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GPS Dependence

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 25, 2009


Do you know of any support groups or 12-step programs for GPS dependence? I am ready to admit that I have a problem.



I became GPS dependent back in 2001, when the first GPS-based run speed and distance device, the Timex Speed and Distance (know called the Timex Ironman Bodylink), hit the market. The advent of the run speed and distance deviceof which there are two versions today: those that are GPS-based and those that are accelerometer-basedwas an answer to a longstanding wish of mine. Ever since I was a child runner I had yearned for a device that would tell me how fast and how far I was running while I ran. Indeed, it's amazing to me how few runners ran out and purchased a Timex Speed and Distance the moment it was placed on store shelves, as I did, and how few runners use speed and distance devices even today. What serious runner would not want to know exactly how fast he's going and how far he's gone at any given moment throughout every run? Well, plenty, it seems. Even most elite runners don't use these devices. It's a real head-scratcher.



Like other addictions, my slide into dependence on GPS was gradual, but not by choice. I wanted to rely on it completely from the get-go, but the technology was so unreliable back thenthe device would lose its connection to satellites anytime a cloud passed over the sun, or I ran by a tree, or a bird flew overheadthat I had to get used to reactively switching back from real-time speed and distance data to reliance on raw time and external distance markers mid-run. Actually, Timex devices are still pretty unreliable in this way, but Garmins are not, and I made the switch to Garmins a few years ago. That's when my GPS dependence achieved full flower.



But there are still times when my desire for absolute reliance on GPS is thwarted, and at each such time I am reminded of the depth of my dependency. I once forgot to pack my Garmin when I traveled to a race. The battery has died on me mid-run more than once. And more than once the device itself has permanently died on me. When such things happen I feel almost as though my two legs have been bound together--utterly incapable of running.



Several weeks ago I switched from the Garmin Forerunner 305 to the top-of-the-line Garmin Forerunner 405. Its advantage is its compact design. It's disadvantage is its tendency to freeze up like a PC in the middle of my runs, something the 305 never did. This happens to me at least twice a week, and it's terribly annoying. It's like a tavern that randomly sometimes closes hours before it's supposed to and kicks its not-yet-drunken patrons out onto the street.



My 405 froze up most recently yesterday. It was an important workout: a progression run comprising eight miles easy followed by six miles fast (5:40-5:45/mile). Just as I was completing the easy eight-mile segment and beginning the progression, I hit the "lap" button and the device froze. So I had to run the entire six-mile fast segment by perceived exertion. This wasn't so hard; I'm experienced enough as a runner to know how to feel my way into the fastest pace I can sustain over a given distance. The problem was that I would have no way of knowing whether I had achieved my performance goal for the workout or compare it to past performances in similar works to determine whether my fitness was improving.



There were other runners on and around the track I was running on (I do all of my progressions on the track to facilitate speed) and I thought about calling out to one of them who did not seem busy at the moment and asking him or her to do me the favor of giving me a one-lap split so that at least I had some idea how fast I was running. But my pride got the better of me and I kept my mouth shut--or open for heavy breathing only, rather.



I guess that's a good sign. You know an addiction is truly serious when you just don't care what other people think anymore.



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It Just Feels Right

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 17, 2009


I am so happy that the phenomenon of pacing has become the object of serious scientific exploration lately, after having been almost entirely ignored throughout the history of the discipline of exercise science. Pacing is to me one of the most fascinating phenomena in endurance sports. In any race lasting longer than approximately 20 seconds one must go as fast as one can without going as fast as one can, if you know what I mean. That is a tricky challenge-arguably the single greatest challenge in endurance competition.



And yet this challenge was not only ignored for a century but so overlooked as to scarcely be recognized as existing. I think there are two reasons for this oversight. First, scientists could not see inside the brain, which is obviously the seat of pace regulation. Second, scientists could see inside the rest of the body, and since scientists always exaggerate the importance of what they can see, they came to explain pacing regulation-absurdly-entirely in terms of physiological events occuring below the neck. For example, they presented the argument that lactic acid accumulation prevents runners from sustaining a pace faster than the lactate threshold in marathons, overlooking the simple fact that if lactic acid levels acted as a pace governor in any circumstance then no runner could ever exceed his or her lactate threshold pace regardless of the race distance.



More recently, some curmudgeonly exercise scientists have responded to the new line of research into the pacing phenomenon by dismissing it as "too obvious" to merit such scrutiny. These scientists contend that endurance athletes simply know how far each race is and consciously hold themselves back appropriately instead of being stupid and sprinting their way to a quick and complete bonk from the starting line.



A new study by researchers at the University of Exeter shows how it really is. Eighteen competitive cyclists were divided into two groups, each of which performed a series of four, 4 km cycling time trials separated by 17-minute recovery periods. Both groups were instructed to complete each time trial in the shortest time possible, but members of one group were told the distance of the time trials before starting and were given distance feedback information throughout each trial, whereas members of the second group completed all four time trials blindly, although aware that the distance (whatever it was) of the four time trials was the same.



As you probably could have predicted, in the first time trial members of the blind group were far more conservative than members of the aware group and completed the time trial  much more slowly. But with each subsequent repetition of the time trial the blind cyclists went a little faster until, in the fourth and last time trial, the average finish times of the two groups were identical.



These results provide clear evidence that the subconscious brain plays a dominant role in the regulation of pace in race-type efforts. If below-the-neck physiology governed pace, the cyclists in the blind group would not have exhibited a learning effect over the course of the four time trials. Instead they would have performed exactly as the distance-aware cyclists did from the get-go. On the other hand, if pacing were controlled consciously, it is also unlikely that the times of the blind cyclists would have converged with those of the aware cyclists by the fourth time trial, as the blind cyclists had no distance information at their disposal at any time, but had to learn to pace the time trials optimally entirely by feel.



