Why Numbers Don’t Work for Trail Runners

When I started running in 2006, I did it not because I wanted to change my lifestyle or lose weight or run races, but because I was fascinated with the idea that an accelerometer in my shoe could track my distance and pace. More importantly, that I could measure my progress without having to track anything on a spreadsheet.

I latched on to the numbers quickly. Much like any other beginner, all I cared about was increasing speed and distance. I became acquainted with multiple apps and Garmin watches.

A year later, I learned about training efficiency and I crunched even more numbers. I timed the peaks and troughs in my training volume, paid close attention to overload, and meticulously kept track of my resting HR and HR reserve. There was one summer when I ran every single race held by the NYRR.

I was quantifying everything.

Then, I moved to the south of Spain in a small town called Arcos de la Frontera. It was the first time I ran up a hill that was less than 1/3 of a mile broken into three steep sections: it starts at 29% grade, drops to 18%, and goes up to 32% just before you reach the peak. It was brutal.

Suddenly, my average pace didn’t matter as much as keeping my HR down. I also had to learn how to run on gravel. Most of the trails in Arcos are rocky and I always slipped a little whenever I sped up. It wreaked havoc on my pacing.

Trails in Arcos

Last week, I moved to Split where the trails are even greener and the hills aren’t as steep, but the course is more challenging. This is the view from Marjan Forest Park.

Marjan Forest Park

It has three peaks above sea level: Prva vidilica (125 meters), Druga vidilica (148 meters) and Treća vidilica (178 meters). Each peak has a long way and a short way of getting there. I can choose to take switchbacks, longer winding trails, steep or gradual ascents, a paved road, a dirt path, or a rocky terrain.


Regardless of what I choose, I always have to slow down. Much like Arcos, tracking my pace isn’t as useful on these trails. It would only frustrate me. Paths quickly turn rugged. Big rocks mean uneven footing. Shrubs can suddenly change to cacti! Daydreaming isn’t really much of an option.

Elevation gain is also tricky. It’s only as good as the satellite reception I can get on the trail. Once GPS accuracy gets a little spotty, so does my data. There’s nothing more frustrating than relying on data to validate the effort I put in to a run. I’m better off acknowledging ahead of time that the GPS will be less than ideal.

HR is really kind of the most reliable assessment of my trail running activities. In fact, I probably benefit more from ratings of perceived exertion since a lot of what I measure on the trail is qualitative:

  • These hills are a lot of work for my quads.
  • This descent puts too much load my knees.
  • This terrain feels like work.
  • These sharp turns force me to balance more.

The metrics that I value most on the trails are different.

I care about how difficult something feels so that I know whether to run it on an easy day or a hard day. I care about the hill grade, because moderately hilly terrain is great for short bursts of speed, whereas steep hills are better for bounding drills. I care about the type of terrain, in case I’m doing a long progression run and I want to avoid a surprise ascent in the fastest part of my run.

I imagine that a pretty expensive watch with a built-in altimeter would probably sort out my need to track elevation on the trail but, is it necessary? Not really.

I think the greatest value I derive from trail running is that it keeps me on my toes. Trails are constantly changing so I have to pay closer attention to my running: my form, foot-strike, the length of my stride. It teaches me how to become a more well-rounded runner and, that’s something I can’t really get from my watch.

Now, discovering unmarked trails? My GPS watch is usually pretty good at that.

This blog is participating in the Trail Runner Blog Symposium. Join the conversation at trailrunnermag.com

Runners tracking their data

After nearly a year of revising designs, throwing out ideas, and testing new functionality, we finally released Smashrun Pro. And, it’s truly befitting because, as we approach the end of the year, the concept of how data tracking has suddenly become a huge part of running as a social sport came to mind. Even races are now starting to take advantage of data and sharing it with their participants by indicating far more than just your splits but, also include a demographic breakdown of finisher stats.

I’ve had people ask me before about GPS watches or the best running apps to use. I usually point them towards DC Rainmaker or to this blog post I wrote about running apps and their data integrity. Those same people become one of two types of runners after tracking their stats for a little while: you either become tied to your data and you can’t ever seem to run without your watch or, you’re able to detach yourself from it whenever you need to.

The latter is actually pretty rare.

It’s important to understand that while data tracking provides consistency, structure, and a means for quantifying improvement, it can also hinder your progress.

Coach Jeff from RunnersConnect wrote an excellent article called “Don’t be a slave to your Garmin“. It does a really good job of summarizing GPS accuracy, pacing dependencies, and losing out on your easy days.

I think it’s hard for many runners to remember that tracking your stats can add noise to the big picture of your running. That we have to remain mindful of the variables that we compare. That we have to ask ourselves why it’s important to look at your pace trends, your total mileage, or the length of your streak.

I’m a chronic data tracker and it wasn’t until recently that I realized how much more fun I have when I don’t pay attention to my watch.

I still have to teach myself to just leave it at home sometimes but, for now, I think not looking at it while I’m running is a really good first step.

Trail Running in Arcos

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. –Paulo Coelho, Brazilian poet and writer.

