It’s a debate as old as time—to run with or run without a running watch?
Just kidding—it’s not as old as time. It’s as old as GPS running watches and their advancements. These technological advancements are so big these running watches supply data so personal as race time predictions and current stress levels.
All this information can complicate one of the simplest human acts: running.
Running without a watch has been on my mind for a while. Since I’ve returned to running after my long injury-break, I’ve become keenly aware of the negative feedback cycle looking at my GPS running watch can kickstart.
If I’m feeling bad, I’ll look at my watch and feel worse. If I’m falling off pace, I’ll start checking my watch frequently, fulfilling a prophecy. Even if I’m feeling good, running too fast according to my watch will trigger anticipatory feelings of fatigue.
Negative thoughts spiral out of control.
So, this past weekend I ran a race without looking at my GPS watch. My hope was that running watchless would free me from race anxiety and allow me to tune into my body. Unfortunately, not knowing my pace kept me in my comfort zone and I underperformed.
So, what to do? If you’re debating running without a GPS watch, or running without looking at your watch, I’ve done research to hopefully help you decide what to do.
Related: How to Cope with Race Anxiety
In this article, I’m going to explore:
- The benefits of running without a running watch
- The benefits of running with a running watch
- Who should run without a watch, and
- Tips to wean yourself off a running watch
What does a GPS running watch do?
A GPS running watch uses satellites to track your distance and speed. Technological advances that harness other data sets like heart rate and population data have also allowed running watches to share data such as estimated Vo2 max, training status, and race prediction times. Running watches can even offer programmed workouts and running routes.
Related: How to Improve your Vo2 Max
This is a far cry from my early running days where all my digital watch told me was how much time I ran for. Until my mid-twenties, I ran solely by time. I never knew how far I ran. And honestly, sometimes I yearn for that blissful ignorance. It had less judgment. Less pressure.
The list of data features money can buy you today on a running watch is endless, but the basic features are:
- Distance (Mi/Km)
- Pace (Mi/Min, Km/Min)
- Heart Rate
GPS watches today are also fully integrated with many social workout apps and can help you upload and share runs with your running community or coaches more easily.
Related: How Accurate is Garmin’s VO2 Max?
Why do runners wear GPS watches?
Runners wear running watches to collect concrete data that can be used to help adjust a run or future runs (i.e. you discover you’re running an easy run at tempo pace).
As sports psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus shares, “Performance watches are a wonderful way to help us understand what our bodies are communicating. Lining up how we physically feel with our specific heart rate, speed, duration, etc. is information that can help us all goal set, focus, and build confidence.”
However, she notes that watches are often out of alignment with what our bodies are experiencing, or they may cause us ignore signs our bodies are trying to tell us. This may lead to unnecessary anxiety, plateau, injury, or even burnout.
Because watches can distract us from listening to our bodies, it can be wise to run without a watch or without looking at a watch.
Related: How Many Miles Should You Run in a Day?
Why do runners NOT wear GPS watches?
Many runners are opting to run without a watch or without looking at their watch.
Here are 5 reasons you may not run with a running watch.
- It doesn’t serve the end goal. For example, you might be training for a certain race distance and your goal is to finish, not to hit a certain time or pace. Even if it’s your 500th race at that distance, taking pace out of the equation will narrow your focus on hitting that broader goal of finishing.
- You want the challenge/freedom of relying only on intuition. If you desire to grow in trust in yourself and your intuition as a runner, get to know your RPE without a watch. Running without a GPS watch is the perfect opportunity to practice and perfect this skill.
- You are sick. When we fight illness, our bodies function differently. Factors such as HR and fatigue can show up on your watch in negative ways (at what rate we hit our V02 Max). The data overload of our watches can spur negative feedback cycles in our brains and cause doubt that negatively affects us on race day. Not wearing a watch when you are sick also gives you a better opportunity to listen more closely to your body. The closer you listen, the less likely you are to overdo it.
- You need to conserve mental energy. Not glancing at your watch during a race saves mental energy that you convert toward focus. Not to mention, constantly trying to do the mental math of how fast to pace to make up for the lost time is exhausting. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
- The pros are doing it! Just this January, Emily Sisson broke the American record at the Houston Half Marathon without a watch, and Andrea Pomaranski (who placed 7th at the Houston Marathon) also didn’t look at her watch during her race.
In 2019, Trevor Hofbauer made headlines by winning the Canadian Marathon Championships without the use of a watch. These are just a few examples of how professional runners over the years have soared to success without the extra data.
