Sport watches part II: Is there really a coach inside the watch?

I finally broke down and bought my first GPS watch, a Garmin Forerunner 10, after 38 years of running successfully (for much of that time at an elite level) with nothing more sophisticated than a Timex chronograph watch.

Garmin Forerunner 10

My Forerunner 10

Recently I’ve also done some research on a few of the best sport watches available for runners and triathletes (as summarized in my previous post). The amount of data and information that these watches can provide is staggering and overwhelming. I found it interesting that the two leading makers of heart rate/GPS watches, Polar and Garmin, have very similar taglines: Polar’s is “Smart Coaching” and Garmin’s is “A coach in every watch.” It seems to me that these claims are at the crux of the questions I want to raise in this post.

Is it true that a watch can be a coach?

What are the benefits, limitations, and even dangers of using sophisticated sport watches and being guided by their numbers?

What does a human coach provide that goes beyond what any watch, no matter how expensive, can give you?

How do you pick the right watch for your running ability and knowledge, your technical expertise, and your personality?

And, in a more philosophical vein, how do sport watches fit into our culture’s obsession with what John Allemang, in his recent Globe and Mail article “In search of a better self—using numbers” calls the “Quantified Life”? Allemang mentions apps as well as gadgets: for example, there is an app called Sleep Cycle, which measures sleep quality, an app called MoodPanda (again, you rate your feelings using numbers) and 80Bites, for tracking your food consumption by—you guessed it—bites. Are we becoming obsessed with numbers and basking in the illusion that numbers = science? Are we substituting reams of raw data for analysis and introspection?

In this article, I aim to answer these questions in three ways:

1) I’ll explain what I see as the benefits, limitations, and dangers of sport watches for four different groups of users:
• Elite athletes
• Recreational athletes
• Beginning athletes and older people embarking on an exercise program to improve their health
• Technically savvy people who welcome the “fun” aspects of technical gadgets and social sharing

2) I’ll give my own view of the role that human coaches continue to play.

3) I’ll outline my personal experience comparing running with a simple stopwatch and running with a Garmin.

Elite athletes

Elite athletes are the group for whom athletic performance is critical. Even small differences in performance can determine whether an athlete makes a national team or a final at an international event. Are sport watches now a necessary tool for elite athletes?

I suspect they are not, even though many elite athletes probably use advanced watches to some extent. Most elite athletes have personal coaches, and for many reasons (see section below) a human coach can be superior to the most sophisticated watch. I would guess that many athletes, even if they own a watch with every feature imaginable, mainly use the basic features that track their distance and pace or time interval workouts. Runners can compare their heart rates from day to day at regular training paces and an abnormally high heart rate might be a clue that the runner is overtrained or getting sick. The recording features of the watch can provide information for a training log.

Watch features that help athletes evaluate their running economy might be a starting point to suggest where athletes can improve. For example, is their vertical oscillation too high? Is their cadence too low? Again, I suspect that a human coach would have already identified these problems.

I wonder whether most elite athletes regularly give their coaches workout summaries based on their watch data. Do personal coaches actually study the data generated by their athletes’ sport watches? Or do most coaches still rely on timing specific workouts (such as track workouts) and listening to verbal reports from their athletes?

Despite my suspicion that the majority of elite athletes and their coaches don’t rely heavily on the data from sport watches, I recently read an excellent article by Tony Reavis that opened my eyes about the role science plays in athletic performance at the very top level. For this blog article, Reavis, a seasoned American running sportscaster and writer, interviewed coach Alberto Salazar about his sensational distance running stars Mary Cain and Galen Rupp. In the article, Reavis quotes Salazar as saying, “We need more science. It’s our only chance against the Kenyans.”

Salazar’s scientific methods go far beyond the mere data of sport watches, but he looks at some of the same things the watches measure, using more sophisticated (and expensive) equipment. Detailed stride analysis is done on a special treadmill so that any possible improvement to the athletes’ running efficiency can be made. As Salazar puts it, “Hard workouts work on the engine, but we work on refining the chassis, too.” He also monitors their recovery from workouts, and makes sure they get the best possible medical support.

The lab-rat aspect of being an athlete under Salazar’s tutelage makes me wince a bit, but the article convinced me that taking this approach is necessary if one’s goal is to be the best in the world. Salazar’s success as a coach is reflected in the results of his athletes. Both are supremely talented, but with Salazar’s coaching they continue to improve, with high school phenomenon Cain recently setting a world junior record in the indoor 1,000m and Rupp setting American indoor records at both the 5,000m and two-mile distances.

Morally, using scientific measuring systems is acceptable to me, unlike the use of performance-enhancing drugs. However, some people might point out that most of the best African runners don’t have access to, or money for the most advanced coaching and medical support, so in a way the playing field is still not level.

Recreational athletes

Do recreational athletes need an advanced sport watch? The short answer is no.

