Are numbers evil? (should runners quantify their training?)

Are numbers evil? (should runners quantify their training?)

When it comes to reviewing our running training – or quantifying anything related to yourself as an individual – we have never had more numbers and measurements available to us than now. We can safely predict that even more numbers are to follow in the years and decades ahead. This trend comes with benefits and with drawbacks and like any other trend – with its detractors and advocates. The moderate detractors merely point out what should be common-sense: that every number you look at must be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s a representation of reality – not absolute reality itself (indeed, neither is the image you see when you look through your own two eyes).

As our watches have become more advanced, the voices against ‘running metrics’ have also grown stronger: almost like a faction of ‘number-Luddites‘ – taking the stance that we should eschew all measurement (presumably except timing the races and measuring the courses although you will come across non-competitive souls with such opinions) – in favour of ‘running purely on feel’.

A bit of history

Measuring our performance in running is not a recent phenomenon. My oldest running book is from 1938 and it talks extensively about times run and miles logged. Similarly, if you read Rob Hadgraft’s books about runners in the 19th and early 20th century (such as his book ‘The Little Wonder‘ about Alfred Shrubb), you will notice that while technology did not allow today’s many measurements, runners were still keenly interested in quantifying their efforts.

Why? Because the essence of our sport arises from quantification – how far and how fast did we run? Even in  disciplines where big focus is placed on ‘the experience’ such as mountain and fell running, you will find most competitors having a keen eye on numbers: where did they finish in the field? How fast did they run the course? What was the course record? What was my percentage of the winner’s time?

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Sir Roger Bannister’s training diary – from a time often said to be ‘before numbers’ where we ‘were still doing well’. Even then there was plenty of focus on numbers… (image reproduced from BBC News)

Our sport is about covering the same distances in less time or running faster for longer. We began by measuring distance and time and from that ‘pace’. Then we began looking at metrics telling us what effect these distances, durations and paces had on our bodies such as measuring the heart rate triggered by our exertion. We put numbers to our subjective feelings about runs through tools like the ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion‘ scale (1-10) or Gösta Holmer (the inventor of Fartlek) and Arthur Lydiard’s ‘efforts’ (1/4 effort, 1/2 effort and so on) or simply by expressing percentages (’20 min at 80% of your best effort’).

Some coaches see these numbers and instantly want to hold up a cross and cry ‘evil, I banish thee!’ This fails to recognise that numbers are purely another form of language (it is commonly said that mathematics is the language of physics’).  When I tell a runner to go ‘run 20 minutes at half your best effort’ or ‘go run 20 minutes at an effort of 5 out of 10 on the RPE scale‘, I am expressing the same sentiment through two different cyphers. Numbers have certain advantages (indeed, our understanding of numbers even seem to predate language) mainly that they offer less room for interpretation. While ‘half your best effort’ is quite precise many training prescriptions tend to be more open to interpretation by the runner (‘moderate pace’, ‘easy effort’, ‘steady’).

Sometimes this precision is very important especially when it comes to practicing the specific pace we are training to achieve in a race during key workouts (such as when Bannister broke the 4-minute mile – great care was obviously taken to do workouts under that 60-second per 400m lap threshold). Although heart rate is not as precise because it can be influenced by many things not related to the exercise you are doing, it nevertheless has served as a wake-up call to a lot of runners we have worked with. Some insist that ‘this pace is easy’ until we measure the heart rate and we can see ‘well, it’s 85% of your maximum heart rate – that’s not easy for the body’ (and vice-versa). Reviewing heart rate scores is therefore not necessarily an exercise in ‘not trusting your body’ but rather ‘learning to interpret your body’s signals honestly’. More experienced runners often need this less – unless they have grown complacent – but these runners often focus more on other metrics such as time and pace.

Numbers and practice

The latest innovation in measurements has come in the form of Power metres which measure the work you produce to create the pace you are running at – in itself a very interesting measure of something hard to understand – running efficiency (more in this in later articles). But it has triggered fears that running will turn in a similar direction to cycling – two eyes constantly glued to a  Watt number on the screen. The fear is understandable because modern watches have thrown a bewildering amount of numbers at us: training effect, stress scores, VO2 predictor, and so on and so forth. All of these can be useful especially when you work with a distance coach who cannot watch you ‘trackside’ and I think the problem has been somewhat overstated of these ‘metrics’.

To become a better runner you need to be competent – and competence requires purposeful delibrate practice. This again requires focus and that your attention be firmly placed in the present moment (‘for more on this concept and practice I recommend Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now‘). Coaches who advocate an intuitive approach are pointing out that we spend too much time trapped in a stream of thought and don’t pay enough attention to what happens in our bodies. They are not wrong – we are an intellectual culture now – not a physical one and the world around us is designed to rip our attention away from what we are currently doing. Having a number on your watch does not necessarily cause the effect you see when someone interrupts a healthy conversation to check why their SmartPhone made a sound, however. Rather if you run to a certain pace, heart rate or Power output, the number keeps you focused on the task at hand rather than allowing your thoughts to drift into daydreams or the work you need to do when you get back into the office. If we check the screen every second and ignore the signals from our body then we obviously have a problem. Then we have moved too far in one direction. If we always run without any type of quantification of our effort, I will argue we have moved too far in the other direction. Not necessarily for health and well-being – you do not need many numbers for that –  I am talking about performance here. Kenyans are often brought up as natural intuitive runners. Yet read the schedules of those trained by coaches like Canova and you’ll see very precise schedules and stories of a coach driving behind the runners with a watch monitoring each athletes heart rate ‘live’ – and unlike most of our runners in ‘The West’, they really are running faster than ever before (at least in recorded history).

