Thursday, January 31, 2008

Letting Go

Just recently I acquired one of those fancy devices that allows me to track my heart rate, duration, distance, pace, mood, likeability factor, weight, percent water in the body….you get the point. It’s a device that has a lot of numbers.

At first, I found the device absolutely overwhelming. First of all, how can you tell where you are going if you are always looking down at your wrist. Second of all, how can you call something reliable or even useful when it is always fluctuating. Third, is there a particular speed I am looking for that would allow me to call myself “good”.


So I've been thinking about numbers lately and then I read Marit's post which was all about numbers. It got me to thinking that a lot of us have numbers on our mind. Counting laps, counting steps, pedal strokes, swim strokes, intervals, speed, watts - ours is a sport filled with numbers to study and analyze. So with one more device to download and observe would it really do me (or us) any good?

Up until recently I had never done anything with pace. I never knew how far or how fast I was going. I would just guess. And the closest I ever got to a measured course was riding one of my favorite run routes on my cyclocross bike to measure it out. I became highly disgruntled when I realized my 1 mile route was actually .9 but close enough. That was the last time I measured any of my courses.

When I got this new device I thought I would have all of my problems solved. I thought I would finally know how far and how fast. But after a few runs it became apparent that I didn’t really need to know. And I shouldn’t really care. Because most of the time what it proves is that yes, I am running slow. And when I am going fast, yes I am going fast.

After a few runs I actually got angry at the device. It would start out slow (slower than my slow) – at a pace that I swear I haven’t run in years and then all of a sudden I would be moving along at mach speed. I figured there was a warm up period and then a delay between the satellites and the device. But still all of this waiting, guessing, pacing just got me mad.

Not only that, but it distracted me on the run. It got me away from focusing on what was really important – how I feel. Making the connection from my breathing to my body to my feet to my pace. And that’s what really counts. Because if you are running along and staring at your GPS device the whole time my friend, you are missing out. You are missing out on what running is really all about – listening to your body, pushing past, digging from within and breaking through.

I almost felt bad for getting such a device. I have sold out. Real runners don't watch numbers - they just run. So honestly I’m thinking I am going to abandon it for now. I didn’t need it up until this point and there’s no point in starting now. I’ve run fast in the past without it and I’ll run fast in the future without knowing how fast I can go.

Plus, there is always that feeling of disappointment when I start to push the pace and I look down at my wrist and it say x:xx. Which could be about 30 seconds slower than I feel I should go. Then I start to feel sorry about myself. I start think here it is, proof that Fedofsky has lost her touch. She has lost her run. And that’s really what we’re looking for, right? An excuse to confirm our worst fear for ourselves – that we are not fast, that we are slow, that we are going to lose, that we are stupid for even trying at all.

Running, swimming, biking fast is all about feeling good. It’s all about getting in that zone where you push past the redline of hurt into an effortless zone. You dissociate from your body and your mind carries you through. That is where the best swim/bike/run occurs. And to get there you have to really be in touch with yourself. You have to be pushing from within and ready to cross into that zone. When you are constantly checking your wrist/the clock/the computer and weighing your pace against your preconceived notions about numerically what is fast and slow – you distract from your opportunity to dissociate and reach that point.

And so, is our fixation on numbers, pace, and instant data feedback really just holding us back? Are the numbers setting us up to feel sorry about ourselves which turns into a cycle of I keep pushing and I get no where. I thought I was slow and this now confirms that I am slow. How will you ever run faster if that is the dialogue you are always having with yourself?

Furthermore, what about the reverse? Let’s say you are running along and the GPS picks up a pace that is really, really fast. Will your defensive mechanism kick in the other way to protect yourself? In other words, will you start to slow down because you think you are not good enough to hold that fast of a pace?

My point here is that before you get fixated on the numbers over and over again – ask yourself what the numbers really mean. What is the point of knowing your pace? If you know that you are going x:xx/mile will that make you have a better day. Or feel better about yourself. Or win a race. I will say with certainty that I have never showed up at a race knowing that a 6:27/mile pace would win the race. Sometimes it does but what really matters for the win (whether personally or overall) is that you respond to the race and race within yourself. And your best race might be a 6:27 pace or a 7:27 pace or 8:27, 9:27 – it is whatever it takes on that day, on that course.

