Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Choosing a Speed, Distance, Heart Rate Monitor

One of the disadvantages of a Polar HRM is that you cannot replace the battery yourself. So when mine started to die I took it as a sign to buy a new piece of kit and try a HRM with speed and distance. A simple idea I though but oh dear how it led to a prolonged bout of mental dithering! My mind filled up with stupid as I looked at all the options. It would have been much better if I had just said to myself ‘I need a new Polar’ or ‘’I’ll just get a Garmin’; bought it and then thought no more about it. But no!

The Difficulty of Choosing

I lined up all the usual suspects: Garmin, who seemed to have nailed GPS training; Polar, who are untouchable for heart rate training; Timex, who make the neatest watch and have a modular approach that looks like a good idea; and Suunto, who also seem to make good, nice looking training tools. The problem was they all had different strengths and weaknesses and I couldn’t work out what I really wanted. I changed my mind so often that at different times I decided each one was the one and almost placed an order.

Even the fundamental choice between GPS and footpod, was not clear once I had been convinced that the footpods were accurate. (At first I was a bit sceptical because I thought they would be affected by inconsistencies in my running style and variations in my gait. But all the reviews said they were accurate and I was further reassured when I read the whte paper from Dynastream, the company who developed the technology, which explains how they measure the acceleration through each stride, compute the foot angles and then calculate speed and distance.)

If I had no preference for GPS or footpod, what chance did I have in choosing between the different features? There are an awful lot of them and each model had a different mix. Anyway how would I know if something was really useful if I had never used it before? Aarggh thee was too much confusion. I needed to look toThe paradox of Choice to explain explains my pain. Its central thesis is:
“When people have no choice life is almost unbearable . As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy,control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point choice no longer liberates but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize”
I realised my error. I was trying to find the perfect speed/distance/ heart-rate monitor and that was silly. I was only looking for a tool and all I really needed was something that was good enough. Instead of looking at every possible feature and thinking ‘how neat is that!’ I needed to think only about what I really needed. As I am not a finely tuned athlete with an intricate training schedule these are fairly basic and every single model was more than good enough. So price becomes a factor and the cheapest by far was the Garmin 50 (i.e. the one with a footpod) and so that is what I bought. It cost £80, including the data transfer stick, which is quite remarkable. I bought it on Amazon and for some strange reason, at the time, it was cheaper to buy two units, one watch and hrm, the other watch and footpod, than the pack with watch, hrm and footpod. As a result I now have a spare watch. 21st century commerce can be really weird.

Was It A Good Choice?


The footpod is light, fixes easily into the laces and feels so unobtrusive that, when running, I completely forget it is there – a relief because I had been worried that I would always be aware of it and react like the princess to the pea. The advantage of the footpod is that if you leave it on the shoe, you only have to tie up your laces and you are ready to go. There is no waiting for a signal.

Its accuracy it is certainly good enough for my needs. I have checked a few runs against Gmap Pedometer and they are within 1% each other and when I have repeated routes they have recorded the same distance. I can thus be happy with the information it gives me.

There is not much to say about the heart rate monitor except that it seems to work. The readings are in line with those from my Polar so I assume they are accurate. The strap is a strap but comfortable enough. A major plus is that so far I have not noticed any phantom readings so the watch is very good at blocking interference.

The watch display is a weakness. You can only see two types of information at a time, which is a shame because 3 would be better. if I could see heart rate, speed and elapsed time I would be happy for most of the run. As it is to check the information you need you have to cycle through the displays by pushing a button. You get used to this but it is a bit fiddly

Downloading the information to the computer is easy as the wireless USB works well and the software presents the information well so that I can easily track my progress. However I find it a bit rigid. There seems no way of adding information from other (non Garmin)sessions and it doesn’t export in a csv format for use in a spreadsheet.
But these gripes are minor compared to the pleasure I having something that is easy to use gives me graphs to study.

Overall the Garmin 50 works as it is meant to. I can now forget about it and just get on with running - but of course with the fun of extra information. I am very pleased.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Slightly Old Fashioned

I do not use my blog to record my runs; instead I prefer to write out the details in a notebook. There is something about the act of hand writing my diary whilst still in the post-run, relaxed frame of mind, that is pleasurable. In saying this I am admitting that I am not part of the modern world ( illustrated by this piece by Tanya Gold about giving up technology for a week , where she found out she was unable to write using a pen ) but sometimes we just have to own-up to things.

