Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Keep it stupid, simple

I can't help but think sometimes that we have a habit of over-complicating things. Take for instance this natty little device - the SmartFork. For the low, low price of $100 (plus shipping, plus a $10 yearly protection plan), you can get hold of the latest innovation in food-mouth-interface devices. Have you ever looked at your fork and thought, "well, it does poke food and let me cram it into my gaping maw - but it doesn't have bluetooth"? Well then this is the device for you! Okay, so the idea is that it is used to aid in weight loss, and allows you to track what you eat and how fast you eat it. In particular, it encourages you to slow down to allow your body's natural "I'm full" message to actually reach your brain, before you pile in another pie.

I'm sure that conceptually it is a useful product. I just can't help but think that it's massively over-complicating a relatively simple (although obviously very important) issue. For $99 less you could just buy a smaller plate so that you don't overdo the serving sizes. Or just, y'know, slow down when you eat. Do you need a glowing fork to do that?

But this got me thinking about how we, as a species, like to over-complicate things. "There's an app for that" - there's a worrying verisimilitude to that statement these days. Despite what old people might tell you, kids these days probably aren't dumber than in the good 'ol days. A well-supported phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect (after it's main proponent James Flynn) suggests that our overall intelligence is actually increasing by about 3 points a decade. When people from different generations take older version of IQ tests (as well as tests in semantics, cognition, memory, etc), they always do better than previous generations. The most plausible reason for this effect is the increase in complexity in our lives since the dawn of the industrial age - kidz [sic] today need to be aware of much more stuff (even useless stuff like Twitter) than people from past generations. There's a good TED talk on the subject from James Flynn last year here.

There are counter-arguments of course, like this recent study which suggests that intelligence has decreased about 15 points since the Victorian age. The suggested reason is likely "dysgenic fertility" - i.e. smarter people have fewer kids. You know, like in that documentary Idiocracy. It is very possible that both are "true" of course - humanity is getting dumber on average from a genetic stand point, but this is masked by the fact that people are having to become more cognitive to deal with posting photos of their lunch on Twitter.

In particular with running, we do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to over-complicate what is, at heart, a pretty simple endeavour. As the immortal Bill Hicks once said:
Now what do you fucking write about jogging? Right foot, left foot... Faster faster... Oh hell I don't know... Go home shower. Pretty much covers the jogging experience I do believe.
And yet, follow threads on Facebook for a while and you will see that it is ostensibly much more complicated than that. There are bitter and never-ending arguments about what is the perfect part of the foot to land on. There are arguments about whether we should be coating our feet in tonnes of soft squishy stuff, or running barefoot like God intended (if God had wanted us to run barefoot, he wouldn't have invented Hokas...). There are arguments about what supplements we should be taking - multi-vitamins, beetroot juice, spirulina blue-green algae, goji berries, et al.. GPS watches. Compression gear. Trekking poles. Bottles or bladder. And so on. And so on. And so on...

Now, I am not for one minute casting aspersions on the use of any of these things, and of course use many such bits and pieces myself. But my contention is that the correct piece of gear to use is whichever suits you personally. We are all different - what works for me will not necessarily work for you. But I just wonder how much of it we actually need versus how much we have just convinced ourselves we need?

I personally would rather run with as little as possible. I do use a GPS watch if I need to navigate quickly, or if I am working on speed and want to make sure that I do not drop my pace. But generally I leave it at home, and I certainly don't track my runs (which is odd given how much of a stats geek I am). I care about my pace whilst I am running, and the time that I finish in, but after that I couldn't care less. Its on to the next run. If I am not heading out to do something specific like intervals, I will normally just run to feel. I run at a pace that feels like I am working hard, and tailor it based on how far I have to go. I do the same when I race longer distances - it's not worth pushing for a particular pace if it feels too tough 10 miles into a 100 mile race.

The socks that I wear, I chose not only because they prevent blisters, but also because they are pretty lightweight and minimal so there's not much to go wrong. I used to wear twin skin socks, but just prefer the fact that I can pull these on and not really worry - no rucking up of material to worry about. The clothes that I wear were mostly bought from Sports Direct about 3 years ago. They are now falling apart and I am upset that I am finally going to have to replace them. Now sure, I could pay a lot of money for some high-concept, incredibly well designed running clothes with all sorts of bells and whistles with silly sounding names like "sweat-sucker 3000" technology. But my experience is that my cheap Sports Direct stuff works just as well. To be fair I prefer to run in as little as possible anyway. Some of my favourite runs have seen me out in just a pair of shorts and some trainers. The people I run past tend not to share my views though...