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This sort of caricature – here courtesy of – is inevitable when we get overly focused on ‘numbers’ but the keyword is ‘overly’ not ‘focused’.

Making fun of the number junkies

Beginners need less numbers and should not forget to keep things simple but even at this nascent stage of our running career, employing key measures helps create a better understanding of what running is about. Heart rate and power can help a novice understand what ‘true easy’ and ‘real hard’ truly feels like and pace and duration will provide the numbers to progress in a logical manner. This is what numbers are all about, of course, helping us to make sense of a complex reality and assisting us when our own senses lack the precision to distinguish accurately between one thing and the other. 10 km today will still be 10 km when you think back 5 years later – how you believe you felt doing it may be hardly remembered. If you ran 5 min/km using 200 W today and find yourself doing it at 180 W in 5 years time, you have a clear evidence that something improved which can be used to find out more about how to train now.

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Renato Canova in his car with a Kenyan – oh dear! – wearing a watch. Image copyright of Brendan Bannon.

In any debate, it is the caricature that scores the easy points. We runners have left the door open by our slightly excentric habits like switching the watch off and looking down on it the moment we cross the finish line or running a lap around the house to make sure our GPS records a round number (the 2.5% GPS deviation be darned)*. In my experience these caricatures do not reflect the real day-to-day beahviours we see among even those of our runners who are very fond of their metrics and their watches – we teach them to interpret these numbers and give them a wide range they can assess during and after runs to hit the type of stress we want to create. But almost all of these runners make their own judgments both before, during and after runs in resepct to the workout they were given. The numbers instead facilitate a proper discussion between coach and athlete about what was planned versus what happened. The guidelines we provide serve as an educational framework within which each runner learns to understand how to do a workout correctly. So it brings MORE focus to each workout – not LESS. Subjective targets are part of this framework.  For more dive into the current videos on reviewing training, I am publishing at the moment.

* Incidentally, while this is funny and an example of what appears like zombie-like adherence to numbers, there is a different way to interpret this custom which is: ‘not making it a habit to finish the job before it is done’. While the number on the GPS watch is ‘symbolic’ (i.e. ‘5 km on the watch might not be exactly 5 km in reality’) what it represents is real. By not stopping at 4.95 km, I believe many runners are simply trying to create a habit of ‘not stopping short of the task I have set myself’. In that way it is similar to – pre-GPS watches – when we would make a point of not ‘stopping until we’re at the door of our house’. When left to our own devices, we will often want to stop before we should – in this way we use the distance on the watch to ‘coax us’ into ‘giving that little bit extra’. Without a doubt this can have a a detrimental effect on certain personality types. 

In closing – it’s not the knife, it’s the hand that wields

Numbers and watches are no different from knives, hammers, and SmartPhones-  whether they are useful or harmful* depends on how you wield them. In my current video series (find the first part here) I am talking about such numbers and how to make use of them. I hope after reading this you feel you can probably use such a number without waking up in the morning and feeling like you’ve lost complete touch with your body. Believe me – if you did – there’s a more fundamental reason than looking at your watch every now and again.

At the same time, numbers and metrics like any other tools can become an obsession that occupy more of our attention than is ideal. If we spend more time analysing our numbers than doing necessary technical drills and other rehab and ‘prehab’ work which could directly imprpove next day’s running, then we have crossed this boundary. If it causes us to spend an extra hour in front of a blue-lit screen late in the evening when we should be lying in bed reading a good book and winding down, then we have also crossed this threshold. But the problem here is not the numbers (you could write them down on a piece of paper) but your general relationship to technology along with your ability to prioritise what is most important in the present moment.

* There’s  separate debate about the safety of our electric devices which I will leave aside here although I encourage everyone to read Dr Robert Becker’s ‘The Body Electric‘ and ‘Cross-Currents’ )doctors, therapists and professionals should also get ‘Energy Medicine – the scientific basis‘ and subscribe to Dr Jack Kruse’s Patreon page ‘Quantum Biology’) and then search the extensive article library that is currently emerging on the many battles between governments and private companies around safety of various types of technology from computers to electric pylons to mobile phones. We do not yet fully understand the risk they pose to us – so despite the basic message of this post being ‘numbers can be very useful and we recommend using some’ – it is not an endorsement for wearing electric gadget 24/7 while you are also surrounded by several other electric gadgets. There are too many unknowns and too many known risks – limit your exposure to the necessary.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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