We had a tradition about GPS watches on my college track team. On the first day of practice, invariably a freshman would show up with a GPS watch that chirped each mile; sometimes the kid would have the gall to inform the group of the mile split. Then we’d tell him that’s great, and if we ever hear that chirp again, we’re chucking your Garmin into the woods.
It’s not that we never ran with watches—a cheap Timex would suffice for track workouts and taking splits where mile markers were available—it’s that on easy group runs, we didn’t need to bounce a signal off a satellite to know how fast to run. When you’re training hard, non-workout days are for recovery, which meant running as fast as our bodies felt necessary.
Since retiring from competition, taking a year completely off running and starting up again, I’ve grown accustomed to running without a watch. I’ll likely cave and get a watch when I start running intervals again, but running sans wrist-ticker has helped me recalibrate my various paces (full recovery, aerobic maintenance, and lactate threshold) according to my fitness level. In the absence of hard metrics, learning what those paces feel like has been invaluable for avoiding overtraining by striving for mile splits that are too quick for my current ability.
My method of pacing and recording mileage by mapping the route post-run isn’t for everyone, but it’s important to strike a balance between GPS watch overdependence and not keeping yourself accountable whatsoever. We chatted with three professional running coaches to find the merits and detriments to training with today’s onslaught of wearable data.
Why Pace Isn’t Everything
“I’ve seen a lot of problems with runners who are really concerned with their exact pace on a given day,” says Denver-based running coach Jason Fitzgerald. “You have to understand that pace is influenced by so many factors, including those out of our control.” Those factors, Fitzgerald says, include things like hydration, weather, stress levels, caffeination, and more—a 10-minute mile is a lot harder when you’re in a headwind, dehydrated, stressed, and haven’t had your morning coffee, for instance.
The key is to differentiate pace from the purpose of recovery days. “You can use a pace range, but it’s more important to listen to your body; overly relying on GPS watch means you stop relying on how your body feels,” Fitzgerald says.
For her beginning athletes, Seattle-based running coach Kenaia Neumann recommends starting at a conversational pace to find a sustainable recovery trot. “Try and have a short conversation,” she says. “If you can go on and on without taking a breath, you’re running too slow. If you’re struggling for air while you speak, you’re running too fast.”
Not All Data Is Useful
Another potential pitfall to GPS watch reliance is interpreting the barrage of real-time data. “We should separate running according to a training plan versus running according to GPS metrics,” Fitzgerald says. “At some point, you’re going to have to train; you’re going to be following some sort of plan.”
Deciding which metrics to factor into that plan, however, is up to you. The flagship Garmin Forerunner, for instance, measures pace, distance, steps, calories burned, VO2 max, heart rate, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, cadence, lactate threshold, and more. Processing those metrics while you run, or adjusting your training by analyzing them post-run, is a huge task for the average runner. “You’re just drowning in all this data and a lot of times, it’s not really going to impact how you train,” Fitzgerald says. “Who cares what your vertical oscillation rate is? For 95 percent of runners it’s going to be within the normal range.”
The metrics you need to execute a specific training plan have been around for decades, says South Africa Olympic running coach Lindsey Parry. “The minimum you’re looking for if you want to do some focused training is current pace, average pace, heart rate, and auto and manual laps,” Parry says. If you’re going to train with a GPS device, start with those four data—mess around with the other stuff, but don’t lose sleep over your ground contact time.
Social apps like Strava further conflate a runner’s access to data and his or her propensity to use it in a beneficial way. “It can be particularly troublesome when a runner is supposed to run easy, but they see a certain segment in a run they can beat, and then run hard when they weren’t supposed to,” Fitzgerald says.
When to Use a Watch
Just as a watch can be used to overtrain, it can also be used to avoid overtraining. “While there is lots of merit in teaching better [running] feel, this can only be done with lots of supervision or with a device like a GPS,” Parry says. “Even fairly experienced amateur runners tend to err on the side of running too hard on easy days.” If I’m being honest, I likely do this with some frequency.
A GPS takes the guesswork out of tracking weekly mileage, too, and that’s important to determining your overall training load. But perhaps the best application for a GPS is workouts—not everyone has access to a running track, and even semi-reliable mile splits can elevate your training when you’re getting after it. “If a runner is getting ready for a fast 5K, I’ll have them do 3 × 1 mile at goal 5K pace with short recovery, which tests their ability to hold goal pace for the same distance as the race itself,” Fitzgerald says. “You can’t do that with time-based workouts.”
And although Parry advises his runners not to look at their watches while they race, he employs watch data to help them practice the crucial first third of a race-distance effort. “Most athletes pace poorly in the first third, which compromises the race,” he says. “So a good technique is to allow a blind time trial, and repeat a few weeks later, holding the athlete back so they can experience the strength in the final third with an appropriate start.”
Learn to Pace Intuitively
It’s entirely possible to learn to your appropriate paces with and without a watch. “You could also have an athlete rate how they’re feeling exhaustion-wise on a scale of one to five, and ask them that after every run so they start learning how they feel after different efforts,” Neumann says.
However, beginners in particular might benefit from using a watch to execute a training plan, while more seasoned runners can employ a GPS device as a guideline for exertion. “The harder I run, though, the more [the watch] is used to calculate what’s possible for the remainder of the run,” Parry says. “The more experienced you are, the less you rely on the watch.”
Fitzgerald has two techniques to help beginners learn to pace. “The first thing you can do is turn off GPS functionality when you’re on the track doing a workout; just have the stopwatch going,” he says. Start running intervals of the same time and distance—three-minute 800s, for instance. “I can look at the watch during the intervals to ensure I can run three minutes, and I’ll be getting valuable feedback from my body,” Fitzgerald says. After enough intervals at the same pace, you’ll begin to learn what three-minute 800s or six-minute miles feel like.
You can also use the GPS function for recovery runs by not looking at any of the data until you’re done. “Only later can you compare how you felt with the data itself,” Fitzgerald says. “As much as it can be really tempting to put a lot of faith in metrics, there’s a lot to be said for ignoring some of that to focus more on running by feel and getting to know how different paces feel.” When you carry that effort-based training to a race situation, you’ll know approximately how hard you’re working in real time and how much you have left in the tank for a sprint across the fire.
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