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Two unrelated observations

January 3, 2013

Perhaps ‘unrelated’ is to do down the fact that there is a relationship between these observations. And perhaps ‘observations’ is too strong a word. ‘Two related musings’, might be a more accurate title for this post, but I’ve typed the title, and I’m being lazy, so we’ll just have to settle for the fact that the only accurate word in this title is ‘two’.

At the end of my last day at work for the year, I was sitting in a pub down the road from the office with Dom. As conversations over a beer tend to, we started discussing books that each of us had read that we thought the other should read. And so, Thinking, Fast and Slow came up. (I’ve mentioned it on here before – it’s well worth a read and will change the way that you look at decision-making.)

‘I’m surprised you’ve not written more posts about that,’ Dom commented.

So, you can blame Dom for these two unrelated musings.

Does crossing more roads produce a more reliable test of fitness?

Most runs involve crossing a road at some point. Some roads are quiet and rarely present a time-delay in crossing. Others are busy and frequently present a time-delay, and this is especially the case if you live in a city – although towns may also present this challenge.

Now, assuming that you start your stop watch on setting off, and don’t pause it or stop it until you return home, which of these would be a better consistent measure of your fitness?

  1. A six-mile circuit with one major road crossing
  2. A six-mile circuit with 20 major road crossings

We all know that option 1 would make a better run. Only one major crossing to stand around waiting for a break in the traffic, rather than potentially having to wait for 20 crossings. But with only one crossing, your completion time is more likely to be affected by the time it takes to cross the road than by the time spent running.

Say that it can take up to 90 seconds to cross a major road. Say, for example, 8 out of 10 times it will take between 30 and 60 seconds, 1 out of 10 times it will take 90 seconds and 1 out of 10 times you will be able to cross immediately. With one major crossing, your circuit-completion time is highly affected by the crossing, so you may see a significant improvement (or worsening) simply because you were able to cross the road more quickly (or not).

However, with 20 major road crossings, the chances of an ‘outlier’ run (where, say, you’re able to cross all roads with no delay) are much reduced. Your road-crossing time will regress to the mean, so you’ll spend a relatively consistent amount of time during each run waiting to cross roads. This will, effectively, limit the impact road crossings will have on your completion times over a period of time, so improvements are more likely to be down to your fitness.

Our remembering selves have a bias towards the end of an experience, rather than the experience as a whole

Everyone has two selves: the self that experiences things that occur right now (the you reading this now) and the remembering self (the self that will look back at this as a good few minutes of your life you’ll never get back). Our decisions based on past experiences are made by our remembering self, which is highly biased by the end-section of an experience.

Psychologists have conducted a number of experiments to establish how people’s experiences of pain affect their memories of it. I’d dig out an actual example, but as I think we’ve established, I’m being lazy. Effectively, the experiments are along the lines of:

  • A person is given two slaps in the face
  • A person is given three slaps in the face, and then a cake
  • The person is then asked which experience they would rather repeat
  • Most people said that they would rather be slapped three times and then given a cake

This confounds all expectations because everyone expects the subject to opt for less pain, but the argument follows that the reason for the decision is that the remembering self tends to focus on the end of the experience. If you’re a film-maker, make your ending good. If you’re a tap dancer, end with jazz hands. If you’re a bag-pipe player… sorry, there’s no helping you.

But, if you’re struggling with motivation, ending your run on a high can make a massive difference to how you feel about your next run. Particularly if you’re going for distance, and you’re at that stage where you’re returning from long runs broken and demoralised by the difficulty. Find something that perks you up at the end of the run and it’ll make you more willing to go out for your next long run, rather than put it off until it’s a chore you have to do.

Conversely, if you’re running your first ever marathon and really want to make sure you don’t catch the running bug, make sure the last few miles are tortuous and unpleasant. Try wearing shoes that are too small, deliberately chafing your nipples, punching yourself in the face…

Of course, this does raise the question of whether marathon runners are just so glad to stop running at the end of the race that they mistake this relief for a pleasure in running insanely long distances…

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