One Dirty Magazine

GPS—and Other Devices—Are Not For Everyone

You don’t need to measure yourself to reach your running potential—or be a happy runner.

David Roche May 7th, 2018

GPS—and Other Devices—Are Not For Everyone Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash
The other day I was talking with an athlete who had had a revelation. He had stripped off his watch, and he suddenly found himself feeling like a happier runner:

“I have not been using GPS for a few days. I need to not compare my workouts with others or myself. I stopped to stand in the middle of a swarm of swallows feasting on a cloud of bugs. It was nice not to feel like I would be judged by my watch.”

For him, a 30-minute slow run turned into an exploratory jaunt through nature, Thoreau in split shorts. It seems that for some people, a few-ounce watch can be a massive weight holding them down.

There could be a few explanation for GPS-free joy. It could be as simple as peer pressure, with the GPS watch and social networks being like high school friends laughing at you for playing the tuba, so you play football instead. Or it could be self-judgment, with the watch standing in for the scale, the performance review at your job, the SAT score or all the other little things that make up our quantified, stratified, comparison-oriented life.

Time and time again, I have seen this story unfold. An athlete gets caught up in the numbers game and feels differently about their running than they would otherwise. One unfortunate example I have seen involves GPS “dead zones”—places where GPS signal is not fully reliable. In California, Huddardt Park is where good runs go to die when processed by satellites up in space. Something about the big redwood trees and switchbacks makes most runs 30-60 seconds slower per mile than they are in reality. Another couple are the Hollister Loop and Forest Park trails in Portland, Oregon. These locations are all like funhouse mirrors that make you look like an undead-zombie-whale rather than a normal person. And the crazy part—I have seen many runners view their runs as less productive because GPS reports slower times.

It goes the other way, too. Kezar Field in San Francisco (along with many tracks) reports paces faster than they are in reality. These runners sometimes have “breakthrough” runs, setting big PRs and loving their running lives.

Perhaps most interestingly, I have anecdotally seen runners regress to their own perceptions of their abilities. Those runners that consistently do favorable routes generally get a bit faster over time, buoyed by a bit more belief in themselves. The runners that do tough trails might judge themselves, slowing down ever so slightly as their brain provides that snarky feedback: “You work really hard to be pretty slow.”

It all gets back to self-worth. As humans, we have a tendency to ask ourselves the question, “Am I enough?” That goes for running, parenting, our jobs, our dog cuddling and everything. When it comes to running, devices can have a sneaky way of making us hesitate when answering.

Photo by Mateo Abrahan on Unsplash.

Devices might even change how we run. The Hawthorne Effect is a principle in scientific studies where participants change behavior because they know they are being observed. As outlined in this 2014 review study in the “Journal of Clinical Epidemiology,” it is named after Hawthorne, Illinois, the location of a telephone manufacturing plant in the mid-1900s. There, workers who were being supervised by managers under the auspices of a research study showed major improvement in productivity.

You don’t need devices to reach your running potential. You don’t even need a dumb watch, let alone a smart one. There is no training stimulus that needs to be measured to be achieved.

For runners, devices can essentially be observers of your daily behavior. The difference between telephone manufacturing and running is that run too much or too hard, and you can venture into overtraining and injury. In addition, the goal of running isn’t to produce widgets for a faceless corporation, it’s to support fulfillment. Fulfillment is harder for many people when there’s constant pressure from judgment. I’d be way more interested to know how those Hawthorne factory workers felt about their lives than their productivity.

On top of all that, you don’t need devices to reach your running potential. You don’t even need a dumb watch, let alone a smart one. There is no training stimulus that needs to be measured to be achieved. It’s like love—you don’t need a doo-hickey to tell you that your loyalty and friendship and sex life are all in the 77th percentile to know you have a good marriage. Run lots, not too much, mostly easy. Do that, and you’ll get really close to your potential without worrying too much about it all.

The old saying goes “dance like no one is watching.” But what if you can’t escape the thought that someone is watching you boogie, judging your sweet moves until they feel a bit sour? If that describes you, here are a few tips.

1. Set up your watch to display time, but not pace

Major disclaimer: I use a GPS watch and love it. About three-quarters of the athletes I coach use GPS and running social networks too. For myself and most of the athletes, I recommend they set their watch to just show total time, rather than pace (and dear lord not instantaneous pace, which is like having a little jockey on your wrist slapping you whenever you need to speed up).

Time is a great proxy for training stimulus—plenty for most athletes, even the top pros. A wonderful thing about trail running is that we don’t have to get good at locking into race pace, since our race paces are dictated by terrain. Effort is what matters. And effort provides far fewer opportunities for self-judgment.

A workout of 3 x 1 mile at eight-minute pace can easily be 3 x 8 minutes at moderate effort and the body won’t know the difference. But the brain might. And that removal of metrics for external evaluation can change everything. You can even use this method and review your workouts on GPS afterward (or provide them to your coach).

