Could your tracker actually be slowing you down? A growing number of run gurus say yes. Here’s why
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.
NAKED RUN. HUH?
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.”
GO WITH THE FLOW
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.”
FIND YOUR BALANCE
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?”
HERE COMES THE RUN