Tracking fitness? Use your head.

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“So why is it that fitness technology is so alluring? Part of the problem is that relying on feelings seems ‘soft’ and open to manipulation… For that reason, fitness technology can be a valuable reality check to make sure we’re reading our gut feelings correctly. The data collected by fitness devices can also be a great motivational tool; graphing your progress can be, dare I say it, fun. But it’s also worth making sure that you don’t neglect your odometer neurons, and all the other subtle and complex self-monitoring tools that come pre-loaded in the human brain.” – Alex Hutchinson

Anyone who’s ever stood at a bus stop or train platform waiting for the next scheduled arrival knows that there’s nothing so tedious as waiting for some arbitrary interval of time to pass. In a class or a meeting that ends on the hour, our minds plays tricks on us, and the minutes seem to have twice their normal duration. In the gym doing a timed exercise, a few seconds can feel like much longer. If we had to rely on our subjective sense of temporal reality, we’d quit early every time.

For such occasions, nothing beats setting a watch and handing over our free will to its stern and impassive oversight. Stay on the bike for thirty minutes; hold that plank for 60 seconds; continue those crunches until the timer says you’re done.

And anyone who’s ever had a really good run knows there are moments when time passes without our even being concious of it. They might be rare, but there are magic races when the next mile arrives so soon after the last that you wonder whether the course could possibly be accurate, and an hour can pass by in what seems like a few minutes.

So are we hopeless at knowing what’s actually happening to us, we creatures of such strong subjective moods and feelings? And if we wish to understand what’s really going on with our runs and our workouts, do we all need to equip ourselves with watches, GPS devices, heart rate monitors, and all the rest of the fitness-related gear that grows in sophistication each year?

Perhaps not so hopeless, according to a pair of studies cited in Alex Hutchinson’s recent piece in Toronto’s Globe and Mail (“The best fitness tracker? Your brain“)

The article cites results from an intriguing study of treadmill-running rats that showed that areas of the rats’ brains — what the researcher’s call “odometer neurons” — fire at regular intervals, depending on how far the rats have run or on how much time has passed. The study points to one possible mechanism for the way human brains are able to make similar judgements and estimate not only the speed and mileage of a run, but the amount of effort expended and the extent of the fatigue experienced. Perhaps the vague, but real “pace sense” that we have and develop is tied to odometer neurons.

The article also sites research that looked at 56 separate studies that compared objective and subjective measures of fatigue in athletes, and found that, in general, the subjective measures (how the athletes were feeling) were at least as accurate as objective measures (heart-rate variability, blood pressure, hormone levels, immune function, inflammation, etc.) most of the time, and often more accurate.

It would be foolish to deny that GPS watches and fitness trackers can provide useful data. But what is the best way to make use of this data? As Hutchinson writes:

“There’s little doubt that more specialized fitness devices such as GPS watches can offer greater precision than, say, your odometer neurons. The more important question is whether this additional precision is useful – and whether learning to rely on it has any downsides…

[The ability to self-monitor] isn’t just a neat parlour trick. The problem with external measurements of your effort is that they can’t take into account bad weather, a long day at work or other factors that might make the same pace feel easy one day and hard the next. That means you’ll sometimes push too hard on days when you needed a break and not hard enough on those days when everything feels easy but your watch tells you you’re at the ‘right’ pace.”

It’s a fascinating question on a familiar theme: as tracking technology gets better and better, do we lose the incentive to develop our own powers for tracking what’s going on in our bodies? If we don’t have a GPS watch to tell us that we ran a mile, do we still feel like we’ve run that mile? I’m sure that my watch and SmartPhone are more accurate than my odometer neurons when it comes to estimating how much I’ve accomplished, and that’s fine with me.

Personally, I like technology and I think it’s pretty cool that I can measure so much about my runs, with no doubt even more impressive measurements to come in the near future. But I also think that all those measurements means little unless the data are fed back into a human brain — my brain — for consideration, for analysis, for interpretation, and for the ongoing education of the wetware that’s responsible for lacing up my running shoes and getting me out the door in the morning.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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