We live in amazing times. The number of devices that provide self-quantification data are myriad. Maybe you work out with a watch or some apps that track your heart rate, speed, power, pace, rpm’s, steps, or METS. Perhaps you have a ring or bracelet that tracks your heart rate variability, sleep patterns, or caloric expenditure. You could analyze your dietary intake of macronutrients, calories, and micronutrients using some great interactive software. And you might upload your workout performances to Strava, participate in a Facebook group, or share your adventures on Instagram. That’s a relatively short list of device-oriented possibilities.
As with most things, there can be pros and cons with the use of extrinsic, or exogenous (outside the body and mind) health and fitness information. Let’s look at the pros first and focus on three areas: performance and functional feedback, dietary analysis, and data-sharing networks.
Before we can address those specific categories, we should examine the inherent value in obtaining, interpreting, and disseminating objective data. You don’t know what you don’t know. This may seem like a trite statement but it is indeed veritable. It can be undeniably interesting and motivating to know precisely what you are doing in a workout, how you are responding to training, and where you stack up with others in these pursuits. Knowledge is power. And guessing is not as efficacious. One of my colleagues likes to use a quote that states “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.” So it’s good to know some facts, but it’s also valuable to to weigh and measure how you look, feel, and perform…and what you think. More on this later.
Performance feedback can be instantaneous with many devices. This is particularly true when it comes to speed, power, and heart rate.The general use of various monitors is quite valuable with respect to velocity, effort, and output. You can see how fast you are going, what level or zone of exertion you are in, and how much measurable work you are doing. This kind of information allows you to plan, perform, adjust, analyze, and optimize training…at least on a theoretical level. Same goes for seeing a high HRV, a low resting pulse, a significant amount of deep sleep, and other cool factoids. I’ve measured all these things and more and I can assure you that it can be an educational, if not absolutely enlightening, experience.
Dietary analysis, using any of the outstanding trackers available today, can yield specific detail and guidance on what you are consuming. You can weigh, measure, and input your consumption and find out just how much fat, protein, and carbs you are consuming. Your portion sizes and total calories will be obvious. And the mere act of examining these things can lead you to healthier, better-informed food choices.
Social networks allow you to share what you have been doing and compare this to others engaged in the same or similar pursuits. This can be quite motivating. Anytime you make your goals or actions public you increase accountability. You may inspire others and also feel as though you are part of a tribe or community. These things improve consistency and often relate to very positive outcomes.
But, alas, there is a downside to all this information and connection. We can be drawn so intently to our technology that we lose touch with our intrinsic sense of how we are functioning. I like to call this inner knowledge “instinctive wisdom.” Every human beast is “wired” with an extremely accurate and sensitive intuition that tells you how and what you are doing. We are gifted with a feedback, a real-time, and a feed-forward system that is amazingly valuable. However, when we rely too heavily on those extrinsic watches, monitors, and networks, we may drift away from self-awareness and become somewhat internally disconnected. Let me go back to those aforementioned examples.
I work with a lot of endurance athletes and I can’t tell you how many times a runner has commented on device-generated speed and heart rate data, or a cyclist has weighed in on average or peak power. This information can be quite objective, but for it to be truly meaningful, it has to be correlated with an innate sense of effort.
I’ll take this example a bit further. Let’s say the runner is running along, fixated on the instantaneous pace readout on her GPS watch. She glances at it every 1.46 seconds to check to see if she is maintaining her target pace. There are a couple of problems with this approach.
First, she is placing so much attention on what the watch is reporting, in that it is constantly telling her how she is doing…she is practically oblivious to how this effort really feels and her own evaluation if this is “right” or not. Losing touch with the “feel” of the effort can remove the art from training, and particularly racing. I expect all my athletes to learn pace from objective means, but then to be able to transcend to their own sense of effort. This means that they should be able to remove their watch and report pace within a few seconds per mile and heart rate within a few beats per minute from their own sensations and experience. Make the device work for you…tell it how you are doing…don’t always let it tell you what to do!
Another issue with constant “watch-watching” is that the instantaneous pace data generated by the rapid sampling rate of the GPS can often suggest high variances in velocity. This is because even though average speed is a target we often want to maintain, the running stride often progresses in nonlinear fashion. The forward leg will often stall, or “float” in the air in terminal swing before it makes ground contact. A speed sampling in the early swing phase can appear faster than one in latter swing, perhaps by several hundred milliseconds. This, depending on the runner’s overall velocity, can cause pace to be reported 15-20 seconds faster or slower than the target, even when the average over even a few meters is right on the targeted speed. This causes the athlete to crazily micro-adjust effort, seeing a fast pace and easing up out of fear, or seeing a slow pace and pressing harder, ultimately creating an erratic, stressful situation that is less effective than just running by feel and experience. Stop running along staring at the watch and bouncing all over the place. Settle in and focus!
Now we can get back to nutrition trackers. First of all, if you are trying to analyze dietary intake, by all means weigh, measure, and input your food. Stop the guessing. I’ve had a bazillion clients in performance or weight loss who sincerely thought they knew what they were eating when they were way off in terms of calories and macros. But the con in all this is once you learn how many grams of protein are in an egg, or how much potassium is in an avocado, you don’t have to keep checking. Finding the foods, the feeding patterns, and the portions that work best for you is key. Your satiety, digestion, overall health, and athletic performance will let you know or corroborate with your tracker data. This thing gets “overcooked” all the time. Eat nutrient-dense foods to satisfaction when you are hungry. Give consideration to cravings. Drink to thirst. Don’t overcomplicate this natural act.
Those social networks that allow us to share and compare do indeed provide an opportunity for consistency, accountability, and motivation. But they can also be a massive distraction and time-suck. They also have been shown to cause feelings of inadequacy and even depression. Keep your health and performance data in perspective. Only share it with people who care about you and who will support you in your quests. And don’t get too wrapped up in what other people are doing.
Just some thoughts. Devices are cool and they give us information to work with…but they are not endpoints in and of themselves. Knowledge is power, but self-knowledge is ultimate power. Trust your instinctive wisdom and use data to support, not dictate to, your inner beast.