Do All Those Stats Matter?

Avoid data override by paying attention only to the important ones and ignoring the rest.

It’s a good time to be a running geek. Just a few decades ago, digital watches still seemed like a pretty neat idea; now heart-rate monitors and GPS watches are standard, and new gadgets analyse your stride and cadence, compute your power output, or measure your lactate levels, all in real time mid-run. But how do you pick out what’s useful without drowning in an ocean of data? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Don’t limit yourself. Jerry Schumacher coaches top runners like 2015 world championships 10,000-metre bronze medallist Emily Infeld, Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan, and three-time US cross-country champion Chris Derrick, and is backed by the full resources of his sponsor, Nike. But rather than relying on the latest technology, he prefers his runners trust their instincts about whether they’re running too fast or slow. “He doesn’t want us to be restricted by data,” Derrick said in an interview last year. “He wants us to feel it, and sometimes you just need to run hard.” That means no heart-rate monitors, for example. In a race or hard workout, only your body will know if you’re ready to go faster because you’re having a great day.

Be descriptive, not prescriptive. To avoid letting your tech boss you around, spend at least two months with a new device monitoring your usual training. Look for patterns: How much does your pace slow the day after a hard workout? In what ways does your stride change toward the end of a long run? Once you know what is normal for you, you can look for deviations that might indicate something is wrong – or, better yet, improvements that show something is right. Baseline data will also help you identify big-picture areas to improve, like getting the right mix of easy, medium and hard running.

Pick your battles. Instead of tracking every run, focus on the ones where data makes the biggest difference. For many runners, the trickiest effort to nail is threshold pace, right at the transition between easy aerobic running and hard interval running. Figure out roughly what heart rate it corresponds to for you (by monitoring tempo runs for a few months) to help prevent pushing too hard. If you tend to hammer easy runs, use heart rate or GPS to prevent yourself from going too fast. For hard intervals, ditch your electronics (except for a non-GPS watch, whose intermittent feedback isn’t as distracting) and tune in to your sense of effort.

Look inward. Study after study has found that self-reported mood is one of the most reliable indicators that you’re not recovering properly from your training – even better than objective measures like heart rate or blood tests, according to a recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. After every run, record in your training diary how you felt. It sounds low-tech, but that’s the most important lesson to remember about data monitoring: What matters isn’t how nifty the gadget is, but how useful its data is.

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