iPhones, and Nike+ are just some of the technologies we choose to run with.  Recently, I began to wonder how these tools are affecting our runs and whether or not all of their effects are of a positive nature.

How do tech-based tools help?

In an article from Runner’s World by Bob Parks, he asks four runners to test HRMs (heart rate monitors) and GPS watches to see how their training was affected.  In “Why Monitors Make Us Fitter”, Parks says that various training monitors help to:

1. Stop Overtraining Many runners don’t do easy runs easy enough and this hurts their fitness in the long run. Professional triathlon coach Hank Lange says, “Watching your beats per minute can serve in a terrific governor role to keep you from overdoing it.” 

2. Stop Undertraining Likewise, you can’t get the full benefit of tempo runs if you don’t work hard enough. Barker finds that monitors help hard workouts designed to improve your lactate threshold. 

3. Get Feedback on the Fly Sometimes it’s hard to gauge your effort level on your own. It could be the wind, fatigue, the hills. In any situation, a monitor provides a pretty good picture of how hard your body’s working.

4. Monitor Your Fitness Beyond furnishing the basic pulse rate, many monitors also tally the time you spend at different training intensities. This data can help you assess how your fitness is progressing and adjust your training plan as needed. 

Earlier in the article, Parks mentions that “most coaches focus on two zones: recovery and tempo”.  There exists a plethora of running technology that allows you to do just that.  By correctly using an HRM, one can quickly calculate what the right pace is for the “recovery zone” (which focuses on muscle recovery) and the “tempo zone” (which focuses on maintaing a consistent effort during “quality days”).  Although nothing can give you quite as much attention as a human, these electronic devices can help many amateur runners dodge the cost of an expensive trainer.

Most devices of this nature also offer several exciting social- and goal-related tools.  Nike, for example, offers a game called “Tag” in its Nike+ application which allows the user to choose a friend from Facebook to play against.  The game offers three different challenges: distance (who runs the farthest), time (who runs the fastest), and last to run (just like it sounds, be the first to run). Whomever loses a challenge will, in turn, become “it”.  Nike+ also offers motivational tools like Powersong, Facebook cheering, VoiceOver updates, and Nike Challenges (all of which are explained in-depth on Meagan’s post Nike + iPod vs. Nike+ GPS).

Lastly, electronic devices help to keep us entertained during a run.  Considering the average marathon time is between 4 and 5 hours, you may find yourself getting lonely and bored during training with only the open road to keep you company.  I personally enjoy listening to metal or hip-hop during a run because it has a fast tempo.  Sadly, our music library is not large enough to accommodate enough fast-tempo songs for a 4 – 5 hour run.  I have found that audiobooks provide enough entertainment and they aren’t loud enough to completely tune out my surroundings.  My opinion may change on this, though, with the upcoming release of “Zombies, Run!

You Are the Technology

This is a picture from Vibram's mini-site titled "You Are the Technology".

What is the down-side to running with technology?

It is hard to imagine at first what could possibly be bad about running with technology (wired).  After some research, however, I think the most obvious reason is the fact that many races ban the use of all electronic devices.  If you are training for a race and you plan to use some sort of device/tool, be sure you can actually use it in the race.  If you can’t, get yourself accustomed to running without your technology so you aren’t uncomfortable on race day.  In an article from The Boston Globe by Irene Sege, titled “A Running Debate”,  Sege explains that many races have banned the use of headphones as a precaution against injuries.  She quotes Paul Collyer, director of the Jerry Garcia Memorial River Run & Walk in Cambridge, who argues that running with headphones is “‘like Tom Brady listening to The Who while he’s throwing a touchdown pass. Hard-core runners are focusing on racing. If they’re wearing those things, they’re out there for health…They’re peaceful-easy-feeling running. You can’t hear nature around you. You can’t hear the little old man who just had cataract surgery honking.'”

In many cases, running wired is about helping you to focus on something other than just running (e.g., listening to an iPod).  However, it can have the opposite effect if you are attempting to use technology to help with pacing or tracking distance. To track my pace, I can simply tell my Nike+ GPS application to provide VoiceOver updates every quarter mile to ensure I am staying on target.  The app is also extremely helpful for gauging distance, so you don’t end up overtraining/under-training when you are completing a distance-based training plan.  That being said, the last half of a run can feel painfully long when receiving frequent pace/distance updates.  You find yourself fantasizing about when Nike+ is going to come back on and say “point-seven-five miles to go…”  This is one of the less-favorable parts of running wired, because you end up focusing on your run even more than you would if you didn’t have the updates in the first place.

Another downside to running wired is the added prep-time. I know it sounds silly to be lazy when you are preparing to go out for a run, but the time associated with getting ready can be a chore all its own.  For us, it starts with setting up our iPhones, which involves opening an application, choosing a distance/time, choosing the music/audiobook, running the headphones under our shirts, and then storing our iPhone somewhere on our person (SpiBelt, armband etc.).  However, this process quickly starts to get time-consuming when more technology is added to the mix. For example, if you add a HRM, you also have to put on your watch, wet the diodes on the your chest strap, strap it on and adjust it, and then sync the watch with the HRM monitor.  Meagan has learned that with the extra waiting time involved, I begin to become anxious and aggravated that it takes us so long to get ready.  The whole preparation process is nearing around 15 minutes just to go out for a 30 minute run, and lets not forget this is assuming that there are no hiccups along the way (e.g., misplaced a piece, can’t get something to sync, headphones not interacting correctly with iPhone, etc.).  The other option–running wireless–involves simply putting on a shirt (if you wear one), shoes (if you wear them), and shorts (if you wear them…), and hitting the open road.

Finally, because we are minimalist runners, we find the natural way to be the better way to run.  When you consider all of the tools we use, though, the whole “natural” thing loses its spark a little.  By using electronic devices for tracking and entertainment, you end up taking away from the “zen” of a run.  Something special can be said about really taking in the environment you are in, noticing the people around you, and trying to clear your mind.  If you’re not into the whole zen thing, consider having a conversation with a friend during your run.  Vibram makes a great point with their site “You Are the Technology“.  They show, with a stylistic photo, how humans are enough technology by themselves and that we don’t need anything more than what we have.

Although I normally partake in running with wires, I always come back to one of my favorite running stories, titled “Running a Marathon in Japan in Vibram FiveFingers”, from BirthdayShoes.com.  In this story, guest blogger Marc explains how he “trained” for a marathon without tracking times, distances, or frequency.  Although Marc did run his marathon with music, it is an interesting experiment to test the effects of technology and precise training on running a marathon.  This is an experiment I hope to attempt myself one day.  Currently, though, I feel like the lack of data collection alone would give me a panic attack.  How do you feel about running with technology?  Do you feel it takes away from your run or do you find that it has positively influenced your running?

Steve is an Executive Recruiter at Robert Half Executive Search in Madison, WI with a business degree in Information Systems and E-Commerce from the University of Toledo. Steve loves spending his time away from work; running, gaming, watching movies, checking out new social networking tools/sites/start-ups and blogging.