GPS Depression

GPS devices have become increasingly common among runners over the past couple of years, and we train with many people who use them on a regular basis.

The devices are supposed to take the guesswork out of gathering information from each day’s run – but many times, they can create just as many questions as answers.

Here’s a typical conversation after the group completes our usual Friday morning route – and keep in mind that we’ve all run the EXACT same course:

While we’re stretching in the parking lot, Dave will start by asking, "Just how long was that run?"

Andrew will look at his GPS device and say, "I’ve got 6.78 miles with 1,142 feet of elevation change."

Jim will look at his GPS and say, "Mine says 6.62 miles with 988 feet of elevation change, with an average pace of 6.33 minutes per mile."

Jon, our resident scientist, will say, "Mine calculates it to 6.8417834290876 miles with 1,045 feet of elevation, an average pace of 6:45 per mile, average temperature of 38.6 degrees, and our correlation coefficient speed of inertia had a Beta factor of 1.23.”

(Or, at least, he says something like that – sometimes we don’t catch all the details.)

That’s when Dave yells, "HEY - I just wanted to know if we’ve been gone more than an hour! I have to get to work!"

It’s easy to see how the advanced technology can cause us to lose the forest for the trees. It’s also been known to cause cases of GPS-related paranoia and/or depression among long-time runners.

Think of it this way: what if somebody from your college called to tell you that after reviewing your transcript, they realized that you were actually 2 units short of graduation. You didn’t really complete the work you thought you had, and they were revoking your diploma as a consequence. You’d freak out, right?

That’s sort of what runners feel like when using GPS devices for the first time. Suddenly, all of our runs become shorter than we always assumed, and our mileage totals don’t add up to the same numbers we’re accustomed to.

For example, the distance of our regular Friday run was historically agreed to be 7.5 miles. We have years of training logs attesting to the fact that we ran 7.5 miles every Friday. So you can imagine our horror when the first GPS readings from this run registered 6.7 miles.

The situation becomes even more nightmarish, as the GPS almost NEVER says a run is longer than we thought – only shorter. Our 13-mile Tuesday run is actually 12.7. Our 7-mile Wednesday run is merely 6.3. Worst of all, our crucial 20-mile marathon training workout may not even be 19 miles.

After all these years of running, we suddenly found out that we owe a lot of mileage to make our training logs accurate. When we thought we were 50 mile-per-week runners, we were actually only hitting the mid-40s. When we were proud to log 80 miles per week, it might have only been 74. It’s enough to drive runners towards antidepressants.

Some of the discrepancy can be chalked up to innocent confusion over certain distances. Before GPS, we’d drive road routes in our car to measure the mileage, or guess at trail distances based on our pace, and come out with close estimates. Then we’d do some rounding. 6.84 would round up to 7, and 5.06 rounded down to 5. We figured that over a long period of time, the occasional overestimates and underestimates would cancel each other out – and it made the math much simpler that way.

However, the short GPS readings can also be attributed to real live, honest-to-goodness scientific inaccuracy. GPS devices come with some inherent technical limitations based on their mode of operation. They can intermittently lose their satellite signal - particularly on routes through canyons or with a lot of tree cover - and need some lag time to recover. The distance you run while the antenna is searching is “uncredited”, and doesn’t count toward your overall mileage.

(While training routes seem to always be short by GPS, it’s interesting to hear GPS users claim, “the course was long” after doing a race. Over any course with lots of turns or curves, it’s very easy to measure a few tenths of a mile long if you’re not taking all of the tangents. Sometimes you just can’t please a GPS’r.)

Thankfully, we’ve also become familiar with the Beta factor, which seems to be just the anti-depressant we’ve been looking for. After one morning run measured remarkably short and caused much consternation among the group, Jon – remember, he’s our scientist - plugged his GPS into a computer running analysis program and calculated a Beta factor of 1.23 for on our 6.8 mile run.

What the heck does this mean? Well, taking in to account all the hills along with our speed, those 6.8 miles could be multiplied by 1.23 to arrive at an actual “training value” of 8.4 miles. As you can imagine, we absolutely love the Beta factor!

Of course, we still face the same training log dilemma. Do we record 6.8 miles, or 7.5 miles, or 8.4 miles with an asterisk? It all seemed a lot easier when we just wrote “one hour run.”