I wear my shoes until my toes poke out of the bottom, and in fact my "road shoes" are actually trail shoes that have lost all of their grip. A lot of my running friends are obsessed by running shoes, and buy every new pair that comes out. I seem to be an oddity, as I try and avoid buying shoes whenever I can. I do have a lot of pairs, but that is largely because I refuse to throw old ones away. I can always find a time to wear my old ones, for a training run or something. I generally buy the same type of shoe, and tend to wear either Salomon Speedcross or Sense Mantra. But I have also tried out the Fellraisers for times when I need a bit more grip, and New Balance MT110s which are nice and minimal and good for working on my form. The important part for me is that I very rarely pay more than about £50 for a pair these days. Shop around! But all I really care about from my shoes are that they don't rub, don't squash my feet, and give me a bit of grip when coming downhill.

Then there are things like kinesiology tape and compression gear. Now, this is a slightly contentious one (as are many things in running) and you will find people with very fervent views on both sides of the fence. Personally I doubt that they work to enhance recovery in the way that they claim, although it's a very difficult thing to design a decent scientific study for. However most studies that have been done suggest there is no real benefit in to using them in recovery. One thing that they probably do however is offer support, in the same way as wearing a knee brace. The only thing is that I do t really believe in using such things. A knee support may well help you to run without pain, but it is not solving the problem. More likely it is masking the problem and allowing you to run on a dodgy knee when you really shouldn't. It's the same reason I don't use Ibuprofen - pain is your body's way of saying, "I'm broken, don't run you idiot!" You're better off not running until the problem is fixed, otherwise you will be stuck in a bit of a never-ending cycle of injuries.

That's another thing that people are often a little guilty of - running when they really shouldn't. I'm absolutely guilty of this, but again over time I have changed my views slightly. I do have a bit of a training plan, but I don't stress out if I miss a run, or if I cut it short because I'm not feeling well. In the long term, it's not worth forcing myself out for a run. This is why run streaks are no good for me; I don't want to feel like running is a chore. As it happens, I very rarely don't want to go for a run these days. I really try not to over-complicate my training. I do a few different sessions, sometimes aiming for speed, sometimes for endurance, but I don't really plan things out too much. I'm not suggesting that it's not a good idea to plan things, and having a schedule can certainly help to give you something to work towards, but it's very easy to over-complicate things. Just stay flexible for when life gets in the way.

I'm the same with racing. I don't put a huge amount of thought into races. For shorter stuff, I go out fast and try and hold on. For longer stuff I go out at a more manageable pace and again see how long I can hold on for. Occasionally I might plan some split times for certain checkpoints, but the problem with that is that you can end up pushing yourself too hard too early trying to keep up with these plans. I tend to just go by feel. I remember feeling like I was massively under-prepared for the Spine Challenger because everybody else
appeared to have lived and breathed the race for the whole year leading up to it. I had barely looked at the route, and had scrabbled together my kit about a week before it began. But it went fine. I also don't have the issue of the post-race blues, usually because once one race is finished I don't really dwell on it.

Nutrition is an incredibly important part of ultra running, but this is another thing that I have simplified over time. Nowadays, I don't eat when I run if I can help it. This started mainly as a way to save money - gels are expensive! - but now I have found that I cope very well burning predominately fat when I run. When I race, I eat mainly gels, aiming for one every hour and a half or so, and this seems to do the trick (along with some fruit at the aid stations as a treat). Similarly, I don't drink more water than I need, and typically won't take anything unless I'm running for a couple of hours or more. Again, if I can avoid having to take anything with me I will.

My diet is also pretty basic, in as much as I do not follow any particular diet with any fervour. I'm generally healthy, don't really drink alcohol, eat lots of fruit and veg, and generally try not to eat too many carbs (although I'm currently stuffing my face with Easter eggs, so I'm not overly prescriptive about these things). I really can't be bothered stressing out about what I eat, and I never want to be that guy who you don't want to invite for dinner because of my weird eating habits (there's plenty of other reasons you wouldn't want to invite me for dinner). I eat healthily, but I'm not overly strict about it. It's not rocket salad...