The long answer is that recreational athletes can benefit from the information a watch gives them, especially if they are tech-savvy and don’t have a human coach. Often, recreational runners are just as interested in “the numbers” as elite athletes. They want to know the distance, time, and pace of their runs as well as how many calories they’ve burned. Watches make it easy for runners to track their progress and that can be highly motivating.

Training software is included with some of the more expensive watches. A tech-savvy runner might benefit from this information by getting ideas about how to improve and using the “personalized” suggested workouts. However, workouts suggested by “the coach in the watch” aren’t necessary for someone who has a real coach or a person who has a good grasp of fundamental training principles and the imagination to create their own workouts.

The main thing people need to realize is that having a lot of official-looking data about your runs doesn’t mean you are a good runner, or that you will improve as a runner unless you have a training plan. If you are spending most of your time setting up your watch, analyzing your data, and sharing your data on social networks rather than actually running then your watch is doing more harm than good.

Another caution is that beginning or recreational runners might think they need to have the most advanced watch in order to become a good runner, but unless they are willing to invest the time necessary to learn how to use the watch and its software, and analyze their data, they are wasting their money. They’re paying for features that they will never use.

Beginners and people with medical problems

Being able to monitor heart rate can be essential or at least helpful for many people with medical problems. This can be accomplished with an inexpensive heart monitor, but the features of a more advanced watch can also be beneficial. Some people would use features such as individual heart rate training zones and suggested workouts.

Beginners may not have a very good sense of how hard they should push themselves and what it feels like to exercise at varying levels of exertion. A watch can help them become  aware of the purpose of each level of training and what different intensities of training feel like.

For beginners, watches are a great motivational tool that will give them a sense of accomplishment and make their improvements easy to see. As with recreational or elite athletes, beginners still have to be honest about their level of technical ability and how much time they want to put into using their watch and analyzing its data. Often, people are unhealthy because they work long hours and have neglected exercise for many years. Such people may prefer to pay a coach or a personal trainer to either replace the functions of a watch or to do the analysis of the watch data.

People who are working out mainly indoors at a gym or walking at a track might not need a GPS watch and could buy a less expensive watch that monitors heart rate.

Tech-savvy gadget lovers

This group of people uses sport watches or activity/sleep monitors mainly for the “cool” factor. They love to embrace new technology. If it can be done, they want to do it. They might be leaders or showoffs, and often share their data socially.

People in this group are not necessarily athletes. The more athletic members of this group  probably use advanced sport watches, while the less-athletic might prefer to keep tabs on their physical movements and sleep patterns with a gadget such as the Fitbit Force wrist bracelet or the Polar Loop. These devices can be worn 24/7, and record simple things such as number of steps taken, stairs climbed, total minutes of activity, and calories burned. They enable people to become more aware of their activity levels and sleep quality. They can provide constant reminders to show people how they are progressing towards their daily or weekly goals. Such visual reminders can be motivating, encouraging people to walk a little further or climb a few more steps to reach their goal.

The possible downside to using activity monitors is the same as mentioned above for athletes using sport watches: an obsession with numbers, or spending more time observing and sharing data than actually engaging in healthy activities. I also wonder whether the use of these activity/sleep monitors is just a fad that people will get bored with.

Can a watch replace a coach?

The short answer is “No!”—because coaching is both art and science. A watch cannot replace the psychological aspects of coaching, for athletes at any level.

A watch will not understand you as an individual and get to know you psychologically. A good coach knows how to help each athlete in a way appropriate to his or her personality and motivations. A watch will not get hugely elated no matter how big a PB you do. Sure, it will give you a congratulatory message, probably with an exclamation mark, but if you think this is as good as a coach’s smile and arms raised in triumph, I feel sorry for you. A watch will not give you a hug either.

Having a personal coach is critical for elite athletes, where every physical and psychological factor affects performance and performance outcomes are measured in seconds or even milliseconds.

One of the most important inputs from a personal coach is the ability to recognize when an athlete is overtraining and risking physical or psychological breakdown. Watches have their “Recovery” features, but this probably isn’t useful for elite athletes, who will ignore the watch’s advice. Elite runners have to push to an extreme level and are often obsessed about their training. They need to have a respected coach tell them when it’s time to back down.

For young and beginning runners, a coach’s warmth, energy, and in-depth knowledge of running are more important than the numbers a watch spits out. A good coach excels at motivating people and connecting with them personally. In contrast, an overly scientific or quantitative approach to running would not appeal to many beginning athletes. It might bore kids, or make the workout seem too much like another math class. The technical language of running watches might intimidate a lot of beginning runners who don’t know or care what VO2 max, cadence, or vertical oscillation mean.

What about the information sport watches can give about running efficiency and predicting race times? I suspect that most coaches would be able to notice inefficiencies in running style without seeing numbers on a watch, though measurements such as cadence, vertical oscillation, and time spent on the ground might help convince a runner to work on improving technique.

