Numbers vs. Perception

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original Blogs.


Modern technology is amazing, isn’t it?

We have devices these days that can measure all kinds of things. You can get a single device that can measure your heart rate, stride rate and a close approximation of your pace at any moment in your run.

While not running, it’s not nearly as hard as it used to be to get a VO2max or lactate threshold test.

You can get an approximation of your body fat percentage in your own bathroom. You can easily track your sleep, your resting heart rate. I’m sure I’m leaving things out.

In short, we have no shortage of numbers that we can use to track everything about not just our training but also about how our bodies are responding to the training.

Is all of this useful, though? Does it make us better runners?

Back in the early 2000s, I got a heart rate monitor for myself. I’m a numbers guy and I believed the additional feedback with hard numbers that couldn’t be refuted would make me train smarter.

What I quickly discovered and, over the intervening months, couldn’t get past was that the numbers told me what I already knew and took longer to tell me those things. If I was beginning to run too hard, I could feel that before my heart rate began climbing. If I was slacking off, I could feel that before my heart rate dropped. If I was training too hard, I knew before I even saw that my morning heart rate was climbing.

The problem was that, with the heart rate monitor, I wasn’t always paying attention. I began relying on the device instead of paying attention to my body. I ended up reacting more slowly to these errors because I wasn’t listening to the early warning signals. So I stopped using the monitor. Today, I don’t even know where it is. I think I gave it away but I’m not even sure. It could be in a box in my basement somewhere.

As it turns out, a recent study suggests my gut feeling on this was right.

Subjective measures reflected acute and chronic training loads with superior sensitivity and consistency than objective measures.

In other words, paying attention to things like perceived effort and changes in our mood worked better than using "objective" measures such as heart rate, oxygen consumption or blood hormone levels.

I’m not suggesting that we should ignore these objective, numerical measures. However, if they get in the way of paying attention to your body’s responses, you might be better off either without them or finding ways to be less reliant on them in order to keep paying attention to how you actually feel.

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