One thing that I definitely don't take is supplements. There's plenty of random weird and wonderful things that you can take to improve your running - Spirulina algae (yuk), beetroot juice, vitamins, amino acids, etc. Now, because of my epilepsy, I have to take medication every day anyway. For this reason, I try and avoid having to take anything else if I can help it. I get everything I need from a balanced diet, and don't even take pain killers or anti-inflammatories unless I'm forced to by my wife. It's not like I'm someone who thinks that "drugs are bad, mmkay", or that the drug companies or out to get us, or anything like that. I just prefer to save things like that for when I really need them. A lot of the supplements available revolve around some pretty shoddy "evidence", and typically involve a pretty hefty dose of vitamin p(lacebo). Which is fine of course - the placebo effect is an amazing oddity of human physiology, and if something feels like it's working then that's great. But some of these things seem so insane to me that there is no way I am taking the dosages that are recommended to see "benefits". The amount of beetroot juice you need to drink is enough to turn your urine bright red, and runs the risk of causing nitrite toxicity. If you were to take Master Amino Acid Pattern (MAP), you should be taking 20 a day, or 30 when competing (and at $50 for 120 tablets, they can fuck right off). Spirulina is another one where you need to take a stupidly high dose of incredibly expensive tablets to see the same benefits that you would see from eating red meat and spinach. I used to take multivitamins, but even those seem a pointless expense to me now.

I was involved in a discussion on Facebook recently where the idea of bathing in magnesium salts was suggested as a way to aid recovery. Personally I recover pretty well without doing anything like this (I don't even stretch), and my recovery has improved as my training has. But some people were very adamant, and one guy suggested that we should read up about Dr Mark Sircus, who is an expert on the research behind the use of magnesium in recovery. The thing is, I did read up on him. He's a "doctor" (small 'd') of the Gillian McKeith variety. He's a a quack. His 'doctorate' was obtained as an honorary degree in Oriental Medicine. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on natural medicine, but when it comes to medical advice you shouldn't be taking it from people with credentials similar to those that Ben Goldacre once obtained for his dead cat. He might well know what he's talking about, in which case he should undergo scientifically rigorous hypothesis testing and publish his findings in peer reviewed journals with a decent impact factor. If any of his treatments prove to work, then they will no longer be considered alternative medicine - they will just be medicine.

Don't trust somebody just because they call themselves a doctor. I'm a Doctor (big 'D' - I did a proper degree, although I'm still a step down from a real medical doctor), and I'm an idiot.

The use of supplements has always seemed a little off to me. The idea is to improve your running by taking something extra. Isn't that exactly what EPO does? MAP in particular is a little too close to the effects that you get from taking steroids for my liking. What makes taking EPO cheating, but drinking litres of beetroot juice to lower your PB by 10 seconds just good training? I can't help but think that there's a very big grey area where training supplements are concerned. I'm not for one minute suggesting that people who do use supplements are in any way doing anything nefarious (it's not against the rules after all), but personally I would rather improve my PB by running harder. Not a popular opinion perhaps, but my opinion nonetheless.

It's not that I think that I do running the right way or anything. In fact in many respects some would say I do it completely wrong - I don't eat, don't drink, don't stretch, don't stress about DNFs, etc. And yes I have plenty of expensive bits of kit (bags, waterproofs,etc.). But in general, I will try and get away with as little as possible. If I can avoid using something, I will. Part of it is just preferring to stay as unencumbered as possible. Part of it is not believing a lot of the bullshit claims of some of the companies and not being willing to pay a premium for a small perceived benefit. And part of it is just being a stingy bastard and not being willing to spend money if I can help it. Granted, when you look at longer distances, and particularly events that occur in inhospitable environments, it inevitably becomes a little more complicated as you need to have certain things to make your life more comfortable and to avoid dying on top of a mountain that you just don't need on a 10 Km.

But over the last few years that I have been running, I have gradually reduced my reliance on what have proved to be unnecessary additions to the most important running kit I have - my legs. I like to think of it as "running stupid"; if I'm too dumb to know any better, then nothing can go wrong!


  1. One of the best blog post I read in a long time!

  2. Good article, but if you're saying what works for others might not work for you, would you accept that what you see as over complication others may see as essential preparation? For the record, I agree that simplicity is best, but I'm also aware that others might not see it that way!

    1. I think that there are absolutely some things that help. If you want to get faster then a structured training plan will of course help with this. And certainly some forms of "over-complication" may in fact be essential (I don't for one minute claim that I don't do this myself, for instance I recently started taping my feet before long ultras "just to be on the safe side"). But I have certainly dropped a lot of things which proved to be unnecessary when I played around with them, and there is definitely a large dose of superstition involved. But hey, my main advice to people is always "if it works, do it". It's just that my second piece of advice is "question everything".

  3. Excellent article. ..couldn't agree more

  4. Stupid runners unite! Excellent piece.

  5. I have a simple rule: if it helps, I use it. If it doesn't, I get rid of it. No need to make things more difficult than they need to be.