One of the advantages of have the diaries is that I can easily look back, year on year, to compare. When I do I realise two things. The first is that there is a recurring pattern of stop start i.e. I will establish a routine for only a short time before something happens to break it; the second is that it is almost written in code, with my own names for different section ns of the runs. They are of absolutely no use to anybody else. Nevertheless it is useful to have the books on the shelf, especially on winter evening when I am planning what I will be doing in the upcoming year. They earn their shelf space.

I have been thinking about this quite a lot recently as we are in the middle of an exercise of going through our possessions, trying to reduce the amount of clutter. To be kept, something should be either useful, beautiful or have sentimental value. Sometimes it is a hard judgement to make but the question must be asked.

Recently we emptied the loft, to insulate it to modern standards, which has led to an enormous amount of sorting. Stuff kept there is either sentimental, or of very occasional use (otherwise it wouldn’t be in the loft) and because it had been out of sight for a long time much of it had been forgotten. The process is therefore slow as everything has to be looked at carefully and memories are stirred.

Sometimes there are discoveries. Amidst some of the memorabilia from my father I found this telephone contract from 1907 (the signed contract is on the other side of the charges). Where it came from I don’t know, except I have a vague recollection that he found it in the loft of one of our houses. He would have kept it out of professional interest (he worked in telecoms all his life, as did my grandfather). Certainly none of my ancestors would have been wealthy enough to own a telephone in 1907. According to this site the annual fee of £17 would today be worth £1,236 in terms of increases in the retail price index but if it was looked at in terms of per capita GDP it would be worth £7,571. That is an awful lot of money to talk to a small number of people.

It shows how much things have changed in 100 years and I will think of that when I next take out my fountain pen to write in my notebook. A very tiny anachronism.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Childlike (or even childish) Delight

The last post was all about how you see things you are primed to see. Another small example is the way I unconsciously look-out for diggers or other engineering works on my runs – all because of Adele. Rather heroically she is preparing for the London Marathon by pushing a running buggy and keeping her son amused at the same time. Spotting diggers is obviously the thing to do as it is well known that kids love diggers. But what is my excuse?

This picture from my last run has no digger but is the result of engineering work. They are replacing some lock gates and have thus had to drain a section of the canal to enable them to do the work. As I have never seen the canal empty of water, I found it quite exciting – in a distinctly childish way. I was surprised at how shallow it is and it shows why, every so often, they will need diggers to remove silt. Also you can see more clearly the wear and tear of a couple of hundred years.

If I ever needed a reminder of what is good about running, this picture provides it. It shows me that no matter how often I run a route there is always something new to see and that looking more closely at something increases your understanding. It brings you closer to the landscape and whether you see interesting new things or not, just being out on a sunny day, by the water (well for most of the run) and under trees lifts the spirits.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Freewheelin' Mark Rothko

The idea for this post has been hanging around for a few weeks. I have hesitated because it seems a little self indulgent (or more accurately a little irrelevant) to describe some of my thoughts whilst looking at paintings in the Tate’s Mark Rothko exhibition. However the thread of ideas eventually led to some thoughts about running and so the inclusion in this blog can just about be justified, even if it is a little longwinded.

It was the last week of the Rothko exhibition and I decided to go again. It one of my personal quirks that I like to look at the Seagram Murals fairly regularly and this exhibition had the full set, not just the ones in the Tate’s collection. My fondness for the paintings dates back to when I was about seventeen or eighteen and for the first time felt the emotional power of abstract art. I don’t think I had looked carefully and for a long time at any single painting before that moment but in that sombre room I sat very still and just looked and stared. Afterwards I felt a mixture of elation and puzzlement. How would have believed that that such a thing was possible?

It could be that I like to revisit those painting just to remind myself of that moment and that time in your life when you are more open to such flashes of insight, it could be that I like to see them because every time I do they look a little different, or it could be that I like to be reminded of their seriousness of purpose. Whatever the reason I like looking at them.

Before going to the exhibition I had been reading the memoir of Suze Rotolo, who was famously on the cover of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. She and Bob Dylan were lovers and for both of them it was their first serious relationship. Their youth, affection, and ease with each others just shines out of that photo. The memoir tells of both of the family background that helped her find the strength and independence of spirit to feel at home in Greenwich Village (communist immigrants, low on wealth but high on culture) and the folk and art scene of the time. (There is a good article about her and the book here).

The epigraph in the book is a quotation from Italo Calvino (“Who are we, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way”) from Six Memos for the Next Millennium. This is a book I know (and even referred to). Each section deals with a literary quality but the ones I always think of are lightness and quickness (these are after all the qualities which should be associated with running!).

