When Obsessing Over Data Ruins Your Run

I’m a slave to self-improvement. You say jump and I ask how high. When I clean the house, I aim to make it even cleaner than it ever has been before. No dust left behind. Even when I’m simply journaling, I try to make my scribbles more eloquent than the last entry.

Running is no different. I feel like each run should be better than the last. I’m addicted to striving for improvement, feeling fast and getting faster. I’m a data-obsessed runner with a high tech GPS watch strapped on tight at all times. It’s easy to record each mile split and weigh it against to previous runs or a typical easy run pace. I glance at the watch every minute. I get stressed when the pace doesn’t correspond with how I feel.

Under the influence of my GPS success, and quality of my runs hinges on a number and affects my self-worth: I feel like if I didn’t run fast I failed.

But what I love about running, especially trail running, isn’t about a number on a watch. It’s about movement in the mountains and appreciating what our bodies can do. Looking down to check pace is the bane of my enjoyment of the sport. So I turned off the pace function on my watch. Four months later I’m running happier, freer and faster.

Background: Driven by Data

This time last year, I was the fittest I’ve ever been, running 85 miles a week with around 20,000 feet of total vertical gain. I felt like superwoman. Easy days were clocking in with averages in the low seven minute per mile range. My GPS watch affirmed my fitness, buzzing every mile, feeding into the notion that I was getting faster.

Because I was running fast, I was happy. I’d finish every run gassed, but satisfied with the effort.

But a few months and a races later, my paces started to slow. The feedback my watch spewed at me was discouraging. Every second and, eventually, every minute, my pace climbed, my confidence dwindled. Running was no longer an activity I enjoyed. It was a source of anxiety. The watch was telling me how to feel. Every number dictated my self-worth; as a general rule, anything below a 7:30 pace was good and anything above provoked anger, frustration and distress. I became ashamed of numbers that looked too high and weekly mileage that seemed too low. The more discouraged I was, the slower I would run and the slower I ran, the more discouraged I became.

Then, one day spring day, I broke. I could no longer keep up with trying to keep up with myself. I took off my watch and stepped away from training and racing.

It turns out, some health complications contributed to my slowing paces. However, in hindsight, I know for a fact that the feedback from my GPS watch was, in fact, hindering my speed. A recent study found that when runners focus on metrics like pace,  they go slower than when they focus on running itself. When I freed myself from the constant data of a GPS watch, I learned to listen to my body and stop being a slave to inconsequential data and hindering progression. Now I’m able to fully recover from workouts, run my workouts faster without the pressure of hitting a prescribed pace and most importantly, I’m back to enjoying each run regardless of how fast or slow.

Watches Are Still a Tool

So did I throw out my watch? Absolutely not. I’m still a sucker for data and enjoy looking at my runs on Strava. And there is no doubt GPS watches have made training easier, more effective and allowed runners and coaches to be more creative with their workouts. After all, what gets measured gets improved.

But growing dependent on data can be a problem. Last spring, I was imprisoned by data. If you feel like data has you locked up too, it’s easy to rid yourself of the shackles. Turn off the pace function or ditch the watch altogether. Data doesn’t need to be part of every single run. Unless it serves healthy and helpful purpose, it’s not an essential part of fitness. Your watch will never be as good a health indicator as your body.