The stop watch may become the “8-track” of the running world, but that doesn't mean runners need to be tech geeks to keep up. Stephen McGregor, PhD, lead author of The Runner's Edge (Human Kinetics 2010), claims that by using speed and distance devices, runners of all levels can maximize performance.
“If you can work a stopwatch, you can learn how to manage your performance effectively with a speed and distance device,” says McGregor. “And don't worry: This process will not strip running of its charming simplicity.”
A speed and distance device measures elapsed time, distance covered, speed/pace, and elevation change. Many devices also have the capability to estimate calories burned and monitor heart rate—and some even track changes in VO2max.
McGregor claims that the real benefit to speed and distance devices, however, does not show up on the device, but on a runner's computer. “The power of the devices really begins with downloading workout data from the device to the computer,” he explains. “Performance management software allows you to determine appropriate pace targets for all of your workouts and refine those targets as your fitness changes.”
McGregor gives advice to people who are interested in purchasing a speed and distance device. He and coauthor Matt Fitzgerald analyzed the five basic brands on the market.
Garmin – The manufacturer of GPS devices includes the GPS inside the wrist display unit. The authors give Garmin's Forerunner line high marks for accuracy, reliability and ease of use. Some Garmin speed and distance devices can be mounted on a bike handlebar and used as a cycling computer.
Nike – The Nike+, developed with the Apple computer company, sold nearly half a million units in its first three months on the market in 2006, and almost all Nike running shoes are Nike+ compatible. The authors, however, warn that the Nike+ is not suitable for more serious performance management because it becomes increasingly inaccurate as the runner's speed varies from the pace run during initial calibration. “We recommend that Nike fans wanting to commit to digital performance management purchase the Triax Elite,” says McGregor.
Polar – Runners who place great importance on measuring heart rate while running should consider Polar, according to the authors. Polar integrates a heart-rate monitor with each of its speed and distance devices and McGregor and Fitzgerald believe they are the best heart-rate monitors on the market. One of Polar's speed and distance devices has options that allow it to function as a bike computer and power meter. The authors also commend Polar's performance management application, Polar Personal Trainer, hosted online at www.polarpersonaltrainer.com.
Suunto -- A latecomer to the speed and distance device market, experts widely agree that Suunto running products are as high quality as any. One of Suunto's unique advanced features estimates excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and use these data to calculate the training effect of each workout.
Timex – The display watch aspect of Timex's speed distance devices makes them a good choice for runners who place a high value on the wrist display quality. “They are light and stylish enough to be worn all day, they have the ‘takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin' factor,' and they have a better variety of information display options than other devices,” says McGregor. “You can even configure your own custom display so that the watch shows the information you want to see where you want to see it.”
Each model comes with performance management software, but McGregor also highlights Training Peaks WKO+, which works with all speed and distance devices. Training Peaks has cooperative relationships with most of the device manufacturers, who readily admit that WKO+ is far more powerful and sophisticated than their own performance management offerings, according to McGregor. “Because of this fact, and because you can create a basic Training Peaks account for free, we encourage every runner who uses a speed and distance device to also use Training Peaks WKO+, whether or not they use their device-specific performance management application as well,” he adds.
In addition to specific device guidance, The Runner's Edge includes sample training plans and periodization guidelines—scalable to various fitness levels—for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon runners. A special chapter for triathletes explains how to integrate swim, bike, and run training within a unified performance management system.
For more information, see The Runner's Edge.