A Coach in Your Ear(bud): Inside a Runner's App
If you're someone who has the knowledge required to help runners improve and get more out of the sport, there are two paths you can take. One is to become a coach who works hands-on with a team or with individual adult clients. The other option is to advise runners on a broad scale through articles, books, or ready-made training plans. Each path has advantages and limitations.
The advantage of hands-on coaching is the depth of impact that it affords. When you spend a lot of time with runners and get to know them well, you can help them in ways that go far beyond giving them good training plans. You can help them iron out little flaws in their running technique, adjust their training on the fly based on your observations, and help them overcome mental obstacles to better performance. The chief limitation of this path is that you can only go deep with a small number of runners. Recently I attended a coaching summit where I asked one coach what was the maximum number of clients he could coach effectively. He said twenty. That’s fairly typical.
The advantage of the second approach is scale. You can help a lot more than twenty runners by providing training guidance in articles, books, and ready-made training plans. But this kind of reach comes at the cost of limited depth. Unlike a hands-on coach, an online training plan can’t observe a runner as she performs her workouts, keeping her on track and encouraging her.
Early in my career I made a decision to help runners (and other endurance athletes) primarily by this second path. I’ve written 19 books and hundreds of articles, many of which contain training plans that have been followed cumulatively by tens of thousands of athletes. I know from the feedback I receive from them that many of these athletes have benefitted from my training plans and other written training guidance. Nevertheless, I have always been keenly aware of the kinds of help I cannot offer runners through my chosen medium, and at times I have envied the hands-on coaches. In other words, I’ve wished I could have it both ways.
Now I do. Last summer I learned about a new product that seemed to offer something I had long dreamed of having: a way to coach runners on a broad scale and with great depth of impact. The product was PEAR, a real-time audio coaching device that features pace and heart rate monitoring capabilities. I met with PEAR founder Kristian Rauhala to talk about the product, and he explained that its purpose was basically to recreate the human coaching experience through technology. Coaches like me would create workouts that could be stored on the device. Runners would choose a workout and then be guided through it by the coach’s own voice, with the runner's heart rate data being used to keep the runner on track.
It wasn’t hard for Kristian to convince me to partner with the company to provide training content. I saw the partnership as the next best thing to cloning myself thousands of times over so that I could be physically present with every runner who followed my workouts and training plans. The approach I’ve taken to scripting and recording each workout has been to imagine that I am riding a mountain bike alongside the runner as he or she is doing the session and to say everything I would say in that situation. This includes explaining the structure and purpose of the workout while the runner is warming up, warning the runner of upcoming changes in intensity, telling the runner to speed up or slow down when he or she falls out of the proper heart rate zone, providing encouragement during challenging portions of workouts, reminding the runner to drink periodically throughout longer runs, and even letting the runner know when to turn around on out-and-back runs.
The process of creating PEAR workouts is incredibly time consuming. First I have to create a complete script for the session. With longer runs and runs with lots of variation in pace, these scripts may run to more than 2,000 words. When the script is complete, it’s time to record. The tech wizards at PEAR Sports have created a very cool and easy-to-use application for audio recording, which I do at home with a studio-quality microphone hooked up to my laptop. The program allows me not only to record prompts and place them at precise moments of the workout, but also to decide when feedback information such as pace, time, and heart rate will be given to the runner.
I must confess that by the time a recording session is completed I am usually mentally exhausted, and sometimes ready to tear my hair out. I become frustrated with myself when I stumble over a particular audio prompt repeatedly and have to record it over and over. A collection of outtakes from my PEAR recording sessions would be pretty amusing. Despite the tediousness of the workout creation process, I really enjoy it because I know that I am creating a complete experience for runners.
It’s very difficult to give runners who haven’t tried the program a sense of what that experience is like by trying to describe it. I’ll do my best here by giving you the complete script of a 20-minute fitness assessment workout. This is the very first workout you do with PEAR, and its purpose is to allow the device to determine your current “lactate threshold heart rate,” which the program then uses to automatically calculate your five custom heart rate training zones. PEAR remembers these zones and uses them to adjust every workout you do thereafter to your individual fitness level. Below is the 20-minute fitness assessment workout script.
PEAR is not a complete substitute for hands-on coaching, of course. But PEAR users say that it comes remarkably close. When I meet them in person they often tell me they feel as if they already know me. And for my part, I’ve never enjoyed helping runners more or been more confident that I’m really making a positive difference for them than I have since I teamed up with PEAR Sports.
PEAR 20-Minute Fitness Assessment
The purpose of this workout is to determine your lactate threshold heart rate, which will be used to calculate your five custom heart-rate training zones. Don’t worry; this short session is only moderately challenging. Do the run on a flat, smooth surface if possible.
Time - Message
0:00 - Start jogging or walking at a very comfortable pace. Hold yourself back to a pace that barely seems like exercise. This is your warm-up. You’re going to hold this pace for 5 minutes, then I’ll have you increase your pace in small increments.
1:00 - In this test workout I’m going to ask you to pay attention to your perceived exertion, which is simply a rating of how you feel. The scale we use to rate perceived exertion goes from 1 to 10, where 1 is an exercise effort that feels very, very easy and 10 is an effort that feels very, very hard. The lactate threshold falls at level 6, which is an effort that feels somewhat hard.
