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Running Metrics: Are they right for trail runners?

by Larry Carroll

In some ways, running feels like the most primal of instincts. Watch any child and you’ll see the evidence: Just moments after we learn to walk, we’ll try to run. In no time, a child learns that moving your legs faster will get you where you want to go faster – and immediately begins testing the limits to see how fast they can go.

In other ways, running has never been more cutting-edge than now. With the rise of GPS, heart monitors, smartphones and endless apps to document and analyze every aspect of your run, there is a limitless amount of information at your fingertips. The question then presents itself: How much is useful, and at what point does it become overwhelming?

Heart rate, cadence, average pace per mile, vertical ratio, ground contact time and other such metrics are becoming increasingly popular, as are the Apple Watches, Lumo Runs, smart shoes, LifeBeams, and other devices used to capture such information. But do they deserve their popularity?

For starters, let’s take a look at the heart rate (HR). Among many runners, it is considered the best indicator of running effort because the faster and harder you push, the more it will increase. Devices typically track both average heart rate and maximum heart rate (the formula for which is 220 minus your age). Then there are the HR zones, popularized by Garmin, which give you zones like “Warm-Up” or “Very Fast Running” based on your perceived maximum HR. 

But the heart rate is particularly tricky. It takes a long time to register, so if your metric is telling you it is too low or too high, it’s very difficult to make an adjustment on the fly. By the time your heart rate’s lag time has caught up to your body, you might already be in need of a recalibration. 

There’s also the matter of practicality in the body. Rather than concerning itself with the rate your heart is beating, the body cares about its rate of cardiac output – measured by heart rate times stroke volume, which can vary depending on hydration, stress and other factors. In short, heart rate is a partial measurement of an overall picture – and examined by itself, is somewhat akin to measuring a car’s performance by only looking at the tire pressure.

Ultimately, the best data is what your body sends you during your workout via sweat, pain, breathing, cramping, and other manifestations. If you’re adept at interpreting them, you’ll be able to discern all the information you need about effort level, motivation and how your workout measures up against past efforts.

Sometimes, athletes can actually prevent themselves from a breakthrough if they are too obsessed with their numbers, playing to a machine rather than their best effort. Although monitors are machines, they are observing human bodies, which most certainly are not. So although monitors may judge you based on where they think your heart rate or calorie burn can be, that doesn’t mean that the target presented to a runner can effectively measure effort. 

For trail runners, in particular, the answer may lie in what has commonly come to be called “Mindful running.” The phrase refers to the process of listening to your body and using that information to fuel your training. 

Over at GQ, “Mindful Running” is referred to as meditation on the move, exploring the whole-body benefits of freeing yourself from electronics, timers, and demands for a personal best. At Trail Runner , meanwhile, a rating system is used to measure your effort level in various categories:

Breathing – Determine in advance how difficult your run will be, then attempt to focus on steady, rhythmic breathing to align your effort level with the amount of exertion you’re targeting.

Muscular Effort – In short, it’s all about improving efficiency by training yourself to run faster without significantly increasing your perceived effort. If your legs keep moving smoothly and your exertion rate is low, you’re on the right track.

trail runners

Mental Effort – Yes, it’s true. You run with your mind, and if you’re making true progress you won’t need to grapple with it constantly to push yourself.

Enjoyment Level – Is your recovery easy? Did your run feel like a chore? Such questions are easy to answer, and as it turns out, essential in reading the messages being sent by your body in regards to your training regimen. Ignore them at your own peril.

Ranking each of the above categories from 1 (very easy) to 10 (maximum effort), you can begin to analyze the data your body is sending you every day, and proceed accordingly – no electronics necessary, as fun as some of those toys might be. 

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