The insidious trap of pace-based running apps

You know the one’s right? You enter your fastest time over a certain distance, what distance you are training for, what date? And all of a sudden you have a custom training plan. But do you?

The trick about running apps, is that they are addictive.

And not in a good way. Anything that gets you out the door is worth it, right? Well not quite. The reason why they are addictive is they feed this idea that progress is linear. Every run should be faster. If your easy pace was 6:30 min/km last week then next week it should be the same, or probably faster. And when it is faster, it gives you that rush of reward hormones. You feel on track and in control. And sure that the predicted time that keeps getting quicker is a sign that you are on to a sure thing.

But are you?

Let’s start with the really basic problems with this:

  • Progress isn’t linear. You might want it to be, but it’s not.
  • Forcing yourself to run at a certain easy pace will mean that some days you are running at a comfortable pace, but other days you are running at a faster, less comfortable pace.
  • The pace requirement misses the whole, entire purpose of slow running which is aerobic development.

The worst part is that on days where your body isn’t feeling great, those are the days that you end up demanding the most of it by pushing yourself to run at a pace that just isn’t comfortable.

But isn’t pushing yourself, what it’s all about?

Pushing the boundaries is where all the advances in fitness are, right? Not quite.

  • If you push yourself too hard on easy days, you won’t have anything in the tank on fast days.
  • If your pace isn’t comfortable on easy days, then you aren’t going slow enough to develop your aerobic system and you aren’t going fast enough to benefit your threshold or your anaerobic system, so you are literally wasting your training.
  • Pushing yourself when your body isn’t feeling it is a fast track to injury
  • True fitness adaptation happens during periods of recovery. If you aren’t recovering well, you won’t be gaining those advantages.

So instead think about this: is this pace for your training, or is it for your ego?

But wait, it gets worse.

Yes, there’s more!

For the most part the runs are as repetitive and boring as batshit.

The problem with boring and repetitive isn’t just that it’s boring and repetitive. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that.

  • Without variety, it’s really easy to lose interest in your training
  • With repetitive runs it’s even easier to feel pressure to be faster than last time and fall into that linear progression trap
  • If there’s a particular type of run that’s repeated that you don’t like, all of a sudden you are dreading it.
  • If you are always doing the same type of runs, you are not getting the same benefit because your body becomes too accustomed to it.

The first rule is it has to be fun. The second is that you never want to do something that your body can become too efficient at.

Most of the apps have about three types of runs — easy, tempo and intervals. But that isn’t even scratching the surface of the types of runs that you should be incorporating into a well-rounded program.

Even worse, it assumes your goal is speed

Fair enough, this IS probably a lot of people’s goals. But it’s not everyone’s. And when you put in a goal time that is slower than your fastest time it will tend to ignore your goal time and go for the faster time. Now this is probably more a quirk of the app than a real issue. You could always put down a slower time so it doesn’t make that assumption. But if speed isn’t your goal, the nature of an app like this will turn your focus to speed pretty quickly and it might rob you of a whole lot of the enjoyment in your training.

Is it really that bad?

The thing is you aren’t going to do yourself any damage by following one of these apps. They are free. And you get what you pay for. As long as you ignore the pace requirements for easy runs, it’s not going to do you any harm. But you aren’t going to get the full benefit of all your hard work either. And it’s a lot of hard work. So that seems like a real shame. But the real shame is that it might not be as fun as it could be. You might feel more pressure than you should. You might compare yourself a bit too much. And you might waste all of your energy on training and have nothing left for actual racing.

And if free is what you are after, there are far better places to go. Funner places. More interesting places. You can’t measure joy in minutes per km. But you can run yourself into the ground if you are a slave to a set pace.

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