GPS-running watches have been around for close to a quarter of a century. Casio released the first one back in 1999. The first Garmin Forerunner arrived soon after in 2003.
Before that, runners had to go the extra mile measuring distances in their cars the day before training runs, using simple stopwatches to time efforts, and judge workouts – and races – entirely on feel.
Nowadays, it’s a different story. With (mostly) accurate GPS, real-time pace, and heart rate, plus deeper stats like power, live stamina, and performance ratings, we’re spoilt for data on our runs.
But is all this feedback a help or a hindrance? Did pre-Millennium marathoners run smarter without all the noise?
We asked the experts if our running watches could be holding us back from achieving those personal bests. Then tried racing without a watch to find out. Here’s what we discovered.
The measure of success
Running watches have vastly increased our ability to continuously measure performance in real-time.
Data is now a huge part of most runners’ relationship with running. Instead of clocking race splits at each mile marker, we can now see if we’re hitting our target pace or BPM at any given moment. We can get granular with those splits post-run and share them for the world to judge on Strava and social media.
When you realize that measuring outcomes influences and changes them, that relationship with your running watch becomes even more important.
A 2016 University of California study collated data from almost 10 million marathon ﬁnishing times and researchers found a huge pooling of people finishing almost bang on three and four hours.
It’s a demonstration of just how strongly runners fixate on round number finish time targets and how those targets strongly dictate their end performance. Running a 2:59 marathon is seen as a huge success. Crossing the line at 3:01 is not.
Setting goals improves performance. However, runners can be overly optimistic. A study by the University of St Thomas, Minnesota looked at a group of 1,758 experienced marathoners and found that only 26% of runners achieved their self-reported goals. That’s a lot of disappointed runners.
And our love affair with our running watches may have a part to play in that. Instead of listening to our bodies and basing our effort on how we feel on the day, we often let the watch rule.
Now that we can measure our target pace every step of the way, we can also obsess about hitting those splits regardless. The watch becomes the master enticing us to attempt to run at paces we might not be fit enough to sustain.
Getting in touch with our feelings
Runner-turned-elite coach Nick Anderson, from Runningwithus.com, who often raced watch-free back in the day, suggests our watches might be dulling some important running senses.
“I think one of the things that technology has created in recent years is a misunderstanding of the most important element, which is your perceived rate of exertion (RPE). Running how you feel and understanding what that is,” says Anderson.
“To run a PB you've got to be prepared to run faster than you've ever run before and believe you can do it. But without overanalyzing every kilometer. If you just chase the vest in front, or the group in front, set goals in your mind and work through them, that’s probably better than analyzing every kilometer.”
Focusing too much on data and running to an exact pace all the way isn't inspiring for many runners, says Anderson.
“It becomes something that's mentally really tiring, and something that can almost force you – every kilometer – to have yet another discussion with the chimp on your shoulder or the Gremlin. You're constantly reviewing everything rather than running free and just enjoying that run.”
Anderson suggests that following the watch too blindly can even end up limiting our performance, putting a ‘glass ceiling’ on our potential.
“If you've gone out, and you've said, ‘I'm going to run four-minute kilometers, all the way round today in my 10k. And I'm going to try and break 40 minutes.’ If you feel really good, you're probably going to run that. Okay. But who knows, was that the day you could have run 37 minutes?”
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the elite’s playbook. Anthropologist-runner and author of Out of Thin Air, Dr. Michael Crawley thinks so. Crawley lived with a group of elite Ethiopian athletes in Addis Ababa for 15 months and got a close-up look at how they used technology in their training and racing.
“In Ethiopia, elite long-distance runners didn't have access to any of these things until about 2015,” says Crawley. “When I was out there they started using GPS watches. I found that they didn't just unquestioningly adopt those watches and wear them all the time and become slaves to the data.”
“They adopted them very selectively for particular runs, where they wanted specific information. For example, on tempo runs on flat road surfaces. This kind of selective use meant they rejected running watches on runs designed to be rejuvenating, the more creative form of easy running like forest running.”
The Ethiopians’ take: running watches are useful but we shouldn't use them all the time, particularly on runs where time, pace, and other numbers pressure might be counterproductive. By placing too much emphasis on post-run Strava stats we increase the pressure on ourselves to ‘perform’ every time we run.
“The main thing that anthropologists and sociologists have said about these kinds of devices is that they've been designed to react to a kind of anxiety we seem to have. It’s about not having enough information about our bodies, or about ourselves,” says Crawley.
“In some cases, they address those anxieties, and they help us to feel a greater sense of mastery or control over what we're doing. But in other cases, they just make that anxiety worse.
“We're presented with all this data, but we don't always know how to interpret it. Or how we should change our behavior. So there's this kind of ambivalent relationship with the data.
Crawley suggests it also depends on the person, the situation, and the context.
“Sometimes they help but often, these things actually kind of make us more anxious, use up our time, change our relationship with the sports that we're doing, in ways that can be quite negative.”
This is part 1 of a two-part feature. Next week, Kieran will put the theories to the test in his own running program.
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