I’m stingy. I’ve think I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. When I “treat myself,” I go to McDonald’s and get two McDoubles (Quarter Pounders are too expensive!). I buy my make-up and other essentials with Amazon gift cards earned through work. I have two winter running tops. Two. The last time I bought an article of clothing was this past summer for a friend’s wedding. Like, it’s bad. Thus, it’s not a surprise to anyone that knows me that I haven’t ever adopted any of those new-fangled training tools like Garmins and heart rate monitors. Really, though, I’ve learned to enjoy the low-tech running I do. I’m not out to make any converts, but I do think there are a lot of benefits to running without the help of (many) of the tools that have become commonplace.
Obviously, I do use technology. When it comes to running, the stopwatch function on my standard Timex watch, an online pace calculator, and MapMyRun are my essentials. I have a very particular process that I go through before each and every run. That’s twice a week right now, when you keep in mind that I’m not doing this for my speed work. I map out a run of the appropriate distance on MapMyRun.com.
I then look for good places to check my splits throughout the run. Typically, I look for impossible-to-miss landmarks like turns or intersections. Once I’ve chosen the locations I want to check my splits, I figure out exactly how far into my run that location is and then use an online pace calculator to determine what my time should be at that location.
Then I write those splits on my hands so I can check my pace on my runs. This practice amused one of my friends so much that it made it into her product description of a Garmin for Competitive Cyclist*. Basically, I’m famous. For long runs, I may only check my pace every few miles, while I may try to check my pace every half mile or so during shorter runs.
And then, while I’m running, I just glance at my watch and glance at the split written on my hand whenever I hit one of those pre-determined pace checkpoints.
It’s a pretty involved process now that I think of it, but I think it does have a lot of benefits that I would worry about missing out on if I went the typical Garmin-route.
I love being forced to map my route before heading out for my run. Not only does it make me more familiar with the turns I’ll be taking and the roads on which I’ll be running, but more importantly, it helps me visualize the hills I’ll deal with during the route. Utah has some pretty decent hills, and sometimes, the slope is enough to affect your pace but not enough to actually notice it. Having an idea about what kind of hills I’ll face and when during the run I’ll face them helps me tackle my runs in a smarter way.
I also enjoy not being a slave to my GPS watch or my pace. I know that if I had a GPS watch, I would check it constantly and obsess over it during every mile of every run. This is simply an unfortunate aspect of my personality. I didn’t want to get an iPhone for a similar reason—I didn’t want to constantly be distracted by games, social media, and the ever-present Internet. When I eventually did get an iPhone, I immediately picked up all the bad habits I was afraid that I would. I don’t want to do that to running. I don’t want to panic when I’m running up a mountain and not hitting my goal (overall) pace. I don’t want to see I’m running faster than planned and panic and slow down, even though I feel great. For me, running without a GPS watch has helped me learn to be a better judge of my effort. I spent the first half of my marathon training cycle worrying that I was running too fast before embracing it and judging my effort based on how I feel during and after the run. It turns out, I was more capable than I thought. I’m not sure I would have realized that if I had been holding myself back because a glance at the GPS watch revealed a sub-8:00/mile pace one mile into an eight mile tempo run.
I’ve also read too many horror stories about people pacing only by their GPS watch, only to be screwed when they realize their GPS watch is wrong or when the GPS watch can’t manage to find a signal at all at the start of a race. If I got a GPS watch, I know I would become dependent on it. And because stuff happens (batteries die, signals are lost, tangents are run poorly), I want to maintain my independence from GPS more than I want the information and convenience a GPS watch would undoubtedly give me.
And finally, I’m going to offer up a reason that I know isn’t fair. Despite generally being uncomfortable building narratives, I’m able to admit when I do succumb to building narratives in my life. This is one of those times. I don’t have a GPS watch for the same reason I don’t listen to music when I run. There is an imagined simplicity and purity to running by yourself, without much help from technology. I mean, I know my regular wristwatch is technology, but that hardly seems to count these days. I love stepping out the door and feeling like it’s just me and the road. There’s something exciting and kind of risky (and, yes, stupid) about leaving for a long run with no phone or GPS. It’s like you need to know yourself and know the area to make sure you will make it back as planned.
Obviously, there are workouts that I can’t do without a GPS watch. And if I were a “real” runner instead of a triathlete, I’d probably need to break down and get one. I can’t go out and do intervals of 10 minutes at a 7:15/mile pace and 2 minutes at an 8:30/mile pace. Any intervals I do in the middle of a long run need to be measured by RPE (rate of perceived exertion) instead of by pace or heartrate. It would be hard for me to swing a fast finish long run unless I was able to manage to do it based on effort alone. Plus, as I mentioned above, I’m missing out on a bunch of data that I would probably over-analyze and obsess over… but I would also probably enjoy doing that.
Like I said earlier, I’m not trying to make any converts here. GPS watches are really useful training tools, and I probably should have one. I’ve run across articles and blog posts about the benefits of doing recovery runs without GPS watches to keep you going slow and to prevent you from obsessing over pace. But I would also say that it can be useful to do some of your more serious workouts without a GPS watch. I’ve shocked myself (in a good way) when I calculated my pace for some of my tempo runs (7:40/mile for 8 miles?!) and some of my long runs (7:51/mile for 15 miles?!). And I’ve noticed that, despite my fears, I don’t seem to recover from the surprisingly fast runs any slower than the surprisingly slow ones. The time it takes me to recover from hard runs seems to be, well, kind of random, but with more of a correlation with how the run felt than the actual pace of the run.
That’s why I embrace low-tech running and have no current plans to buy a Garmin (or any other brand of GPS watch). That could change for any number of reasons in the future, but for now, I’ll scribble my splits on my hand before leaving for a run and pray I’ve chosen the right direction when I can’t quite remember which road I was supposed to turn on.
*I’m not getting any money from Competitive Cyclist. I just know people who work there and am amused that I inspired a portion of a product description.