Actually, there’s nothing that prevents us from going back to the way things used to be. Some people will swear by GPS and never go without it – but the real joy of running is in the experience, not in the numbers. It’s something that all of us - whether we embrace the new technology or not – should always keep in mind.


Snot Rocket Science

(Warning: the following column contains graphic descriptions of an unflattering body function. Make sure you’ve finished breakfast before reading.)

During the winter months, there’s an easy way to spot the novices in a crowd of runners: they’re the ones carrying Kleenex.

The rest of us, after enough training miles, eventually become skilled in the delicate practice of clearing our nasal passages using nothing more than one finger and a well-timed blast of air. Today, we’re going to explain how it’s done.

That’s right … we’re talking about snot rockets.

Runners certainly didn’t invent the process of ejecting snot directly onto the ground, but – like everything else we do – we’ve trained ourselves to do it very efficiently. In the wintertime, the combination of cold temperatures and lingering congestion force many runners to become experts in the technique.

The act is also known as “farmer blowing”, but this moniker doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of skill and risk that are involved in the procedure. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s fairly complicated nevertheless … so let’s just call it snot rocket science.

Yes, there is risk involved, and several factors to consider in order to launch these projectiles safely. So follow this advice, and no one gets hurt.

The first lesson in snot rocketry is timing. You can’t just run out the front door and start blasting. The human nostril is a complex mechanism, with narrow parameters of operational efficiency. The machinery needs proper lubrication to perform effectively, a process that can take several minutes after the start of your run. If you try to launch from a dry chamber, you’re bound to just push the payload down onto your cheek.

You also have to wait until your snot reaches the proper critical mass for expulsion. The test is to exhale gently through your nose, and if you feel substantive thickness and pressure on the rim of your nostril, you know that all systems are go.

However, before launching, you need to carefully check your surroundings. A typical rocket travels downward with a posterior and lateral trajectory – think of a cone-shaped distribution range - so you shouldn’t be alongside or in front of other runners when you let fly. Proper etiquette dictates that a runner move well off to the side of a group, to ensure that his/her fellow runners remain out of the blast line. Be sure to check your blind spot over your shoulder as well to avoid any friendly fire incidents.

Another consideration if you’re running in a public place is to check that there aren’t any impressionable children – or anyone else who might be offended – around when you blow. Rocket launching is similar to swearing: generally OK for grown-ups to do under certain circumstances, but not something you want kids to go around mimicking without understanding the ramifications.

Once you’ve determined the proper launch time and assured your positioning, it’s time to pay attention to technique. There’s nothing more embarrassing than coming home with a giant booger on your shoulder or thigh because of a sloppy misfire.

(Before we proceed further, here’s one final disclaimer: Please note that the following instructions pertain to unilateral (one-sided) launching. The method of discharging both nostrils simultaneously – sometimes referred to as a Double Texan – is a highly risky maneuver to be attempted only by experienced practitioners.)

It isn’t as simple as turning your head and blowing. The recommended technique for single-nostril blasting is to rotate your shoulders and hips slightly to the “involved” side, leaning partially forward from the waist. Inhale slowly while placing the pad of your index or middle finger beside the opposite nostril. Gently press the nostril shut while you forcefully exhale, expulsing the contents of the full nostril onto the ground.

Some runners prefer the European variation of hand positioning, where the pad of the thumb is placed upon the opposite nostril, with the remaining fingers extended above the blast line. While this is an acceptable alternative, the gesture is sometimes viewed as more offensive in nature, and the finger-on-nose technique is generally recognized as the gold standard.

Once the projectile has launched, there’s probably some cleanup work to be done. Even if you have a clean shoot, most rockets will leave some splatter residue when they exit the blast chamber. After a successful launch, check to see if you need to wipe any such debris from the base of your nose or the margins of your upper lip.

Pay attention when wiping, however, and be certain to maintain adequate separation of wiping surfaces. Many runners use the tips of their gloves or the sleeve of their shirt to wipe sweat off their foreheads while running. When clearing away rocket residue, use a different section of your garments, and then – this is the important part – remember which parts of your clothing you’re using to wipe sweat, and which you’re using to wipe snot. You’ll feel like an idiot – not to mention look pretty gross - if you remove the stuff from your nose only to smear it around on your forehead a few minutes later.

Who knew there was so much to learn about blowing your nose? We don’t call it snot rocket science for nothing. The good news is that most runners become proficient in the technique after a handful of practice sessions.

