Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ultrarunning - the need for a watch with Heart Rate Monitor and GPS?

When I first got into Ultra Distance running I did a bit of research over the internet and books, and one of the main messages I got was one that Ultrarunning, in particular trail running is exercise in its purest, most natural form. It’s what we as humans have evolved to do. To participate all you need is a pair of shorts, even shoes are optional. Some would argue that shorts are optional too, but I think you could end up with severe chaffing issues, and quite possibly frostbite, if you adopted that approach.

In some articles scorn was laid upon those who bought specialist running clothing, with synthetic, dry weave, moisture wicking, “make you go faster” materials. Anyone who outwardly promoting the sport was looked down upon, as running out in the wilds on your own for 5 hours at a time is done for personal reasons, not personal gain. As for shoes, to be allowed to enter the world of ultrarunning they must not cost anymore than a family size pizza, and you should not replace them until you have worked your way through 3 sets of laces and had them resoled twice.

In some ways I kind of liked this and it was part of the appeal. Having come from a road running background, I was intrigued to find out more about this peculiar bunch of athletes, and was keen to see them perform superhuman feats without any help from the scientists and mainstream sportswear manufacturers. So why is it when I turn up to my first event all around me I see are very familiar logos of ticks and stripes, and all manner of technical paraphernalia. I believe the truth is that we like to think we’re expressing our abilities in a very pure fashion, but if modern technology can help, then why not embrace it. You don't get any extra kudos for bleeding nipples or heat stroke!

My transition from the boring monotony of road running (plod, plod, tarmac, plod, watch, plod, tarmac, plod, watch, plod...repeat to exhaustion) to the exhilaration and freedom of trail running took a massive step after about 6 weeks off the roads. Whilst running along a trail, miles from anywhere, alongside a bubbling creek, I decided to stop and adjust my watch. My Garmin Forerunner 305 (my watch with heart rate monitor, GPS and all the gadgets) had the option to display different data about your session. I had it set to show Time, Heart Rate, and Pace (a habit inherited from my running days). I stopped and took off the Pace option. I had realised that running out on the trails is not about how fast you go, but how much you enjoy it.

The enjoyment on some days does come from running fast, but you don’t need to know how fast to enjoy it. In fact it’s usually the slower runs you enjoy more, because you experience more. You don’t worry about stopping to look at a beautiful sunset, or to take in the panorama around you. That for me is what those other runners were trying to get at when they wrote of the purity and simplicity of this sport. In fact it’s probably not right to call it a sport, but we do all still enjoy a race every now and then, if only to measure and share how we’ve progressed.

So when it comes down to it, do we need fancy watches to enjoy running? The answer is that we don’t NEED them, but they can make it more fun. Part of the pleasure I get from going out for a run is getting back home, and plugging the watch into the computer, to see how I did. Given the technology available to us now you can relive races uploading your routes into Google Earth, or share your progress on Garmin Connect (as I do with my training sessions). My favourite feature at the moment is keeping track of the mileage I run in each pair of my shoes. I’ve done over 1300kms in one pair, and think they’re good for another 500km at least. Looking at them now I don’t think there will be much left of them by then.

Just as an aside on the Heart Rate Monitor function of my watch. All my race training has involved quite strict monitoring of my heart rate on my longer sessions, and during the North Face 100 I competed in 3 weeks ago, my race plan had been based heavily upon controlling my HR. About 10kms into the race the battery in the chest strap ran out. Without the technical feedback to inform me of my HR I had to run by feel alone. The result is that I ran faster and longer than ever before and I put this down to having one less reason to slow down. Seeing my HR creeping up I would have used that as justification to slow or walk.

I’ve changed my training a bit now. I still record my HR, but don’t worry about it until I get back home. Then I use it as a measure of improvement in cardiovascular fitness, and can adjust my training plan accordingly.

When it comes to a GPS watch, as much as you don’t need one, once you’ve had one, you’ll feel naked leaving the house without it.

As for my training today, I was a very benevolent coach and I gave myself a day off!

Happy running

Inspiring (?) quote for the day:
"It was like getting kicked in the balls — no matter how hard you train to get kicked in the balls, it hurts every single time it happens."
- From Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko, John Weisman

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