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The Pressure Is On

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 10, 2009


It has been a long time since I approached a race with more self-imposed pressure on me than is on me now as I approach Sunday's Palm Springs Half-Marathon. The nature of the pressure is mathematically simple. According to my favorite running calculator, my half-marathon personal best time of 1:13:31which I set at the 2002 Palm Springs halfis my strongest personal best at any distance. And my goal for my return to that event is not just to improve upon that time but to shatter it by running under 1:13:00.



Since I have not come within 80 seconds of my existing PB in any other half marathon I've run, it might be more sensible for me to simply aim to better my time by however little. But my perspective is that a 1:13:20 half-marathon is still a 1:13 half-marathon. When runners are asked what their half-marathon PB is, they may or may not mention the seconds. Half-marathons are long enough that the seconds are not always considered worth quibbling over. So I won't really feel that I have improved my half-marathon PB unless I am able to say that it's 1:12. (If pressed, I will confess that it's 1:12:59 and then stare daggers into the face of my questioner when he or she says, "Oh, so basically 1:13.")



But that's not the full extent of the pressure. Additional pressure comes from the fact that I am approaching this half-marathon as possibly my last chance to post a lifetime best time. It is certainly my last half-marathon before I run the Boston Marathon, and after I run the Boston Marathon I plan to switch into triathlon mode to train for Ironman Arizona in November and, should I qualify, for the 2010 Hawaii Ironman. At which time I will be 39 years old.



I might get a chance to squeeze another peak fitness half-marathon somewhere in there, but I certainly can't count on it, so I choose to view Sunday's race as a basket containing every egg in my possession. (Indeed, after setting my PB in 2002 I never could imagined that my next real chance to better it would come in 2009.)



Does this self-imposed pressure increase or decrease my chances of achieving my goal? In general I will say that performing to the very limit of one's ability requires the sort of pressure that comes from aiming high. There are athletes who crumble under such pressure, at least sometimes (and I've been one of them), but you can't blame that on the pressure. You have to blame it on the athlete. To perform to the very limit of one's ability requires both the imposition of pressure and the ability and will to handle it.



There are, of course, various kinds of pressure, some of which are less helpful than others. Athletes who seem to experience less pressure even as they perform to the limit of their ability are not, in fact, I would argue, experiencing less pressure than their rivals. They simply know how to put only the right kinds of pressure on themselves and are skilled in handling it. The perhaps all-too-obvious example is Tiger Woods. He clearly puts more pressure on himself than any other golfer, with his outright expectation of winning, but he also handles it with astonishing nerve and accepts it on his terms.



There was some hoopla during last summer's Olympics about how lots of Chinese athletes were choking because they were under too much of the wrong kind of pressure: the pressure of coaches and government officials telling them, "You'd better win a medal or you will disgrace your entire nation!" That'll get you every time!



I am under no such pressure as I approach Sunday's race. I merely want to achieve my goal because I know I will be proud for life if I do. To be perfectly frank, I think my odds of achieving it are somewhat less than those of winning a coin flip, but my open recognition of this fact is, I believe, an expression of a healthy way of handling the pressure that will ensure I race to the very limit of my ability, succeed or fail. That much I can guarantee: I will run my very best.



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Never Satisfied

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 3, 2009


Last Saturday I won a 10K road race with 1,025 finishers by two minutes. That is a worthy accomplishment. Very few runners are fortunate enough to enjoy the experience of breaking the tape at a large running event so far ahead of the next athlete that a cool-down jog is well underway by the time that next athlete finishes. Yet I was overwhelmed with disappointment when I stopped the clock at the Super Run 10K in San Diego this past weekend, because my goal had been not to win but to break my 10K personal record, and I came up two seconds short of achieving the latter. I've never really cared much about where I place in events. I've always been a time geek. And so a race performance that observers might have assumed I was proud of left me feeling hollow.



When I tried to explain my disappointment to my wife later she very sensibly told me I was crazy. She said she believed I was possessed of a spirit of discontent. No matter what I do, I'm never satisfied. That charge is fair in one sense, but wrong in another. I derive great general satisfaction from being a runner, and from being a pretty good runner. For me there is satisfaction in the feeling of fitness that I enjoy in daily workouts and in the accumulation of miles that I see within each week of training. I feel satisfaction in knowing that I tried my best in races-that I did not shrink from suffering-and sometimes I am even proud of my results.



But I am never satisfied with my race performances in the sense of being content never to improve on a newly set standard. To the contrary, even my very best performances are savored for no more than an hour or two before I start thinking about how much faster I could run in the future if I changed this, tried that, etcetera.



Sports psychologists say that the "spirit of discontent" is a hallmark psychological characteristic of high-performing athletes. Among them is Stephen Long, PhD, author of Level Six Performance. "Excellence begins with a level of dissatisfaction with your performance and productivity-fulfillment is overrated," Long writes therein. There are countless examples of elite athletes who spend little time celebrating their victories before setting down their trophies and scanning the horizon for new goals. My favorite example is that of the insatiable Haile Gebrselassie, the first words out of whose mouth after setting his second marathon world record in Berlin last year were "I can run faster." That is totally awesome.



Those who do not share the champion athlete's never-satisfied mindset might read Geb's words and feel sorry for him and assume that running does not make him happy. But he could well be the happiest runner on earth. He's so happy being a runner that he refuses to talk of retiring, but promises to keep training, racing and striving until he is effectively dragged out of the sport by the bodily disintegration of aging. The spirit of discontent not only does not stand in the way of Gebrselassie's enjoyment of running but is in fact the very manner in which he enjoys running. He just can't get enough speed in much the same way lovers can't get enough time together and some musicians can't get enough performing.



Make no mistake: Never satisfied is good.



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