And once they do, they don’t have to worry about bringing Kleenex on their training runs ever again.


You Had a Bad Day

Wait! Don’t tell us – you made a resolution to lose weight and get healthy this year. Now it’s only 3 days into 2008 and you’re already struggling with it.

Everybody sabotages their fitness plans from time to time – even your local running columnists. So we’re not going to beat you over the head this week about all the reasons you should be running.

Instead, we’re going to take you through a typical day, and show you just how many opportunities there are to screw things up. Remember the Daniel Powter song called, “You Had a Bad Day”? Here’s a small sampling of the ways you can neglect your fitness plan during the course of 24 hours:

Last night, you ambitiously set your alarm 30 minutes early in order to exercise before your work day. But when the alarm goes off, the bed feels so warm and comfortable that you hit the snooze button to linger a bit longer. 10 minutes later, you do the same thing again. And later on, once more. So much for morning exercise.

As you shower, you tell yourself that you’ll compensate by hitting the gym at lunchtime, so you pack a duffel bag with workout clothes and figure you’re still right on track for fitness.

You’re running a bit behind, and you really aren’t too hungry, so you hurry out the door without eating breakfast. But you’re not fully alert yet, so you swing by Starbucks for a little pick-me-up. You received a gift card for Christmas, so it’s not like you’re spending real money.

You order a grande caramel macchiato and a big cranberry muffin. It’s fine, because you skipped breakfast – and now you’re at the top of your game.

Arriving at work, you park as close as possible to the building and take the elevator up to the 2nd floor. You stow your duffel bag and sit down at your computer and catch up on e-mail. 90 minutes later, your office neighbor comes by with some leftover Christmas cookies that his spouse made.
(He’s getting rid of them because he resolved to eat healthier in 2008.)

You smell the cookies and realize how hungry you are. So you grab a few cookies, which is OK because they’re little ones, and because you didn’t eat breakfast. You eat one of them now, and put the others on your desk to save for the afternoon. 10 minutes later, those are gone as well.

At 11:30 your coworkers stop by to invite you out to lunch with them. You stare at your duffel bag for about 2 seconds then agree to go along. It’s OK, because you might be able to quit work a bit early and go for a quick run before going home. You pile into the elevator with your coworkers and head down to the car.

You go to your favorite restaurant and order a large meal, since you’re still catching up from breakfast. It’s OK to eat big though, because you’ve started a fitness program, and you’ll burn all those calories off soon enough.

During meetings and phone calls after lunch, you gradually feel your energy level wavering. At 3:00 it seems like a good time to visit your coworker who always keeps a bowl full of Reese’s mini Peanut Butter cups at his desk. It’s OK, because those are your favorite candy.

You talk to him a bit and idly eat 3 minis, then decide to grab a couple more as you head back to your desk, which is OK, since they’re minis. You sit back down with renewed energy, a smile on your face, and a bit of chocolate on your cheek.

You finish the work day make it all the way to your car before you realize that you left the duffel bag in your office. At this point, it’s a total hassle to go back inside to get it, since you’d have to wait for the elevator, then say goodnight to everyone all over again. Besides, you figure that traffic is crazy, so you don’t really have any extra time to work out. It’s OK, because you’ll have three chances to exercise tomorrow.

On your way home, you call your family, and decide that it would be a lot easier to go out for pizza instead of cooking dinner tonight – so you meet them at the pizza parlor.

You have 3 pieces of pepperoni pizza, 2 pieces of garlic bread and a glass of red wine. It’s OK, because garlic and wine are good for your heart, and because you’re going to skip the spumoni dessert.

At home you spend two hours sitting on the couch, catching up on TV and reviewing the newspaper and magazine articles about exercise that you’ve been collecting.

As you climb into bed, you try to get a little loving from your spouse, but she complains that you smell like garlic. So you go into the kitchen and have a big bowl of ice cream. It’s OK, because ice cream is your comfort food – and besides, you’re going to set your alarm early tomorrow to start exercising.

So you had a bad day. These things happen to all of us. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t become a cycle that repeats itself day after day.

Bad days don’t become perfect ones overnight, and fitness doesn’t happen immediately. Changes are small, and gradual, and usually happen one at a time. But if you dedicate yourself to achieving them, you’ll gradually make big improvements over the course of the year.

We hope that your 2008 is filled with many more good days than bad ones.


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