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Ditching Data

Runners love data. The bigger the better. Between our heart rate monitors, gps watches, online applications, video analyses, power meters, and every holiday season’s latest and greatest “must have” gadget, there are times when our running gear looks less like something out of Chariots of Fire and more like the futuristic trappings of Blade Runner. As a coach, I find this wealth of data to be invaluable. Whether it is designing training to get the most bang for your buck or avoid the pitfalls of injury and burnout, the data mine often returns gold. However, as beneficial as all this knowledge can be, it can also be a curse.

In a recent episode of his wonderful On Coaching podcast, University of Houston coach and former standout miler, Steve Magness, opined with American record holder Alan Webb about their brief period training together during Webb’s amazing 2007 season where he ran faster than anyone else has since the dawn of the 2000’s. At one point, Magness joked with Webb about track workouts that would last up to four hours. When completed and exhausted, he would look at his watch to shockingly reveal he had only logged about 7 miles of “actual” running. Magness found himself recording these days bitterly in his training log and fighting the compulsion to head out late in the evening to grab some more miles to make the log look “good.”

In the age of data at the fingertip, most of us have developed a fondness for one piece or another. For Magness, it was mileage. For others, it may be duration, altitude gained, days run in a month. For me, it has often been pace. Writing down in permanent ink that I ran a recovery run at two to three minutes slower than race pace often felt like something to be hidden, shameful. It was like a church confessional made public. Despite knowing it is exactly how my recovery run should be conducted, and chastising the athletes I coach for “pushing” their recovery runs, I couldn’t help the compulsion to make sure the data conformed to some emotional expectation. Before long, this habit had the predictable result. My easy days became too hard. My hard days became too easy. I slumped into fatigue, illness, and ultimately injury. The gold mine of data had quickly become a pit of despair.

Today, my watch often sits on the counter on recovery days. I have plenty of standard routes I like to use for these days, ones that meander through nearby trails and offer nice scenery, so I’m aware of the distance I’m running. Sure, if I really wanted to, I could approximate the pace once I return home. But I rarely do. Ditching the data on specific occasions has saved me from myself. Like Magness fighting the itch to hit an arbitrary mile mark, or me shamefully pushing the pace, consider whether the data you are tied to is a string of gems helping you glitter, or an albatross dragging you to the depths. And perhaps, regardless, shake things up and forget the numbers for a run or two.

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