Calvin and Hobbes

Image sourced from Brain Pickings

These days, I run alongside open fields. Just wide open fields. Occasionally, there’s a cute little white dog running around who likes to stand by Casa de Miguel. I think it’s because he thinks his name is Miguel. Other times, I notice the pair of German Shepherds just over the fence of a farmer’s land. They bark but then their wagging tails give them away. They’re actually quite friendly too.

The open fields are always empty. On an early evening run, I can see these trails bordering between peaceful and a little scary. Yet it’s so close to town, which sits on a towering hill that you can see in every direction, that you can’t help but feel safe all the time. It  helps that the sound of the church bells carry out into the valley.

And the orange trees… I only wish I could reach across the fences to grab the ripe ones. Luckily, they also line the plazas throughout Arcos. They’re all over the city!


I think I could get used to this. And Smashrun could do with a bit of elevation data to test with.

5K Race Report

Beach Ford All American Run 5K
Saturday, October 06, 2012 8:00 AM

Weather Conditions
72°F with 83% humidity, sunny with a mostly shaded route

Paved road, around a neighborhood but without too much camber. Flat.

What I liked About the Race
Very fast course and competitive participants, but everyone was pretty friendly. Lots of locals. There were guides from Tidewater Striders stationed at the end of each lap so it was really easy to know where to go. Oh, and the kids! There were so many cute, competitive little kids running the 5k. Of course, that meant a tricky start (crowded and a little bit of stampeding) but it thinned out pretty quickly after the first lap.

Race Objectives/Goals
Even pacing and a more controlled race effort. Clear the crowd from the start since there were no corrals. I also looked up last year’s best time for women in my age group (20-29) and it was 24:05, so I aimed to finish under 24.

Event Details
The race was basically a loop on the north end of Kingston Elementary School starting on a narrow section of Kings Grant Road. The starting line was pretty crowded, but clearing it didn’t require too much effort. Although it was easy to get carried away since the kids who were running the race started strong at paces around 6:30min/mi!

Most of the run was along treelined streets. There wasn’t a noticeable camber and it was easy to cut corners because there wasn’t much of a crowd after the first lap. I also think there was a water stop, but I can’t remember where along the course.

There’s a clearing towards the end so on a hot day, going for a strong finish could be a little rough. It was cool enough last Saturday so I was able to get under a 6min mile for my final sprint!

5K Route

5K Route

By the Numbers
I ran between 90-97% of my max HR for 80% of the race and about 10% > 95% of my max. My cadence was nearly deadlocked at 99 (198 SPM). My average at first split was 7:37, second was 7:36, third was 7:38, and the last 10th of a mile was a 6:17min/mi pace.

Other Thoughts
I am sad to report that I was a mere 17 seconds behind the girl who placed 3rd place overall for women. Sigh. Still, I felt great taking second in my age group at 23:29!

Winner! Sort of :)

Winner! Sort of :)

September 2013 – end of month running report

I made one of the best discoveries last month: the distance from our place to the Back Deck (an outdoor bar overlooking Lynnhaven Bay) is exactly 10 kilometers away. That’s pretty much my perfect distance!

It’s already  a  ritual to do $2 fish tacos and Tecates on the Back Deck on Tuesdays. It only made sense to make it even more worthwhile by running there and getting a ride back for the return. The view isn’t bad either.

The Back Deck

Beautiful sunsets every time

The route is a little tricky since the bulk of it runs along Great Neck Road, which has a 45mph speed limit and where you almost always feel like an SUV is coming straight at you when it’s cutting a turn at 55. Although, I’ve noticed that running along the sidewalk of a fast road makes me feel like I’m also running faster, so that’s a plus!

The first mile and a half runs along our neighborhood, then about 3.5 miles along the main road, up and down a bridge, and about a mile through a smaller neighborhood that takes us to the Back Deck.

On hot days, it’s about the worst run you can imagine. On windy days, it’s mildly terrifying to run up and down the bridge. On cool days, you can really charge through the hilly finish and feel pretty awesome about the whole thing!

A new 10k route!

A new 10k route!

I’ve still got this sub-50min 10k goal lingering in the back of my mind so I’ve been running each week a little faster whenever I can train for it. I figured, if I can run this route quickly, considering I have to cross 12 streets and a bridge, I can run a sub-50min 10k on a flat, straightaway course.

Also… trying something a bit different and sticking more to short-term goals!

September Goals:
-Run at least one 10k a week
-Do one speedwork a week
-Cross train at least once a week

All accomplished! Another good month of running :)

Miles run per day in September

I also set two new PR’s for the year! I’ve got a new 5mi PR at 43:00 (8:36min/mi) and a 10k PR at 54:33 (8:47min/mi). They’re not that impressive, but they make me really happy!

I’ve got a local 5k coming up this weekend (October 5th) and hoping to finish under 25min but… I very rarely push hard during a race. It’s so silly. I have this irrational fear of getting hurt if I run too hard and that I might not be able to run the next day. Or that I might pass out from exhaustion. Or have my foot land on a bad camber and hurt my ankle. Seriously irrational.

So I’m throwing all that out the window on Saturday! Just cause I think I finally can.