Ditch the GPS

GPS is a great tool. I love to use my Garmin for quality workouts where splits matter such as mile repeats on the bike path, marathon pace work, or even for racing Strava segments within the context of on-trail threshold work or race pace simulation. And here at Upper Left Distance Training, we use GPS data integration in your training log to track your runs to the T! This allows me to view your routes, splits, and elevation, which can be very nice for online coaching. But even with all of the benefits, it would do most of us some good to ditch the GPS every now and then.

The problem is that with all of the technology these days, runners are losing their ability to tune into themselves and instead, are relying solely on external feedback such as mile splits and heart rate. While this can be a great tool in certain situations, relying solely on your GPS will limit your potential as an athlete. Our minds (and subsequently our bodies) rely on many cues to regulate our efforts, including our GPS and Heart Rate devices. You will be limited by the feedback from your watch data, so that what you “know” you can achieve will then be based off of the gadgets calculations, instead of your internal data.

I’ve seen this happen in races: “___ is the target heart rate I should be able to maintain for this race.” Great. You’ve just set your bar. Your mind will now act as a governor, not allowing you to break past your self imposed limits. Have you ever seen someone make a kick at the end of an Iron Man before collapsing ? Have you  ever seen someone finish a 100 mile foot race ?  Have you ever heard stories of mothers lifting vehicles off of their children ? Humans are capable of super human feats. That’s a fact that science cannot fully explain. The same holds true, although to a lesser extent, in racing.

Even when using pace per mile to control your easy efforts, we often become reliant on this feedback instead of tuning in to our own bodies. Because of this, athletes will often run too hard in an effort to match up with a pace they’ve been told is their easy pace, when they should instead be listening to their bodies and running even easier for recovery. This is why training by feel can be a far more effective way to train for some athletes. Our bodies are amazing machines and they will provide the feedback we need, we just need to listen. It’s important that you become aware of how you feel at a given effort. The difference between running an 8:30 mile and a 9:30 mile doesn’t matter, so long as the effort was easy and felt easy. The difference between 6:40 pace and 6:30 pace during a threshold run doesn’t matter much, so long as you know what a LT effort feels like.

Past losing touch with ourselves, athletes often get stuck in the data feedback loop with their GPS devices and end up feeling lesser-than by constantly comparing instant external data to their expectations: “This pace is less than what I expected to be able to run”  “I couldn’t run fast enough to get this Strava segment” “My competitors are running faster than me.” “This isn’t enough.” Of course, these are all self imposed expectations that we’re not meeting, but this type of comparison is an unfortunate fact for some athletes who rely too much on technology in training.

The problem too is that when we rely on GPS for every run, we can become stressed by the data: glancing every minute to make sure things are adding up, looking at the split to make sure it was fast enough, wondering why this run felt hard when the GPS and pace calculators tell us it should be easy. This is not conducive to easy, constructive running. We know that stress is stress to the body; it doesn’t differentiate, so why add an extra stressor unnecessarily?  Just as our bodies don’t recognize the arbitrary mileage numbers we’ve given value to in an 7 day period, they don’t always run by the paces in the charts.

It was hard for me to step away from the social validation of Strava, but this is what I’ve been doing for myself recently to reduce that stress:

  1. All easy runs with a stop watch to keep track of time. No GPS.
  2. GPS for any specific pace based workouts (800s, Ks, Mile reps, MP race pace, etc).
  3. GPS with the lap function and pace per mile turned off for tempo and long runs (I then log into Garmin or Strava to see how the splits matched up to how I felt).
  4. At [trail/ultra] races: pace per mile screen disabled. Chrono to keep track of caloric intake. Distance to keep track of aid stations (but don’t do math!).

This is what works for me, and may or may not work for you. Maybe you’d enjoy no watch at all? On a free day when I have nowhere to be, I sure do! Maybe you’re learning to internalize pace and the pace per mile screen is a learning tool at races and pace specific long runs on the road? It’s a great tool that!  Whatever you do, don’t become a slave to technology. Run free once in a while. It will make a world of difference in your training and racing.