The Science and Art of Running

10 04 2008

Written by F4 Coach Scott Gurst (on his Birthday):

Once upon a time, there were no watches. No Garmins. No VO2 max or lactate threshold tests, no Zones 1 through 4, time trials or races. Our caveman and cavewoman ancestors didn’t know how fast they were running or what zone they were in when they were chasing down food that could still run away, or dodging the occasional saber-tooth tiger or wooly mammoth.

When you were a kid, and the doors opened for recess, you weren’t concerned as to whether you were going out too slow or too fast. You didn’t monitor your pace or heart rate. All you knew was that the swing set only had six swings, and if you wanted one, you had to beat a lot of other kids to the playground.

For much of your life, you ran purely on feel. You ran hard when you felt good, slowed down when you didn’t. And you probably didn’t spend too much time in evaluating yourself, and judging whether or not you had done a good job. You liked the feeling of running, playing games, being involved in sports. In fact, the only time you didn’t like running was when you had to run a mandated distance, with a whistle-bound gym teacher recording your time, which of course would never measure up to those classmates blessed by nature with that fascinating but elusive gift called athleticism.

But at some point, you got older, and your goals changed. (That’s not a bad thing at all. After all, you would look silly sprinting for the swing set these days.) In addition, technology changed, along with the knowledge base about the science of running and the physiology of the human body. Suddenly, there were a lot more tools available to collect data, and a lot more knowledge about how to use that data to get faster, improve your running, and be able to run smarter, and more efficiently.

Your watch now helps you keep accurate split times, monitor your heart rate, and set off alarms if you are out of the proper zone for your workout. Your Garmin wrist-top computer tells you exactly how fast and how far you are running, tracks the elevation profile for easy download to your computer, and can even generate a virtual running partner that you can compete against on your runs. Your iPod can by synchronized so that it interrupts your pre-programmed motivational run music to tell you how far you have gone, or how much running you have left. Treadmills can be programmed to run at certain paces for certain distances at certain percentages of hill grade. Lactate threshold tests can tell you the heart rate at which you stop processing lactic acid efficiently, and generate a spreadsheet of zones for the most efficient use of your training time.

All of these great advancements in technology and knowledge can indeed help you to become a fitter, faster, smarter, and more efficient runner. But if you pay too much attention to the science, if it stops becoming an aid, and starts becoming the main focus, you risk losing something extremely valuable. You risk losing the art of running.

As much as we might surround ourselves with technology, all of the gimzos, gadgets, and spreadsheets can not replace one of the most important pieces of data we can have when running, which is, “How are you feeling?” There is no substitute for that, no piece of data or instrument that can tell you precisely how you are feeling at any given moment. How can a watch know if you’re having a good day? How can a Garmin know how you will react to the weather and course conditions? How can a spreadsheet know how tough you are?

What happens if all the data shows that you should be running at a 10 minute pace on a particular day, but for some reason (which you may not know), you feel great. Maybe the weather is perfect. Maybe you’re really well rested. Maybe you’re confident, energized and excited by a workout the previous week. Perhaps the data isn’t completely accurate because you had an off day at the time trial or LT test. If you run at a 10 minute per mile pace simply because the data says that you should, you’ll be missing a great opportunity, and not really gaining as much benefit as you could from the workout. What if you really are capable of running faster, but hold yourself back, just because your Garmin said so?

Conversely, suppose you feel like total crap. Would it make sense to push yourself to a certain pace if it wasn’t the right pace for your body or the conditions on that day?

The fact is that while data is good, it is not the gospel, and doesn’t tell the whole story. Heart rates rise and fall depending on the temperature, humidity, stress levels, time of the month, etc. Mile pacing targets are good on flat ground, but become inaccurate if the course is hilly, or the wind is blowing. As you become more fit in your training, the data you got a few weeks ago might become dated. Unless we test you every morning, the you’ll never be exactly sure where your Zone 2 ends, and your Zone 3 begins. If all you do is structure your runs by watching the device on your wrist the whole time, you might be missing out. The only way you can really know is to gain the ability to feel it. And like anything else, that takes practice.

In reality, that’s what the data is for. It provides an estimate, enough to get you close, so that you can practice what it feels like to run at different paces, in different zones. If you’ve never trained before, the data is invaluable. But over the long term, one of the goals of collecting data is to get you to the point where you don’t need it all the time. Wouldn’t it be great of you could tell how fast you were running without having to look every ten seconds? Wouldn’t it be great if you ran a race where the mile markers were placed incorrectly, and you intuitively knew that were the case, because you could trust what you were feeling more than the people who carelessly set up the course?

Alan Culpepper says that some of his best runs come when he’s not paying attention to how fast he’s running. If that’s the case for an elite athlete who competes at an Olympic level, might it also be possible for us? Sometimes, there’s only one way to find out. Every once in a while, leave your watch, Garmin, heart rate monitor, and iPod at home, and just go run. Remove the clutter and absorb yourself in the experience.




7 responses

11 04 2008

Well said G!
Happy Birthday and kick ass next weekend, take in the experience and just run!

11 04 2008


Happy birthday sir! I agree with Jen – WELL SAID!!! It’s nice to know others think this way as well. I suppose I’ll find out next weekend…….


PS – I still like sprinting for the swings. What else says, “I’m a kid at heart” better than a playground?

12 04 2008
Richard Paradis

I too think it is cool to run to the swings… It is also cool to run to the bus stop, to run up the stairs, to run around the block… Yeah, sometimes I run without my watch too. It occurs to me that I would run even if I didn’t race. Thanks for reminding me!

12 04 2008
Dick Kurschner

Really enjoyed reading your article,very well said. Thanks much,
and keep writing,Happy Birthday to you.

17 04 2008
Kim Bertele

What a beautifully written piece- you are quite a writer! Good luck on the race that you are training for.
I can’t wait to get back out and run for the fun of it!

17 04 2008
Edward Dageforde

With only a couple of years running under my belt I have been going through different phases. I did go through the technology phase, but somewhere last year I started to focus on myself and how I was feeling. Now I use the technology just to keep tabs on things, but the final say is how I feel for the race I am running and with that I can speed up, or slow down, as needed. You put all of that into words so well.

20 04 2008
Donna MItchell

Happy Birthday Scott,
I will add this to my Gurst(isms) file of really cool things you have said in the past. You are amazing!
Donna Mitchell

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