Without knowing it I came into the exhibition primed. The first thing I noticed was the audience. In small second room, where there was just one painting, resting against the wall were three middle aged men (myself included), looking at the work. Sitting on the ground, raptly studying the picture was a man in his mid sixties, grey hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing a green shirt with red patterned trousers. I easily imagined him as an art teacher still embodying the ideas/dress of his youth. Although I had no reason to think he had spent time in America (or was American) I began to picture him in the New York I had just been reading about. I then looked at all the other people and wondered how many of them would have been of the right age to see these paintings as new and fresh, when they first came out. I then started to think of the intellectual excitement of those times, what it would be like to see these paintings fifty years ago and what the audience would have been like.

When sitting down looking at the Seagram murals. I was again struck by how the simple shapes shimmered and changed. Also be their weightiness - they emerge from mist like the stones of Stonehenge. The person sitting next to me had an audio guide that carried an image of a Warhol Campbell’s soup can and this made me think further of opposing traditions in art: the heavy and serious vs. the light and witty. I enjoyed the few moments I spent thinking about this and looking at the paintings from this perspective but I’m sure it only occurred to me because I had been previously thinking about lightness and Calvino.

Outside, on the riverfront, I was passed by any number of runners and thought nothing of it until I heard someone coming up from behind. KerSlapp, kerslapp – each footfall was very loud, very heavy. This man has to be I big and heavy, I thought, a mighty oak of a runner, but when he passed he was just average height, average build. I suddenly realised that lightness was a quality, a matter of style. It was not necessarily related to physical weight. This man was punishing the pavement with an earnest determination but it shouldn’t be that way. I had come from imagining the time when those paintings were fresh and new. Now was here thinking how running ought to feel fresh and new not a grim duty

I had also been thinking about wit and profundity, lightness and heaviness, in art and how both had their virtues and both could be appreciated. Running though is very different – it is much simpler. The only way to run is to be as lightly as possible – you cannot be a profound runner. You can only try to be as fluid as possible and do as little damage to your joints and ligaments as you can. “Run easily, do not frown, don’t be too serious, lift your head up.” I suddenly saw what I had to think of on my next runs.

These resolutions would not have come to me with such clarity if I had not read a book about the New York folk scene before going to an exhibition of abstract expressionism. It is amazing how the mind gets prepared by random events. It is also amazing how once you start running you find yourself thinking about it in the most unlikely circumstances.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How Old?

How do you notice you are getting older?

It could be the increasing creakiness of the body and the way that aches and pains mysteriously appear. You go for a fairly standard run, everything is OK and then sometime afterwards there is a pain in your foot or leg. How did that happen? You have no idea as there was no warning on the run and nothing unusual to link it to. It is difficult to know if it is a minor inconvenience or something more serious. It is all very well trying to listen to your body but as I get older I increasingly find I haven’t a clue as to what it is saying. It’s as if it has started talking in a different dialect

Yes definitely those aches and pains come more frequently, randomly and stick around longer. In general recovery takes longer so you have to be more flexible in your scheduling. It is not that you necessarily cut back on the number of your session but that you must pay attention to how you feel and adapt your session accordingly. A piece of advice I read said you should run one mile to warm up and then decide how hard the session should be. If you feel like you are running through treacle then cut it short and don’t feel bad. This advice works for everything except the long run which requires more time, equipment and drinks. You have to plan your long run and then do it regardless.

But having to adapt your schedule is the same at every stage of your life: studying, working, socialising, and children affect the training of everybody apart from professional athletes. So adapting for age is nothing special. Neither is adapting to your level of performance as speed becomes harder. Whatever your age or level of fitness you are always pushing against your own limitations. Those limitations might expand with increasing fitness or contract but you run according to your capabilities at the time. Ageing makes no difference to your perception of effort and the basic classes are still slow, steady, and threshold.

When running I do not think of age. Running makes me feel more alive. It helps me connect with my surroundings and the seasons. That is all and that is enough. However I run at a relative exertion level and mostly do not know my speed.

That last sentence should now read ‘did not know my speed’ as I have bought a speed and distance monitor and can now see how fast I am running. Oh dear! I can now see that my internal judgement of how fast I run at different levels of effort is, to put it mildly, optimistic. Bugger! There goes another comforting illusion and I now have to readjust.

So in answer to my initial question the answer is – objective measurement. It does for you every time.