How Much Technology Is Too Much For Runners?

Heart rate monitors and high-tech watches have become essential gear for many runners these days. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

The case for and against technology in running.

It wasn’t so long ago that a digital watch capable of taking splits was considered high-tech for runners. Until recently, most runners jotted down notes about their training in composition notebooks and no one ever thought to track elevation gain on their Monday recovery run.

Oh, how things have changed.

We live in the age of data. It started slowly, with tools like heart rate monitors and later GPS-enabled watches, but the pace of technology has ramped up in recent years. Runners, eager for detailed information about their training, were early adopters of wearable technology. Today, for less than $100, a Fitbit can track REM cycles and soon, high-tech socks will analyze overpronation. Between smart watches, mobile apps and social media, the fitness-tech revolution can be overwhelming.

The truth is that technology can make us fitter and faster but the downside is that most runners find joy in the simplicity of the sport. Is there a healthy place for technology in running, or should we leave the gadgets at the door?

The Running-Technology Revolution

The tech revolution has done a few great things for running. First, it’s helped grow the sport. Technology makes running more appealing to those who are less inclined to run. Purists might scoff at the idea of “dumbing down” the sport, but the list of benefits is expansive and well-known. Any movement towards a more active and healthier society is a positive one. Frank Shorter inspired 25 million Americans to take up running in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The iPhone is having a similar affect on today’s culture.

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There are benefits for seasoned runners as well. Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project athletes are known for their use of technology, which includes heart rate monitors, anti-gravity treadmills and altitude tents. Their experiments have proven to be successful, as Salazar-coached athletes Mo Farah and Galen Rupp took home the gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 2012 Olympics in the 10,000-meter run.

But you don’t have to be a 27-minute 10k runner to benefit from technology. A GPS-enabled watch can free any runner from the confines a track. Measuring pace on the fly is a much better simulation of a road race than taking splits on a 400-meter oval. For runners less inclined to invest in hardware, mobile apps like MapMyRun and RunKeeper are free ways to keep track of pace and distance. An additional benefit of widespread broadband Internet access is the availability of online coaching programs, which are proven to help runners get faster.

Technology is key to the success of some athletes but running is about more than racing. For many, it’s a therapeutic outlet that requires “unplugging” to be effective.

It’s OK To Be Old-fashioned

“Running is the strangest sport because it is so simple. Right, left, right, left. Yet it can be so many other things too — pain, sadness, reward and pure bliss.” That’s how trail runner Ricky Gates framed his love of running in an April 2013 interview with Competitor. Isn’t that exactly the reason to keep tech and running separate?

While some technology has made running more accessible, the Internet, social media and devices like smartphones and tablets are some of the key factors behind the obesity epidemic. The average office worker can easily spend eight to 10 hours each day looking at a screen. Mobile devices and social media exaggerate the problem, particularly for young adults.

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FoMo, short for “fear of missing out,” is a real disease. In fact, 54 percent of 18- to 34-year-old Americans indicated they would rather get a root canal, spend a night in jail or, ironically enough, run a marathon before giving up social media, according to a 2012 report.

It seems obvious that Americans need to take breaks from technology but it’s not easy. Some people are actually paying money to have their devices and Internet access taken away for a few days. Experiences like Digital Detox, a three-day camp where tech is banned, are gaining popularity as more people recognize the need to disconnect.

Running can be the perfect outlet, both physically and mentally, for people to escape the pressing demands of life, work, e-mail, text messages, and Twitter. The collection of data by watches, fitness bands and mobile apps means runners are back on the computer after runs, checking their numbers and sharing the data. It can also create an unhealthy focus on miles and pace, driving some runners to train to satisfy their training log, not their body.

Finding The Right Balance

We need technology in 2013. It’s how we work and communicate. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean that it should be at the center of our exercise routines. There is a place for technology in running that doesn’t take away from the liberation every runner needs once in a while.

RELATED: Are Runners Too Tech-Dependent?

The balance is different for everyone but here are a few suggestions for managing technology:

- Use tech sparingly. Try to find ways to use technology to enhance your running while leaving out any tech that brings you down. For example, use your GPS watch to track splits on your next tempo run but leave it at home when on easy days.

- Leave your phone at home. Running apps collect a lot of useful data but there is a trade-off. When you workout with your smartphone, you’re more likely to succumb to the anxiety caused by FoMo. Will you be able to ignore a text message? Or an e-mail from your boss? At the very least, put your phone on airplane mode and focus on the run.

- Don’t share everything. It’s really tempting to post the results of a great run on Facebook, but beware of over-sharing. Running is about your personal well-being, not bragging. Rather than posting your distance, pace and elevation gain, save that tweet for your next PR.

How do you unplug? Let us know in the comments.

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About The Author:

Jimmy Daly is a runner, writer and photographer based in Washington, D.C. He ran cross country and track and field for the University of Delaware and has completed three marathons since graduating. Follow him on Google+ and Twitter.

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