Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 13 Jan 2003 18:45:39 -0500

Taking Your Time

[Running Commentary 448]

New students arrived this week at the University of Oregon running classes that I teach. They heard the usual one-minute spiel about their two most important items of equipment.

The first is, of course, shoes. What would you say is the second?

The students usually guess wrong. Later, in the end-of-term quiz, most of them still haven't accepted my answer.

The question most often missed: "What is the runner's second most important piece of equipment, after shoes? (a) shorts; (b) watch; (c) headphones; (d) socks.

Headphones? Luxury at best, distraction at worst. Socks? Never wear any myself.

Shorts is the most common answer I hear, and it's wrong. Think about it. They aren't the only alternative to streaking.

That leaves the watch. There's no reliable substitute for a digital stopwatch as a competitor or companion on your runs, a coach on your wrist.

In lieu of lectures my students receive a daily lesson by e-mail, whose reading is optional. One mini-lesson sells watches with this pitch.

Remember, few of these students are experienced runners. Most need to be taught how we tell time, why and with what. Sometimes the teacher has to relearn these lessons too.

YOUR SECOND most valuable piece of equipment, after shoes is.... No, not shorts and not T-shirt. You can wear other clothes than those. Your next most vital item is a watch.

Buy a digital model with a stopwatch feature, and make time your main way of keeping score. Time can make you an instant winner by telling exactly how fast you ran a distance, and maybe how much you improved your personal record.

Another, more subtle value of the watch: It lets you run by time -- by minutes instead of miles. This has several benefits: freeing you from plotting and measuring courses, because minutes are the same length anywhere... easing pressure to run faster, because you can't make time pass any faster... finishing at the assigned time limit no matter your pace, which settles naturally into your comfort zone when you run by time periods rather than by distance.

ARE YOU old enough to remember when timing was inexact? When runners checked our starting and ending times by the kitchen or car clock? Or when we carried a stopwatch in one hand and hoped it didn't stop before the run did?

I remember all this, along with a common pre-digital trick of runners. That was to set the watch hands at "12" to start.

Sometimes a passerby would ask, "Can you tell me what time it is?" We'd shrug, leaving the asker to wonder why anyone would wear a watch if he couldn't read it.

Digital watches have made self-timing an exact act (though we still can't give passersby the time of day). With watches doing all they now do, we're tempted to make time too important.

I've overdone it myself. Confessions of time-obsession and corrections for it appeared in my May 2002 Runner's World column, "Watch It" (

This update is brought on by what happened throughout 2002. I haven't enjoyed a better running year since well back into the last century.

My health was better. Better too were my distances, though that's a misnomer because I don't run by distance but by time periods.

The running improved because I found better shoes. I also put more time on a simpler watch.

Today's watches not only tell time but store splits, signal intervals, measure distances, count heartbeats and calculate paces. The temptation while wearing these on-wrist computers is to to complicate running too much -- to make each minute and second too precious.

I did. Then last year, to loosen the hold of time, I replaced my high-tech Nike model with a cheapie from Wal-Mart.

It offers little more than an on-off button. Time starts with the first running step and stops with the last step -- with little checking in between.

Shoes that work best are noticed least. Times add up well too without being watched too closely.


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