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The Value of “Naked” Runs

By Amanda Loudin

Leaving the GPS watch at home now and again can have big payoffs. Like many runners today, 33-year old engineer Amy Shuman never leaves home to train or race without her GPS watch. “If it’s not on the Internet, it never happened, right?” she jokes. “It’s such an easy task to put it on that I never really consider going without it.”

For a new generation of runners like Shuman, no run is complete without feedback from technology. These runners want to know pace, mileage, elevation and more, and there are plenty of methods today to provide all that information. Whether using a GPS watch, a phone app, and/or linking up on Strava, a run didn’t happen if it wasn’t tracked in some way, shape or form.

But runners who have been around since before the advent of this technology—and plenty of coaches—say that all that feedback has definite downsides. This crop of runners and coaches would argue that there’s great benefit to dropping the technology now and again, and in some cases, all together.

Bobby Gessler, MD, 60-year old coaching certification instructor for the RRCA, is among those who want to see more runners weaned off the technology. “People who have been running for a long time and who started before the technology existed have a better sense of pace,” he says. “It’s better not to be a slave to the watch.”

Chicago-based runner and coach Jennifer Harrison, 46, agrees and takes things a step further. “I think in some cases, it’s ruining runners,” she says. “It’s so important to understand what a 5k effort is or a 10k effort. Instead, runners look at their watches and they lose a feel for pacing in training and in racing.”

Harrison says that, too often, she sees athletes panicking if their technology breaks or fails to work properly. “They can’t figure out how to do the workout without it,” she says. “So my job becomes asking them to do some training without it and helping them learn to understand their body without the data.”

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Some runners have figured this out for themselves through trial and error.  Charlotte Walsh, 50, owner of the Boston-based Charles River Running store, says that while she grew up running without the technology, she was open to giving it a try. “I was late to the GPS scene, but about six years ago, I gave in and bought a very basic model,” she explains. “I liked knowing the data, but I found that I began trying to beat every run.”

This mentality eventually became stressful, Walsh says. “I was beating myself up if I wasn’t faster than the day before,” she says.

One day, pressed for time and not wanting to wait for her satellites, Walsh left the watch behind. “I realized I enjoyed the run so much more like this,” she says. “I haven’t worn it since.”

Learning to go without

While it might be intimidating, you can learn to go without your GPS feedback with a little work.

Gessler recommends that runners learn to run by perceived exertion. “I like runners to use a scale of one to 10,” he explains. “This way, an easy day is an easy day.”

The thinking, says Gessler, is that your body knows what it needs on a given day. “Your legs might feel easy is an 8:30 pace one day, and a 9:00-minute pace another,” he says. “If you are hung up on hitting a certain pace, however, it might not be the right answer for you on that day.”

Gessler points to the fact that most runners run hard days too easy and easy days too hard, missing out on the value of both. Trying to hit certain paces on those easy days can easily contribute to this phenomenon.

Amanda Folk, a 26-year old exercise physiologist from Philadelphia, says this was one of the issues she had when using a GPS watch.

“I was burned out and injured, and I realized I wasn’t listening to my body, because I was always trying to hit certain miles and certain paces,” ​said Folk. “Once I gave up the watch, my runs became less stressful and interestingly, I became faster.”

Like Folk, Walsh has found the joy in her runs since losing the watch. “I realize that what’s important to me is the endorphin hit,” she says. “Plus, as I get older I recognize that there are different phases in our running lives. Right now I’m all about relaxing and enjoying my runs.”

Harrison says that learning to go without the GPS is a process for most runners. “Most don’t have the confidence to leave the watch behind,” she says. “The data messes with their minds. But with practice, you learn how certain paces feel and most athletes end up learning to trust themselves.”

Gessler says that you can tap into indicators other than numbers to gauge how you should be running. “Listen to your breathing,” he advises. “If you are breathing hard when you’re supposed to be going easy, back off.”

Health IQ

In a racing situation, he suggests running the first half by your GPS watch pace, and then pushing the pace by feel for the second half. This is an effective method for weaning away from the data and you might just find that you run the second half faster than the first. Running on the track with an old-fashioned chrono watch such as a Timex Ironman, is another way to increase your internal pacing knowledge, checking in on quarter mile splits.

All of this advice isn’t to say that there’s no place for a GPS watch in your running life. Harrison, for instance, will strap one on during easy runs to ensure she isn’t going too hard. “I tend to overdo it when I should be running at a recovery pace,” she says. “So I’ll check in on my splits to make sure I’m not running too fast.”

Shuman says she loves having the data from races so that if/when she goes back to the same course for a second or third time, she can go into it with an informed strategy. “I’ll go back and review the course, elevation, and splits,” she says. “There are plenty of times when I’ll have my watch on under my shirt sleeves or don’t look at it during a run, but I always go back to see the data after.”

Gessler says that mixing up the runs to slowly incorporate more and more without a watch is a good way to ease into it, eventually working up to completely “naked” running. If you’re hesitant, he says this, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

Amanda Loudin is a freelance writer, runner and mom.  Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Outside, ESPNW, Runner's World, RRCA, and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @MissZippy1

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