When we focus on numbers we lose touch with that side of ourselves. We put obstacles and distractions in the way of just pushing from the gut. We get wrapped up in how far and how fast. When really we should just unwrap, unravel, just GO! Which is a hard sell. Because we judge and value ourselves based on speed – whether on the swim, the bike or the run. We want speed, we want fast and we want it now. But honestly, no matter how often you look at your wrist or watch the miles click by that won’t make you any faster overall. Because when you get to a race, what you need to do is go fast on that course. Chase down your goal. And push from within.

At some point you have to let go of the numbers, the paces, the heart rate. At some point you just have to swim, bike, run. Free your wrist (and chest) – and yourself - from the shackle strapped around that is holding you back. Sometimes you just need to abandon the GPS, the heart rate monitor and go by feel. Whenever I do my “hard” workouts I put all of that stuff aside. Hard is hard is hard. Fast is fast. It doesn’t matter how hard or how fast just push dammit. Go by feel. Feel it from the inside of your gut. Hurt. There is no magical number you hit where you can now say “I am hurting.” You just get there! And as long as you can put the effort down and get yourself there – it doesn’t matter how fast you go.

I was talking with one of my athletes the other day. She was frustrated because she didn’t hit her intervals in the pool. I asked her if the effort was there – she said yes. Then you win! Guess what, some days you hit your best pace and some days you don’t. Some days you feel like you’re blazing along at 10 seconds faster than your T-pace and the clock says you’re actually 5 seconds slower. You can’t get lost in tracking your progress day to day. And that is why you have to let numbers go. Because what you’ll find is that for every ONE good workout where you feel fast, there are about three to five where you ARE slow. You can’t win them all. But you can push through, you can reflect back to find what you learned and then when race day comes around you can give it your best. It will show.

Let go!


Anonymous said...

AMEN! SOO many athletes are so obsessed w/ their numbers - pace on the run, watts on the bike...SURE those are helpful as indicators of how we progress thru the year...but, if you can't HURT and suffer just for the sake of it...then, something is amiss. Easy means stopping and smelling the roses. Hard means VOMITING. Everything else is just in between.

Katie Weaver-Jongerius said...

Sometimes shutting off does a body and mind good! No stressing over distance, heart rate, watts, cadence. There's a lot to be said for just going for a swim, bike, or run and only thinking about the weather, the trees, the concerns in your head, and living in the moment!

Anonymous said...

all about the feel over here too.

the best use for those things is probably pace miles when you're really needing to hit a time, want to know what it feels like, etc. other than that, smell the roses, talk to the cows, feel that pain and enjoy!

Totally relate to this as a runner first. also, i have a little dog.

: )
Erin in cold, hellish WI

Alicia Parr said...

I never look at my GPS until I am done to log it, except a glance to make sure I have actually turned it on and occasionally at the mileage. I never never never try and calculate my pace as I run for the same reason that I do not have a scale at my home. Some numbers are best not known and you probably already really know what you need to know. I do think it's worthwhile to have some mileage logged for later analyis, but no fair beating yourself up if you don't post improvements every time out. If you're training big volume, you're going to have good days and bad days, and you probably won't know for sure what kind of day it is until your out there doing it. But you already said that. So I agree.

Mike said...

It's an interesting post but I have to ask are you saying Let Go of the numbers in just the training but not the racing or Let Go in both? Because 99% of us are not showing up at most decent sized races with much chance of winning - thus time/pace often becomes the main goal. If you have no idea what type of pace you've trained at, how do you set a goal for that race? Also considering that when we're talking running there's a lot of people rightfully focused on time and time alone, whether it be a boston qualifying time or an olympic trials qualifying time, or some other qualifying time. My thought is if you can deal with the results on the garmin - be willing to accept that 5 miles at 6:30/per mile will sometimes feel good and sometimes feel impossible, then knowing the pace can be a huge help in your training.

E.L.F. said...

That's a great point! There is a time and a place for numbers in workouts. There are certain numbers and goals that you HAVE to hit - Boston being one. Even some tri's. But for the most part I see a lot of athletes that get really wrapped up in the day to day "I only ran this far" or "it took x:xx to swim 100 yds". I'm just saying - don't get so bogged down in the day to day number parade & data analysis that you are always disappointed and talking negatively to yourself. Those patterns & conversations are hard to undo once they become a habit. But you are right - at some point, if you can't run a x:xx marathon, you won't qualify for the trials, Boston. Numbers are tricky! It is interesting to hear how different people approach them...

ellie said...

I am a bit obsessed with the numbers (yep - one of them) even though they are rarely pleasant. Having just come back from a stressy, I still get quite disappointed by my average pace (only ever use average for the whole run) but it inspires me to try harder because I know what my body is (or once was) capable of!! I like to see the evidence of improvement!