2. Do not “lap out” intervals or efforts

The “lap” function on a watch lets you break out small portions of runs (usually workouts) into ready-to-analyze chunks. That’s amazing if you don’t have any issues with self-judgment. But if you do, lapping out can hang over your head during a run. Even if you don’t have immediate feedback, the understanding that you will be judged in the future can add a sense of nervous dread to the whole occasion.

Let’s go back to the workout above. If a runner laps out, they might see they ran those eight-minute efforts at 8:30 pace. As long as the effort was right, that’s not too relevant from a training perspective—it could be chalked up to weather or trails or a failure to remember that chia seeds expand when they are in liquid, so maybe you shouldn’t eat them raw before a run. Even though it doesn’t matter, the runner could think of the workout—and themselves—as a failure.

Meanwhile, “no laps” leaves it all up to interpretation. If you decide it was a good run, it was a good run. The key is setting up a framework where you control the narrative, rather than a silly satellite receiver on your wrist.

3. Have a clear “why?” for your use of GPS and social networks

Done right, GPS can be life affirming—a running partner that is always there for you, storing memories of runs past. The same goes for social networks like Strava—they can be groups of like-minded people who love you just the way you are and motivate you to get out the door. Those are good “why” answers.

Bad “why” answers are that you are looking for a reason not to love yourself today, or you want to beat your neighbor, or you want to boomwallop your old self. If your reason for GPS and social networks are externally-driven, focused on comparison, you may regret it.

Or it could work perfectly for you. That’s the thing with GPS (and all else in life)—everyone is remarkably different. So sit down and attempt to know thyself. Why do you use devices the way you do?

If you are the type of person that feels worse about themselves because of the watch or social networks, you can opt out altogether. If you aren’t, keep doing what you are doing. If you are somewhere in the middle, practice methods to take control of the self-worth narrative. No matter what, remember the happy runner mantra:

You are enough, unconditionally.

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.


0 0 vote
Article Rating
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

I don’t even turn on the GPS during ultras. I just use it to tell time so I know I eat on time and sometimes indulge in trail math to keep the mind from wandering. I keep out of all social networks whether it’s Strava, FB, Twitter – admittedly a rarity in Silicon Valley which sometimes attracts snarky comments. Running should be simple and life should be simple.

David Ammons
David Ammons
2 years ago

I don’t use Strava, GPS, or even a watch on my runs. I do train with a HR monitor when I’m working towards a fitness goal, or prepping for a race. Here, among the Redwoods, you don’t get a accurate signal anyway, and it’s just a distraction. I run and train for personal satisfaction today, not to impress anyone else. For me, I’m sure I could be faster, but running is much more than mere speed; it’s a form of meditation and introspection that gadgetry interferes with.

Thea Gavin
2 years ago

“Thoreau in split shorts” . . . a funny image, but I was happy to be reminded in this article how being “unplugged” helps me enjoy the natural beauty of the local trails I run on (with no need for any “music” in my ears other than listening to bird calls). No phone, no watch, no shoes (cue the music to “Gilligan’s Island here) . . . just lots of sensory fun along the trail. Thanks for another thoughtful/thought-provoking article, Coach Roche!

2 years ago

“You are enough, unconditionally.” Beautifully said. And so true. Wonderful writing, David.

Mike B
Mike B
2 years ago

Anyone know how to set up Strava so that runs look like hikes in that they do not show pace? Could just save as a hike but then it messes up my weekly totals etc. Hike is not an option for weekly goals or such.

John Bryan
John Bryan
2 years ago

Guess I’m that exception that proves a rule – my GPS watch and Strava account are just convenient tools I use to keep track of miles covered and time on my feet. Beats my old pocket notebook that I’d forget to log my runs in! When you’re as slow as I am why bother worrying about it? Though with as much emphasis as we seem to place on social media I can see how people could misuse technology and make themselves less effective.

2 years ago

I will sometimes run with my phone in my waistband running RunKeeper and set to shout out distance and time every half mile or mile. Usually it’s just because I’m often not sure how far I’m going to go that day, or if I’m in unfamiliar terrain and figuring out my turnaround point. Otherwise it just helps me gauge how my perceived energy levels vary during a run. Not really interested in the data beyond that.

But then I don’t really run to compete, but more just for the high of moving quickly out in nature. I imagine if my goals were a bit more specific I’d be tempted to pay more attention to the data.


HELP US KEEP OUR WEBSITE FREE is completely free. We don’t have a paywall and you don’t have to be a member to access thousands of articles, photos and videos. Our editorial and design team—and all of our contributors—are trail runners just like you who love the sport and want to share all the great things it has to offer. 

But we can’t do it without you. Your support is critical for keeping our website free and delivering the most current news, the most in-depth stories and the best photography in the running world.

For 20 years Trail Runner has committed to excellence and authenticity. Your subscription to our print magazine or donation will help us continue down a path that is uncompromised, and keep the website free for trail runners like you.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x