Running is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, biologists suggest that a capability for endurance running helped shape the evolution of the human body. For example, by not using our front limbs to aid walking we assumed an upright, bipedal gait, freeing our rib cage and lungs to adopt more versatile breathing patterns.
And being able to run long distances allowed our ancestors either to reach carcasses before other scavengers, or to run some mammals to exhaustion, kill them and eat them. It was simple.
For most readers however, running is not so much about hunting down mammals. It’s more of a cheap and cheerful way of getting, and staying, fit, while enjoying the physical and mental health benefits it confers.
Decades ago, when I took the walk of shame at my rugby-playing school to join the cross-country team, my biggest expense was a pair of good running shoes: you laced them up and went running. It was simple.
When I go for a run, the only technology I carry is my front door key
But we don’t “do” simple. Yes, we might yearn for the simple life, or endorse the KISS engineering design principle of Keep It Simple, Stupid. Yet there’s no escaping complexity.
In his The Brain is Wider than the Sky: why simple solutions don't work in a complex world (2011), Bryan Appleyard observes: "We are complex and we welcome complexity; it feels like home."
Appleyard's contention is borne out with running. When I go for a run, the only technology I carry is my front door key. Many of today's runners, however, wear watches only previously seen in Dan Dare comics; watches that record more physiological parameters than an intensive-care unit.
We're in the age of the digital runner and cyclist
When it comes to two wheels – according to cyclingireland.ie, there are 450 clubs with 28,000 members in Ireland – many of the bikes used by recreational triathletes and cyclists have handlebars so cluttered with electronic gadgets that they'd leave a fighter pilot goggle-eyed.
We’re in the age of the digital runner and cyclist, where you just don’t go for a run or out for a spin on your bike; you deploy GPS technology, things called “apps” and their associated software-hosting platforms to record a splurge of data that you can pore over and post online for worldwide consumption. It seems that running or cycling can only be enjoyed in retrospect, once you’ve uploaded your calorie expenditure, heart rate and (for all I know) urine analysis data for all to see.
In a recent article in the journal Health & Place Prof Jo Little of Exeter University considered the influence of technology and nature on women's approach to running, finding that its application to monitor performance and fitness could be both enabling and disempowering.
For example, Julie viewed her wearable tracker as a training partner, “helping her to pace her running so as to achieve maximum performance and also record what affect [sic] it was having on her body”. But Fran became obsessed with her tracker “to the extent that if I was 0.2 of a mile less than my training plan I’d run round the car park till I’d done it”.
For a third respondent, wearable technology, became an unwelcome burden “even making her feel bad when her speeds started to fall away and she saw her weight increase and fitness decline. Then it became, in her words, ‘self-defeating’.”
As a confirmed technophobe I'm hardly an unbiased observer, but physiologist Dr Nick Tiller of Sheffield Hallam University's Academy of Sport and Physical Activity (@Dr_NTiller) has expert knowledge on how technology – and the data it provides – can not only be applied to promote exercise and improve athletic performance for runners and cyclists, but what the pitfalls are and how they can be avoided. Tiller, who is also a keen ultrarunner, told The Irish Times that we now have access to a seemingly endless array of data and statistics pertaining to each and every aspect of our training sessions: "A few of these metrics," he explained, "can be especially useful; for example, running or cycling according to precise heart rate zones can help you maximise physical adaptation, so that no effort is wasted."
A focus on irrelevant metrics can side-track you from more important issues, not to mention diminish the notion of training for fun
He also points out that many elite endurance athletes will plan their training around a measure called the lactate threshold: “This,” he says, “is a metabolic threshold which indicates submaximal efficiency. Monitoring power or speed can help you to track your progress throughout the season, help with goal-setting and even plan and execute racing strategy.”
But Tiller also highlights a possible drawback of this approach: “The disadvantage of this number-tracking is that an obsessive focus on data can create a barrier between you and the experience of the session; a focus on irrelevant metrics can side-track you from more important issues, not to mention diminish the notion of training for fun.
“In my opinion,” he added, “from the point of view of consolidating my professional life as a scientist and my personal life as an ultramarathon runner, there’s a balance to be struck.
“On the one hand, carefully moderating your training on feedback, and periodising your training, is the key to success and injury prevention. But on the other hand, it’s important to take some time out from the daily grind and unshackle yourself from the binds of the information age. Find a balance; know when to strategise and when to switch-off.”
It’s clear, on reflection, that technology can be deployed effectively to enhance athletic performance in both recreational and elite athletes. However, as Dr Nick Tiller reminds us, there is a balance to be struck between carefully monitoring your physiological and other parameters and remembering that there is an important component in acquiring and maintaining fitness which cannot (yet) be measured by an electronic tracker: fun.
Perhaps one of the many lessons I need to learn is that there is a difference between something being complex and something being complicated. Technology can be complex yet simple to operate and understand; we humans, however, can be both complex . . . and complicated. Simple, really.