AGA said...

Well timed. I see numbers that are slower than I would like and I start to panic, thinking that horrible "I can't" statement, when in reality I've learned a lot about my body in the last few weeks. I never knew what I could do on the bike and now I have a starting point. I'm starting to feel paces and efforts, not staring at my HR.

All that being said there are times when I just want to hear the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the ground and not the beep of my watch.

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Hey Liz - great post. Very thought provoking.

I think numbers do have a useful purpose, but I like your point about getting the FEEL of your body. When the workout calls for "HARD", you go HARD. You're right: you don't need a hr monitor, power meter, gps unit, etc etc etc to tell you that you're going HARD.

I was particularily interested to read your take on the emotional side of numbers. For me, the numbers became infuriating, frustrating - emotional. Does this make be a "bad" athlete? Absolutely not - they were merely a reflection of what was going on in my body WITHOUT my full understanding. But your point about either slowing down or feeling the need to speed up based on the numbers was really interesting. If our numbers are too high - should we slow down (even if we feel fine)? Or reverse? Hhhmmmm.

Through training, through racing, we learn about ourselves, our bodies, our capabilities. Additionally, endorphins, temperatures, humidity... COFFEE... can all affect how our body responds. What if we've had 3 cups of coffee and our hr spikes? Should we slow down even though we feel fine? Moreover, how will we EMOTIONALLY respond to these numbers. "Oh my GOD - I'm maxing up zone 4 and I'm holding XX:XX pace! I am SLOW..." you get the drift.

I think Alicia hit it on the head when she pointed out that she checks her data source once at the beginning of the workout and then uploads the data afterwards. As for the scale - she was right again. We pretty much know what our bodies are doing, and as a result what WE need to do... it's simply a matter of implimenting what we feel.

And back to the running. Sometimes the numbers are okay to follow - ie trying to qualify for Boston or something of the sort. But come race day - well, the data is interesting, can probably be useful to a certain extent - but ultimateley the NUMBERS won't get you across the line.

We'll do that all on our own.

Thanks for a thought provoking post - excellent!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I am a new Triathlete and I don't really want to be a slave to numbers at this point but I am also so new I don't really yet have the frames of reference or history you have.

How to reconciler this unquantified "feel" with the post you did in December called "Holding Back". I don't really know what Zone 1 or 2 "feels" like but you said it was key to stay there to train my body to burn fat better and that Zone 3 is too fast.

Sorry if that is a stupid question but how do you know how to get in these zones where the training benefit is greatest without some device when you are starting?

Love your Blog!!!

Pedergraham said...

I had a swim day yesterday that was like the one your athlete had. The brain was willing and present, the body was willing but not really "there". Your last paragraph cheered me up.
Have a good weekend.

E.L.F. said...

Ok - to anonymous - that is exactly why I think beginners benefit from HRM's and other devices. Get a HRM that is easy to use and then test your zones. There are many resources out there that will suggest different field tests you can do to determine your bike and run zones. From there, work in your appropriate zones. And start to make the connection between how the #'s correlate to different feelings in your body (ie., at which point do you start to hear yourself breathe? how does your HR respond to hills?) good luck!

MikeS said...

Excellent commentary and a very useful balance to number slaves. Even so, here's the flip side for me: on workouts, I am pushing the upper limit of what's possible (on speedwork days) and pushing the lower limit of my ability of running/cycling slow. On fast days, I want to know how fast was I going, and for me, I don't get disappointed in the numbers, I just USE them as tools.

Ironically, it is the slow work that is the hardest to is very easy to run/cycle too fast on a day that is supposed to be slow and an HRM and/or power meter help with that tremendously.

On easy days, it isn't enough to have it feel easy, the work has to be below certain thresholds. Most non-elite athletes (and even some elites) don't have a well defined "slow gear" HRM gives them that visibility.

I did go through the phase of watching my numbers all the time, even on races, but that's because I had to build up my internal library of what a given pace felt like. I eventually ran a longer race all on feel and did pretty good, but definitely did not optimize my pacing. Why? Experience.

It takes a while to build up the "feel library" so that we know how close to the redline we are, how long we can hold a given perceived intensity. In the meantime, athletes can more properly structure their workouts to be training correctly.

My final point is, many people grew up with an aversion to numbers, and in my opinion, that shouldn't cause them to avoid the one tool - next to correct running shoes or a well-fit bike - that will increase their fitness and abilities as much as any other physical thing...except perhaps a great coach. :-) Keep up the great work!