It is impossible to stay current with training trends nowadays without hearing about the latest technology, gear, and how to use and interpret your data in order to get the most out of your running. Elites and even non-elites get their VO2max tested, their lactate threshold tested, know their resting heart rate, their maximum heart rate, and their hemoglobin levels. They utilize the latest technology, such as GPS watches, heart rate monitors, compression apparel, and take exotic supplements and the latest superfood fads. You might be wondering how much of this you need.
None. You don’t need any of this in order to run well. While you definitely need to know some information about your body and its fitness, and some technology will help, you can still be a very successful runner by following a very simple, very ancient training philosophy. It can be summarized as running a lot, and doing some faster running, and letting your body recover. Every single training program in the entire world is based on those three tenets; it’s just the details that change.
One of the great things about running is that it is a very simple endeavor. Humans are meant to run, and you don’t need any special gear in order to run. Really, all you need is some comfortable clothes and shoes (and some would say you don’t even need those). You don’t need a watch, or a special fuel belt, to go for a run around your block. Running is the purest of activities, in that you truly can do it without any gear or implements.
Now, as I said before, data and gear can be very beneficial. It’s good to know how far or how long you are running. Having quality shoes is crucial, and having comfortable clothes that don’t chafe can make running much more enjoyable. But whenever you feel tempted to buy something new, or incorporate more data, ask yourself what you are getting out of it. You can go to a sports physiology lab right now and get your VO2max and lactate threshold tested. But what will that tell you? You can come pretty close at estimating those just by running a 5K this weekend instead.
Likewise, you can buy the latest and greatest GPS running watch with a heart rate monitor that also tracks your cadence, ground contact time, leg speed velocity, and vertical bounce for $1000. Or, you can get a cheap stopwatch and run around the track, which is more accurate than a GPS anyway, and take your pulse the old-fashioned way. As for the other metrics, they are completely unnecessary. The very best runners in the world all have varying levels of cadence, ground contact time, and vertical bounce, so knowing your’s serves no purpose whatsoever. It’s just noise. You can try to improve one of them, but all that really matters to us is one thing: your speed over a certain distance.
Having so much information can take away from the actual intent of training. To my previous point, in a race, your body and brain only know what effort you are running, and for how long. It doesn’t know or care about any other measurements. In training, therefore, we need to increase the speed at a certain effort. So one could argue that the best way to do this is by training at effort. In fact, some of my best fitness has come after a block of doing nothing but effort-based workouts. In other words, instead of running 800m repeats at 5:20 pace, I would do 3-minute surges at 5K effort with no indication of distance or pace. This means the actual pace changes from day-to-day, and even within the same workout, depending on any myriad of factors: wind, temperature, elevation, fatigue, etc. But rather than suffering because of the lack of data, I contend that the workout, and the realized benefit, is actually enhanced because of it. We learn to run by feel instead of relying on outside feedback, and that is key to actually racing well.
As I said before, running is a simple sport. Needless complication serves no purpose other than to sell goods and services. What made Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Joan Benoit-Samuelson so good in their days? It wasn’t GPS watches, silver-infused socks, or beet smoothies. It was good old-fashioned hard work. It may not be glamorous, it may not sell gear, but it gets the job done. So next time you head out the door, pause before lacing up your shoes and ask yourself what you really need. If you’re anything like me, you may find that running is much more enjoyable when you have nothing to distract you from the rhythm of your feet on the ground and the wind in your hair.