However, to some extent people are limited by their body type and biomechanics. For the recreational runner I question whether seeing that their running style is suboptimal provides any benefit. Is it worth it for them to seek and pay for expert coaching and physiotherapy in the hope of shaving a small amount of time off a mediocre performance? The answer might be yes if biomechanical problems are so severe that they are causing injuries and seriously affecting the person’s ability to train.

As for predicting race times, a coach can predict an athlete’s race times based on how that athlete performs in workouts of varying lengths. A coach will probably be more accurate than a watch because she will take into account factors that the watch won’t, such as the difficulty of the course, weather conditions, the other competitors, and the psychological state of the athlete. In addition, simple pace charts allow you to predict your time at one race distance based on your time at another distance.

A former elite athlete’s experience: Before and After Garmin

I’ve now run for 38 years with a simple Timex stopwatch and one year with a Garmin Forerunner 10 (a GPS watch without a heart rate monitor). After my extensive experience and research, what have I concluded?

In a nutshell, I would say that it’s not necessary to use a GPS/heart rate device, but it can add fun, motivation, and interesting nuggets of information to your workouts and training logs.

Above all, athletes have to remember that the main way to get better is through consistent, progressively harder training: not by gathering as many numbers as possible about what is happening when you run. The most expensive watch in the world will not make you a better runner.

Mundy Park trail

Mundy Park’s “SFU hill”. I made up countless workouts using the loops, hills, and straightaways in Mundy Park’s trails. The exact distances didn’t matter: I knew my PBs for every workout.

Because I’m long-winded, I can add a few more points:

  1. Knowing the exact distance of every run doesn’t matter. You can approximate distance by knowing pace. You learn your pace capabilities by doing timed workouts on a track. This is more accurate than a GPS anyway. You also estimate pace by perceived effort.
  2. Most elite athletes are in tune with their bodies. It isn’t good to be rigid about sticking to a pre-planned pace. There are days when you will feel good and run faster and vice versa with the same perceived effort. You don’t want to become a slave to the watch when it goes against your own instincts.
  3. Most runners have experienced those rare magical races when all the factors, both known and unknown, are aligned and you can run faster than any pre-race workout times would predict. I remember one of my best races, the 1987 Tufts 10K for Women, which is held in Boston every year on Patriots’ Day (our Thanksgiving Monday). It’s really something special to be in a women’s-only road race, leading the pack as I was that day coming through the first mile in 5:05. I wasn’t worried when I heard the split, because the pace felt relaxed and right. Sure, I slowed down a little, but that had to do with the turns and elevation changes in the course, not incorrect pacing. I won the race in a time of 32:24, sprinting at the end to hold off Lynn Jennings. It was the only time I ever beat her—I was typically a full minute behind her in track 10Ks.

I love my Garmin!

Despite what I’ve written above, I have to admit that I’m pretty hooked on my Forerunner 10. Ironically, with my knee arthritis I can run very little now—at most two 5K runs a week, and usually less. I value my Garmin more for my bike rides than for my runs since I can still cycle long distances and test my limits. I find it motivating to hear my watch beep every kilometer and see my splits.

Yet I’ve wondered sometimes if paying constant attention to the watch and its numbers takes away some of the pure enjoyment of a run or bike ride. I’ve had to tell myself during workouts not to look at the watch so often.

trail at Mundy Lake in Mundy Park.

The trail around Mundy Lake is a favourite feature of several Mundy Park workouts.

It would be sad indeed if we forgot that runs and bike rides can be a time of freedom and escape from the cares of the world. They can be a time when we just enjoy the healthy rhythms of breathing, striding, and sweating. For a while, we can be animals that blend into a natural setting with its own scents, moods, and weather. Runs can be a time for solitary reflection and creative thinking, or a time for socializing with running friends. Watches and their distracting numbers should not always be interfering with those kinds of runs.

Two friends at Lost Lake in Mundy Park

My Toronto friend Steve thinks running in Mundy Park in May is wonderful! At Lost Lake.

Lost Lake in Mundy Park with ice.

Mundy Park running is great in February too!

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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3 Responses to Sport watches part II: Is there really a coach inside the watch?

  1. Pingback: The middle-aged athlete part two: being a guinea pig for heart rate experiments | NancyRuns&Writes

  2. olly135 says:

    Thanks for your very valuable insight into running and activity watches. You have helped me think more about, whether to, why to and what type to, buy, as regards sports heart rate/ gps watches.
    I found it most intresting and it will definitely save me money I could have needlessly spent. Yours appreciatingly O.J.Turner
    ps a 50 year old starting to get himself fit after 15 years of only rare real exercise.

    • Oliver, I’m glad you found my watch posts helpful. Watches can be fun, helpful, and motivational, but the most important thing is to get moving, either with or without a watch. I’m sure you can get fit again!

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