Sunday, February 28, 2016

Running as information

We're in the heyday of the concept of information. We talk about almost everything these days in terms of information. And this can be a useful perspective sometimes. For instance, a longstanding maxim equated food with fuel; but over the past few years, there's been a shift toward seeing food as information instead. This view helps us see food not simply as uniform calories, but as conglomerations of macronutrients, micronutrients, phytochemicals and zoochemicals. This view also helps us understand food as a political statement, emotional tanner and intimacy substitute.

What if we thought of running as information? What might this perspective help us to see?

In a recent research paper, I did just that. (When I'm not running, I'm a PhD student in information science.) My paper Information on the Run: Experiencing Information During an Ultramarathon, published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Information Research, explores the information processes at play that I experienced while running my first 100-mile race. Here's what I found:

  • Though ultrarunning is an individual sport, it has an important social component. Things like trail etiquette and appropriate gear are socially controlled. The ultrarunning community is orally-based, is centered around public performances (races), recognizes a few key information sources (e.g., UltraRunning Magazine, Trail Runner Nation podcast, the ULTRA listserv, Hal Koerner's and Bryan Powell's guides, Garmins, etc.), and above all seems to value perseverance. These shared characteristics offer cohesion to the ultrarunning community, making it much more than an individual pursuit. 
  • During an ultra, the key information source is the body. In the research literature, this type of information is known as corporeal information. This includes, for instance, gauging my hunger and thirst, deciding whether I can run through a cramp and detecting blisters. Working with corporal information can be understood as a kind of "literacy" that ultrarunners cultivate as they gain expertise in the sport. Though it may be the case that external technologies can support this process (e.g., some runners set their watch to beep every 30 minutes, cueing them to take a sip of water), much corporeal information management seems to be unconscious and internal. Future research should tease apart these processes more.
  • Another key information source is the runner's knowledge base, in which memories of training runs and internalized books, podcasts, advice, plans, etc., coexist and are called up in response to any number of stimuli during a run. For instance, I felt nauseous and disoriented during my first 100-mile run, and I searched my knowledge base for possible solutions. 
  • On the run, corporeal information and the knowledge base interface in a feedback system of outcomes and mental states. For example, I might sense some calf pain (corporeal information), which makes me worried (mental state); I recall how it was previously injured but that even so in a recent race I felt this same pain and it ended up being a false alarm (knowledge base), which causes me to keep going despite the pain (outcome), and also makes me feel a little better (mental state). If the pain persists, I might check in again a little later, running through the process again. 

In this way, seeing running as information helped uncover some interesting aspects of ultrarunning: the importance of the social aspect of running, and the processes that help and athlete cope with covering such long distances. And, most importantly, this brings up a number of questions for future study. For me, the most interesting has to do with novices versus experts—how do beginners manage information differently from more experienced ultrarunners, and how can that knowledge help us teach or coach beginner runners?

My future research will continue to explore these questions, and I invite others to join me.