Running by the Numbers: Tech Gadgets for Nerds

Hi folks,

Two weeks after the Newport Half-marathon, and I have settled back into my workout/running routine (more or less).  And that includes the Sunday long runs.  I’ve decided to start another Hal Higdon Half-marathon training program, and since I’ve got one under my belt, I’ve moved up to the “Intermediate” level.  And I’m taking his comment on cross-training to heart.  Because I’m not interested in just running to keep me in shape, I’m sticking with three days of running and three days at the gym per week.

If you’re anything like me, you may find it occasionally difficult to get yourself to go work out.  This is particularly true with me and long runs.  Luckily, I have a wife that will ignore my whining, and drag me out the door to go pound the pavement.  Unfortunately, she’s been nursing a bit of an injury lately, so I was on my own today.  But I do have another trick to get me to go run, and that’s technology.

I’m a bit of nerd.  Always have been, and probably always will be.  Add that pre-existing condition to four years of studying engineering in college, and you might understand why I love numbers.  Not necessarily math (I came very close to failing my last math class), but numbers in the form of data.  Information that can be used to quantify performance and transformed into charts and graphs.  I love that stuff.  And luckily for me, there is a plethora of devices and services that will give you all the data you want.

I’ve been running with the Garmin Forerunner 405 for about 3 years now.  I like it, although it is by no means perfect.
Pros: Lots of options for workouts, reasonably accurate, nice size, good analytical software
Cons: Learning curve, occasionally takes forever to get a signal, sometimes gets temperamental when linking to compute, not happy in wet weather

Let’s start with the good.  The 405 is small enough that you could wear it as your everyday watch (assuming you can get away with wearing a digital watch).  But it still has a very usable screen area.  And you can customize that screen area in a multitude of ways.  You can set up to 3 screens to display information like time, pace, distance and other stats, so all you need to do is tap your watch to get the info you need.  For me, if I’m feeling good, I look at the pace and pat myself on the back for being so awesome.  For the other 98% of the time, it’s usually set to the remaining distance, which I check every 15 seconds and then sigh heavily as I slog through the miles.  I’ve also used it for interval training, which you can set to distance or time.  I’ve tried using the feature that allows you to set a goal pace, but overall, I don’t think that works very well.  I think it’s better to set it to take laps at regular intervals (1/4, 1/2 or 1 mile usually) so it can average your pace.

And the Garmin Training Center does a good job at visualizing your data.  It even gives the option of reviewing the whole run (at accelerated speed).  This is kind of fun if you’ve been running hills, because you’ll see your heart-rate spike (assuming you’re using the heart-rate strap) and your pace (probably) drop as you attack the hill.

That said, the 405 is not perfect.  I don’t think the user interface is intuitive, and I’m usually pretty good at being able to figure electronics out just by using them for a bit.  Once you learn it, it’s fairly easy to get it to do what you want, but it takes some time.  And speaking of time, let’s talk about the time it takes to lock on to the GPS signal.  Sometimes it’s almost instantaneous, and other days, it’ll take over 5 minutes.  I might attribute it to the urban environment I’m living in, but I had the same issues in places with wide open sky view.  And it always seems to take forever when the weather is really lousy.  Occasionally, there will also be issues with using the wireless transfer to put data on your computer, but that seems to happen more when you’re trying to update the 405’s firmware.

Aside from training, it’s fun to bring the 405 along on other outdoor pursuits.  I particularly like taking it skiing.  Once you sync with your computer, you can output into a Google Earth  format and see everywhere you went.  On a good day, between the runs and the lifts, you can cover upwards of 40 miles!

I haven’t taken it on any big hikes yet, but I imagine it would work well in that capacity as well.

So do you need fancy GPS enabled electronics to run successfully?  Absolutely not.  I occasionally force myself to go out without even a watch on so I can just focus on the experience, or really listen to what my body is telling me.  But for me, it adds to my enjoyment and helps get me out the door, so I think I’ll stick to my nerdy runs.