Do You Actually Know How to Run By Feel?
I don't, because I am addicted to my running watch(es).
If someone asked you to run an interval at a specific pace without relying on your running watch, would you be able to do it? I wouldn’t.
I’ve been relying on a Garmin/Apple Watch/COROS since training for my first endurance race in 2015, before I had any knowledge around the sport (I was invited to race an Ironman 70.3 while working for Shape magazine and had absolutely no idea what I was getting into). Over the past eight years, I’ve become conditioned to trust the computer I wear on my wrist more than what my own body tells me.
I know that’s a bad thing—I’ve experienced firsthand the mental health ramifications of relying too much on a device for training data. And yet it’s hard to break the habit of constantly quantifying your performance, especially in a sport that revolves around numbers. More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about how device dependency can limit my training.
A lot of that comes down to accuracy issues. Most current running watches use GPS to determine your pace, and GPS works best when there is an uninterrupted line of sight between the device and the satellite (anyone who’s ever run the Chicago Marathon knows how wonky GPS can get in urban race settings). But even without obstructions, GPS devices can be guilty of a “systematic overestimation of distance,” a 2016 paper in the International Journal of Geographical Information Science determined—a miscalculation that will throw off pace estimates.
If you’re basing pacing off heart rate, you’re not immune to the errors, either. Wrist-based heart rate measurements were variable, with Apple Watch and Garmin being the most accurate and Fitbit tending toward underestimation, in a 2020 systematic review of 158 studies conducted in laboratory-based settings (real world measurements would likely be even less accurate). Heart rate tracking error rates were between 2.4 and 13.5 percent in a 2019 study in the Journal of Sport Sciences, and additional research published in Cardiovascular Diagnosis & Therapy that year found that wrist monitors became less accurate as runners went faster (not to mention, things like the weather and the color of your skin can also cause reading errors).
But accuracy issues aside, a reliance on wearable devices teaches you to stop responding to how your body actually feels (and adapting to that feedback) in order to follow external data that might not be correct and can’t account for subjective perceptions, like being worn down from family stress or a lingering cold.
It’s all about creating awareness around data consumption
so tracking doesn’t limit your performance.
Even worse, in offloading the responsibility of pacing to a device, our brain loses the ability to perform that task itself (kind of like how less people can recall information accurately now that we keep Google in our pockets). And when you’re at the mercy of your watch, you’re not in control of your own performance. Case in point: Flipping your wrist every 20 seconds (which I am absolutely guilty of) during a race is a massive waste of mental energy in the middle of a task that’s already significantly taxing your brain.
And, not to be a super downer about this, but activity data from wearable devices can result in increased levels of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, and lead to obsessive and dependent behaviors, a 2020 study from the University of Copenhagen concluded. (This is why I haaaate Garmin’s “Unproductive” Training Status message, even though I love so many other things about their devices.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up my watch any time soon. Using a watch can be incredibly helpful in training in that it helps you learn what a certain pace feels like (a treadmill can also be a useful tool here). And the only way you get better at nailing a certain pace is through repetition—with or without a watch. Plus, tracking how your body responds to changes to distance, pace, elevation, heart rate, and certain environmental conditions can help you spot trends and patterns in your training, especially if you’re also using any kind of training log that helps contextualize that data.
But one of my goals throughout Tokyo Marathon training this winter is to run sans tech once a week. I want to prioritize running by my rate of perceived exertion (or RPE), which encourages self-monitoring and helps account for the fact that the same workout might feel easy one day and awful the next week due to extenuating circumstances (like a bad night’s sleep or a martini lunch), and tune back in to what my breath or muscle fatigue might be telling me. I’ll most likely reserve those watch-free runs for easy days, but I’d like to start turning my watch screen off or covering it during the later reps of workouts so I can start to feel the subtle differences between what a 7:30 and an 8:30 pace feels like.
If you know what certain paces feel like, it enables you to stay immersed in the moment and instinctively pull back or pick it up when you need to without wasting extra mental energy. For me, it’s a work in progress—but it’s all about creating awareness around data consumption so tracking doesn’t limit your performance.
Apple Updates Its Running Features
With the release of watchOS 9.2, Apple Watch users will get access to two new running features. With Automatic Track Detection, the Watch can determine if you’re at a track and will prompt you to enter the lane you plan to run in so Apple Maps data and GPS can provide the most accurate distance and pace data. (If you run to the track, the Watch will automatically prompt you to select a lane when you get there.) And with Race Route, the Watch can determine when you’re running a similar route to one you’ve done at least twice before and will option to race against your last or best performance on that route. During the run, you’ll get alerts telling you if you’ve moved ahead or behind of your previous performance, how far is left to go, and if you’ve moved off the designated route.
How the 1% Runs an Ironman
Honestly, I thought I had it good getting to do races with brands, but this New York Times article—by the great Devin Gordon—showed how the people behind Ironman XC (which stands for “executive challenge”) take race pampering to a new level. The gist: Ironman XC helps “high-achieving, time-strapped business executives” navigate race weekend with perks like rooms at the hotel closest to the starting line, minifridges in athletes’ suites stocked with all their favorite pre-race snacks, an on-call bike mechanic, and VIP treatment for families. I would like to say sign me up, but the fee ranges between $5,700 and $15,000. (Also, I never want to do the swimming portion of an Ironman race again.)
Try the Nix Biosensor
I’ve been waiting to test this sweat-tracking wearable since May, and of course it arrived right as Denver’s temps nosedived into the 30s. Nix sticks to your upper arm and streams your sweat rate, electrolyte loss rate, and sweat composition data to an app, which provides personalized alerts—to your phone, Apple Watch, or Garmin device—to help you stay hydrated. My favorite part of the app is the Hydration Beverage Chart that shows which brands will provide you with the right amount of electrolytes per ounce of fluid based on your sweat composition. There are still some kinks to work out—the sensor didn’t record any data during my frigid Saturday long run, and you have to wait 20-plus minutes for data to show up during a workout—but I think this could be a cool tool for anyone looking to dial in their hydration strategy. (Watch my demo video on Instagram!)
Strava Declares a Post-Pandemic Marathon Boom
Everyone on social media loves to claim “less than one percent of the population will run a marathon” (which is not exactly a fact-checked statistic), but in 2022, the share of runners on Strava who ran a marathon nearly doubled compared to 2021, according to the platform’s Year In Sport report. Travel also picked up, with the number of athletes uploading activities outside their home country up 101 percent since 2021 (but still three percent shy of 2019). FWIW, I am 100 percent on board with the return of running travel (see you in Tokyo!).
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I find it easier to look at the watch less often in the winter. I start the watch and then just cover it with a jacket sleeve until I’m done.
Enjoyed reading this. I've recently done some experimentation with racing without a watch and had some fantastic results. Ran my 3rd fastest marathon on feel and my third fastest half. But most importantly I've felt great start to finish in those races, too. Challenged a fellow runner to join my experiment for this video: https://youtu.be/waw-lr5IB7A . I wish Garmin/COROS/Apple/Polar would create a one tap 'naked' mode where you could track the data but blank the screen.