2:00 - Start thinking about your perceived exertion level now. Adjust it so that you would rate your effort as a 1 on our 1-10 scale, which is described as “very, very easy.” Note that you may need to walk instead of jog to attain this very, very easy effort level. You should be super comfortable, almost feeling as though you could jog or walk all day at this effort.
3:00 - In 2 minutes I’m going to ask you to increase your perceived exertion level by 1 point, from 1 to 2. This is a small change, from very, very easy to very easy. Be sure not to speed up too much.
4:00 - 1 more minute until you increase your effort from very, very easy to very easy. You will sustain the new effort level for 2 minutes and then increase it again.
4:50 - Get ready to increase your effort from very, very easy to very easy.
5:00 - Increase your perceived exertion level from 1 to 2, going from very, very easy to very easy.
5:30 - You should now be in a nice steady rhythm at your new perceived exertion level of 2 on our 1-10 scale. If you increased your effort too much, ease back. It should still feel very easy.
6:00 - In 1 minute I’m going to ask you to increase your effort from 2 to 3 on our 1-10 scale of perceived exertion. You will go from very easy to easy. Again, this is a small increase in effort. Don’t overdo it.
7:00 - Increase your perceived exertion from 2 to 3 on our 1-10 scale, going from very easy to easy. This easy effort should be close to your natural effort when you just go outside for an easy run without even thinking about your pace—in other words, your natural, comfortable running tempo.
7:30 - You should now be in a nice steady rhythm at your new perceived exertion level of 3 on our 1-10 scale. If you increased your effort too much, ease back a little. It should still feel easy and natural.
8:00 - In 1 minute I’m going to ask you to increase your effort from 3 to 4 on our 1-10 scale of perceived exertion. You will go from easy to fairly easy. A fairly easy effort is a little faster than the pace you naturally run when you’re not really thinking about it, but still quite comfortable.
8:50 - Get ready to increase your effort from easy to fairly easy.
9:00 - Increase your effort from easy to fairly easy. Your perceived exertion rating should now go from 3 to 4 on our 1-10 scale.
9:30 - You should now be in a nice steady rhythm at your new perceived exertion level of 4 on our 1-10 scale. If you increased your effort too much, ease back a little. You are now pushing yourself just a little, but you could still run a long time at this pace.
10:00 - In 1 minute I’m going to ask you to increase your effort from 4 to 5 on our 1-10 scale of perceived exertion. You will go from fairly easy to very slightly hard. At level 5 you must concentrate on making yourself run somewhat fast but you’re still totally in control and feeling strong.
10:50 - Get ready to increase your effort from fairly easy to very slightly hard.
11:00 - Increase your effort from fairly easy to very slightly hard. Your perceived exertion rating should go from 4 to 5 on our 1-10 scale.
11:30 - You should now be in a nice steady rhythm at your new perceived exertion level of 5 on our 1-10 scale. If you increased your effort too much, ease back a little. Remember, this effort should feel very slightly hard.
12:00 - In 1 minute I’m going to ask you to increase your effort one last time, from 5 to 6: that is, from very slightly hard to somewhat hard. This will be your lactate threshold intensity. Some runners describe the feeling of running at this intensity as “comfortably hard”. You will feel that you are pushing yourself, but you could still keep running at that pace for a while. Your breathing will be deep but controlled.
12:30 - In 30 seconds I will ask you to increase your effort from very slightly hard to somewhat hard. To discourage you from speeding up too much, I’m going to ask you to sustain this effort for 3 minutes instead of 2. You should feel every bit as strong at the end of those 3 minutes as you do at the beginning.
13:00 - Increase your effort from very slightly hard to somewhat hard. Your perceived exertion rating should go from 5 to 6 on our 1-10 scale.
13:30 - How are you feeling? You should be pushing but not straining at all. Your breathing should be deep but controlled. You are able to run relaxed, but if you went any faster you would begin to strain.
14:00 - In 2 more minutes you will be able to cool down. In 1 minute I will tell you your heart rate. This will be your lactate threshold heart rate. You don’t need to remember it; PEAR will do that for you.
15:00 - Your heart rate is…
15:30 - In 30 seconds you will begin your cool-down.
16:00 - Reduce your effort back down to level 1, or very, very easy, where you started. Hold that for 4 minutes, then you’re done.
17:00 - 3 more minutes left in your cool-down. How did it go? Working with perceived exertion takes some practice. If you felt a little unsure of yourself in rating your perceived exertion, don’t worry about it. Simply repeat this test workout tomorrow or the next day to get a result you’re more confident in.
18:00 - 2 more minutes left in your cool-down. Note that your lactate threshold heart rate will change slightly as your fitness improves. Therefore your heart rate training zones will change too. Repeat this test every four weeks or so to keep your zones current.
19:00 - 1 more minute left in your cool-down. PEAR will automatically calculate your 5 custom heart rate training zones based on the results of this test as soon as you complete it.
20:00 - Okay, you’re done. Nice job.