I started running around the advent of wearable tech. I had the first Nike pod sensor that slotted into your shoes and those hulking great early running watches.
It’s been my day job for a decade to test the technology that claims it can help you run better, faster, or have more fun. And I'm still very regularly found running with three watches, two chest straps, a blood glucose monitor, and a couple of footpods. I'm still a fully paid-up member of the running data fan club, too.
I am as tech as runners get.
But a few months ago I happened upon some data that showed how we could be being slowed down by the obsession to run to specific goals and use running watches to hit them. I spoke to experts and outlined this issue in the first part of this feature.
So for the past two months, I decided to conduct an experiment, revisiting and recalibrating my relationship with my running watch. And the results genuinely shocked me.
Running on feel
I decided to run blind – and ditch my running watch for some big races on my calendar.
I ran the New Forest Marathon, the Royal Parks Half Marathon, the Abingdon Marathon, and the Runthrough Battersea Half Marathon.
Now, I wasn't able to not track the races entirely. So, I wore my trusty Garmin Enduro 2 covered with a Buff neck tube to obscure the screen – and managed my effort entirely on feel. The results were a huge surprise.
At the New Forest Marathon, I ran a 15-minute course PB. I’ve run this race five times before, aiming for close to 3 hours, always blowing up and coming in at 3:20 or much worse. It’s a tricky road-trail course with hills, and this was the first time I'd run it feeling in control from start to finish.
I followed that with another big course PB, running 1:27 at the Royal Parks Half. My third-fastest half marathon ever.
A few weeks later, I took a minute off that, running a 1:26 at the Battersea Half.
At Abingdon, I ran a 3:01 – another huge course PB and my third-fastest marathon time ever, and my first-ever negative split marathon. All without looking at a clock, watch or pace readout once.
What amazed me most about these experiments wasn’t just the faster times, but how I felt during the races. The percentage of time I spent riding the struggle bus was greatly reduced.
I always felt in control - even in the closing miles where it’s normal to be hanging on.
Having run 50 marathons and blown up plenty, I can safely say running on feel has been a much more pleasant experience.
In the final miles of each race, I had the positive momentum of overtaking people. I ended the races having given my all, knowing I got the finish time my fitness and physical condition deserved on the day.
My post-race pacing and heart rate stats also show some of the best-controlled races I’ve ever run. All by listening to my body, rather than fixating on a number on a watch. It was truly liberating.
Based on this experience, would I be brave enough to race a marathon where I’d invested months of training, without using a watch to guide me?
I’m not sure. However, where I once would let the watch be the master of my pace and effort, I’ll now use feel first and foremost with my watch as a backup.
It’s all about balance. Running watches have an important role to play, but, if you can listen to your body and get in tune with how you feel in the moment, it’s a far more powerful guide than a pace readout on your wrist.
When to run without your watch
Keen to try running ‘naked’ but not sure where to start? I spoke to Great Britain elite runner and coach, Phily Bowden, who gave me some useful advice about when to follow your GPS running watch and when to break free:
"I follow a simple set of guidelines that help me decide whether I wear the watch or whether I leave it at home that day," says Bowden.
"For effort-based runs, ditch the watch. For runs based on heart rate, pace and splits, keep it on.
"By ‘effort’, I'm talking easy runs - a two to three out of 10 effort - or hard reps up a hill at seven to eight out of 10. Anything that's based on how you feel and the intensity where you’re not tied to a metric that requires a watch.
"For example, a cross-country Fartlek should just feel hard, and most easy runs should just feel easy. If you don't need the pace or the metrics, you can do it without the watch.
"Then, for sessions and runs that depend on your pace, where you really want to make sure that you're running easy enough or fast enough, focusing on tempo sprint splits, or anything that needs the data, obviously wear the watch."
Even when you are relying on your watch, Bowden recommends treating your tracker with some caution.
"I would also say it’s important to know that this data doesn't define you," she says.
"You might need your watch for a tempo run, but, if you're running a bit slower than usual for that day, try and separate the watch from what success is.
"You're still getting out there and doing it - and not every day is going to be a day where you set the world on fire."
How we test