Data Overload

I was reading Cathal Dennehy’s new Running Times interview with Chris Derrick and was struck by his response to a question about whether he monitors his heart rate in training:

We don’t; it’s all by feel. Jerry [Schumacher, his coach] doesn’t like relying so much on data; we do it to try monitor our response to altitude, such as hemoglobin testing to find out what altitude we respond best to, but he doesn’t want us to be restricted by data. He wants us to feel it, and sometimes you just need to run hard.

This caught my eye, because there are a couple of new monitoring gadgets (among the avalanche of new wearable fitness monitors that are currently appearing) that I’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks now. One is a new wearable power meter for running, developed by a company called Stryd, which promises to be the equivalent of a cycling power meter. It analyzes your stride in three dimensions to determine the components of vertical, lateral, forward, and braking force, then integrates the info to tell you how much power you’re putting out–basically an external measure of effort that’s independent of hills, weather, motivation, and so on. Another is a disposable patch made by a company called Kenzen that claims to wirelessly and continuously monitor your hydration, lactate, and glucose levels by analyzing drops of sweat.

Both these ideas are pretty cool, to say the least. And yet I keep postponing writing about them. Part of it is that I don’t really have enough information to know how well the devices live up to their claims. But I also have an underlying hesitation about turning running (or other endurance activities) into a more data-driven, regimented activity. There’s no doubt you gain something with more data, but I think you also lose something.

Here’s another quote from a new interview, this one with Janet Bawcom, a Kenyan-born star who only became a competitive runner after coming to the U.S. in 2000. She recently returned to Kenya for a training stint, preparing for the USA Half Marathon Championships on Sunday:

Overall, I would say that people here are much more relaxed about their training–no one really seems to have it mapped out to the microsecond like you see in the US. In Kapsabet, where I’m training right now, there’s not even a track at the moment–they’re renovating–so you can’t get too uptight about needing perfect conditions to nail a workout. I’m just doing all my workouts on dirt roads, and I know that if I’m hanging with the guys in my group, I’ll be fine on race day. I think that’s kind of the mentality here–if you’re keeping up with the right people on workout day, who cares if the “mile” you ran was exactly a mile or not.

The truth is that I love data. I love keeping detailed training logs and plotting the progression of mileage and changes in morning heart rate and so on–and that’s why I don’t keep a log anymore. I’m already so analytical that putting more emphasis on that side of my relationship with running starts to change how I approach training and racing, and not for the better. For other people, the opposite may be true: tracking data may add structure to their training that would otherwise be missing. So I’m not speaking in absolutes. But I do think it’s worth considering what Derrick and Bawcom are saying here.

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