Run free

Could your tracker ac­tu­ally be slow­ing you down? A grow­ing number of run gu­rus say yes. Here’s why

Women's Health Australia - - DECEMBER 2017 -

How to make sure your tracker isn’t ac­ci­den­tally burst­ing that PB bub­ble

Your race bib flut­ters as your feet pound the foot­path in per­fect ca­dence. You glance down at your GPS watch [5:41]. The pre­cise pace you’ll need to main­tain if you’re go­ing to com­plete this half-marathon in your goal time of un­der two hours. You have five kilo­me­tres left to go when you hit a tough hill. De­spite rau­cous cheers from spec­ta­tors flank­ing the route, your pace fal­ters [5:58]. But then, sud­denly, sal­va­tion: a down­hill [5:32]. You rush to­wards the fin­ish line, skip­ping the cel­e­bra­tory fist pump to stop your watch as you don’t want to be a sec­ond late. You anx­iously in­spect the screen. 1:59:42. Yes! Cloud. Nine.

Not to burst your bub­ble, but what would your time be if you weren’t con­nected to that mo­bile cloud in the sky? Could you have fin­ished in 1:55... 1:50... maybe even 1:45?

Yes, say many coaches. Track­ing may help you hit your goal, but it can also stop you from run­ning your best. Why? Be­cause it be­comes all about stay­ing on pace. “We see it all the time,” says ul­tra-marathoner and run­ning coach Alec Ble­nis. “A run­ner will feel fan­tas­tic and could go faster but stays on pace. Or they’ll be run­ning faster than their goal pace, then check their watch and slow down.” Ble­nis is part of a grow­ing group of ex­perts who claim we over-rely on elec­tronic feed­back.


The whole con­cept of run­ning ‘naked’ might seem un­com­fort­able, even alarm­ing. After all, more than half of run­ners now wear track­ers that quan­tify every step. Of course, this technology has en­hanced our ac­tive lives – the everyday run­ner is more knowl­edge­able, not to men­tion mo­ti­vated. But anec­do­tal and science-backed re­search has found wear­ing track­ers on every run has bred a ro­botic ap­proach that can be help­ful when train­ing but may ul­ti­mately weaken our in­ter­nal cues and dampen run­ning’s stress-bust­ing perks.

Run­ning coach and former elite marathoner Kim Jones is a per­fect case study on how be­ing a Lud­dite could lift your per­for­mance.

Now 59, she com­pleted her first marathon in 1984 – long be­fore

the tech boom. “I just pushed as hard as I could the en­tire way,” she says. Her old-school strat­egy worked: Jones hit the half­way mark in 1:24:24 – a 3:53-minute-per-km pace – and fin­ished in 2:48:48, reg­is­ter­ing math­e­mat­i­cally per­fect splits. (Even splits, or equally timed race halves, is a sign you used your en­ergy ef­fi­ciently.) She’d go on to fin­ish 17 marathons, with an av­er­age time of 2:33. “I ran them all with no elec­tron­ics and near-even splits,” she says. “I sim­ply ran by feel.”


You may be think­ing, “But my watch makes me run faster!” While it might feel true, most ex­perts say learn­ing to ad­just ef­fort based on in­ter­nal feed­back is where the true magic hap­pens. In a re­cent group of run­ners Jones trained for the Bos­ton Marathon, those who set PBS ditched watches and

ran by feel. A study in The Jour­nal of Sports Medicine and Phys­i­cal

Fit­ness might ex­plain why; it found en­durance ath­letes can leave fuel in the tank when aware of time data.

Even high-tech track­ers can’t ac­count for all vari­ables – weather, hills, headspace – that im­pact your per­for­mance. “You want to evolve to where you’re mak­ing cal­cu­lated de­ci­sions based on in­ter­nal cues, like per­ceived ex­er­tion, rather than a number,” says Ble­nis. Ac­cord­ing to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Ex­er­cise, run­ners who adapt on the spot tend to be more ef­fi­cient – run­ning far­ther and faster, while burn­ing less en­ergy.

Jones says many clients con­vince them­selves a cer­tain time on their wrist is ‘hard’, which then causes the pace to feel more dif­fi­cult. Proof: a study in Fron­tiers in Phys­i­ol­ogy found per­for­mance fa­tigue is of­ten in your mind. Get out of your head, says Dr Larry Shapiro, au­thor of Zen

and the Art of Run­ning, and you can po­ten­tially run faster – or at least feel less wiped out at your cur­rent pace. “Think about how the pace is af­fect­ing your breath­ing, or how your legs feel,” he says. “There are other things to pay at­ten­tion to.”


Data fa­nat­ics, no wor­ries – you can still geek out on num­bers. “GPS watch data can be help­ful, es­pe­cially for be­gin­ner run­ners try­ing to fig­ure out what a cer­tain pace feels like,” says Ble­nis. When train­ing for a race, Ble­nis also has his in­ter­me­di­ate and ad­vanced ath­letes wear track­ers – al­beit hid­den from sight. “We view the data after the run,” he says. This tweak al­lows you to get into a flow with­out dis­trac­tion, yet op­ti­mise your train­ing with met­rics. Try it: put tape over your watch face.

After a run, in­stead of analysing the num­bers, think of the big­ger pic­ture. Was your pace slower or did the run feel harder than your last few? Were you de­hy­drated, slug­gish or an­noyed by an ill-fit­ting sports bra? Jot those notes down along­side the tech­ni­cal data. The com­bi­na­tion will help you iden­tify pat­terns to make you a bet­ter, hap­pier run­ner. And that last bit is cru­cial.


When you run with a watch, you’re likely to fo­cus on the re­sult rather than the ex­pe­ri­ence. “When we un­plug from our de­vices, we be­gin to cul­ti­vate a deeper sense of mind­ful­ness,” says Saky­ong Mipham, head of Shamb­hala Bud­dhism. “We can tune in to our sur­round­ings, whether that’s the still­ness of na­ture or the bus­tle of the city.” Maybe that’s why those who run free en­joy it more: a Dutch study found peo­ple who were mind­ful while ex­er­cis­ing re­ported more grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Even bet­ter, it may re­move un­nec­es­sary anx­i­ety that might come from ob­sess­ing over every step. “There are so many ar­eas in life where we have to be con­cerned with suc­cess, dead­lines and per­for­mance out­comes,” says Shapiro. “Why treat run­ning like that?”


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