Related: What is RPE in Running?
Should I run without a running watch?
Running without a GPS watch or without looking at your watch can help you tune out the noise and focus on how you are truly feeling. This holds the potential for benefits for both your running performance and health.
Related: Does Running Make You Happy?
5 Benefits of Running Without a Watch
- Improve pacing. Learning and internalizing your pace and effort on feeling alone creates necessary biofeedback for your body to make necessary adjustments on the go. Instead of being reliant upon your watch to tell you your effort pace is too hard or too easy, you’ll know by feeling alone.
- Relieve race anxiety and pace anxiety. Runners are naturally competitive and are constantly trying to outdo themselves. Functioning at this high level all the time is a recipe for burnout and can hinder performance. Running by feel can allow you to run true to how you feel.
- Stop negative feedback cycles. Zoning in on GPS running watch data like pace or heart rate can spur negative thought cycles that hurt performance. It can also make you anticipate feeling a certain way—even if you don’t!
- Focus only on what you (and not others) are doing. Sharing your stats is a great way to show off something you are proud of, but constantly comparing your numbers to someone else’s can invite unnecessary judgment and doubt about your own abilities. No two runners are the same.
- Run for the joy of it. What is it that you love about running? You may answer this question with “I love the feeling of speed” but I doubt you’ll ever answer with “I just really love it when I hit a sub-6 min/mi pace during my 800-meter rep.”
The more technical we get with our running, the better we can understand what we need to improve, but, with all things, it’s a balance. When we focus too much on the small details, we miss the beauty of the bigger picture. There have been many times I was happy with a run but then felt defeated after analyzing the stats.
Related: What is a Tempo Run?
Who should run without a watch?
You should consider running without a watch if you:
- Need to focus on your pacing
- Have anxiety around racing and pacing
- Feel out of tune with how your body feels while running
- Put too much pressure on yourself and your performance
- Get stuck in the comparison trap with yourself or others
- Overanalyze or over-focus on your running data
- Just want to run for fun—not for a specific time
Related: Process Goals for Runners
Should I run WITH a watch?
Running with a watch can help you achieve your pace or distance goals. Running watches can help us fine-tune our speed and training volume so we can get after our goals. They can help us see progress and help us stay on track.
Specifically, you should run with a running watch if:
- The data will help you mentally push or pull back in training and racing.
- The information helps you see your momentum and stay motivated.
- You have a specific goal such as a specific race time goal or mileage goal.
- You need to keep your HR in a certain zone.
- The data helps you perfect your pacing.
- You are running in a new location and don’t have a route pre-planned.
- The data is helpful in corroborating how you already feel.
- You’re just doing it for the Strava post. (Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there.)
Related: Race Strategies from a Pro
Tips for Weaning Yourself Off a Running Watch
Deciding to run without a watch is your call. For me, I think I will do something in the middle where I don’t use a watch on some of my training runs but not all.
Dr. Perlus recommends this strategy. “Try periodically running without a watch with the intention of letting your body lead. Play around with your pacing by finding a comfortable pace, speeding up to notice your breath and other physiological responses, then slowing back down.”
Use the quiet to pay attention to your running technique. Experiment with pacing and see what works to help maintain or regain your breath. Try on different mental strength techniques like disassociation (tuning out) or zoning in (what to you hear, see, taste, feel).
“These running exercises are all executed without any devices and brings you back in touch with the mind/body connection,” explains Dr. Perlus.
Related: Mental Strength Tips for Runners from a Sports Psych
If you need help ditching the crutch of the watch, here are some tips:
Look at your watch only at mile splits.
Check out your watch settings and make sure it is set to chime or vibrate every mile split. When you hear or feel it go off, quickly look at your split time and then refocus your eyes on the road ahead.
Change your watch face so all you see is total distance.
Taking your pace per mi/km off your main watch face can lessen the temptation to dwell on how fast you are going (or not going.)
Wear your watch upside down.
This position may not be ideal for tracking HR but having to twist your arm every time you need to look at your watch will curb the temptation to constantly keep an eye on it.
Only wear your watch on runs you really need to record data.
Leaving the watch at home will encourage you to remember why you love to run!
Play the guessing game.
The ultimate goal is for us to become good at pacing so that we can use our running watches as guides rather than rulers of how we feel about our running. So, run at various paces (easy, moderate, hard) and guess your pace before checking your GPS watch. Do this frequently throughout your training to tune into how you feel when running.
If you want guidance with your running goals, with or without a watch, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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