Why I’m a low-tech runner

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 don’t usually use the satellite function, but that’s the only way I could get the street names not to show up.  If someone is going to stalk me, I’d rather not give them all the info they need.

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.

The first column is the distance, the second is the time I should be under at that distance.  Ignore the rest of the numbers.  I reuse Post-It notes.

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 here are the splits! (They don’t match the splits above because they were for different 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.

This is a post-run shot, not an action shot.

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 do not like the feel of the middle way; and I do not like the smell of the left-hand way: there is foul air down there, or I am no guide.  I shall take the right-hand passage.”

*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.


16 thoughts on “Why I’m a low-tech runner

  1. I love this! I love that you have such a thorough process that you go through to stay on top of your pacing. I do love my GPS watch because I like to just go out and run where I feel like running, but I also like to have a mapped out route when I am doing runs with specific pacing. I have learned to run by feel from being a pacer – otherwise I would totally be a slave to mine. I love reading about what works for other people, because you never know when you are going to want to change things up. I love your strategies!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one thing I love about training places and pacing and that kind of thing– there isn’t really a right or a wrong… different things just work for different people. I love reading how other people handle those gray areas of running because it’s so different for everyone!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to be a slave to my Garmin, but I had one of those races when the watch went nuts during a race (in NYC — GPS does not like tall buildings) and halfway through, I tossed out my time goal and just ran. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I used to panic when I saw paces that were either too fast or too slow and it would unsurprisingly ruin my races and confidence.

    Now I always race with my Garmin covered by a wristband, I don’t look at it at all on long or easy runs and rarely look at it during speed workouts. But I love having the data to look at afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard a few stories about people nailing the race when their Garmin failed! I know I would be exactly like you were before that happened and just obsess over my pace if I had a Garmin. The data would be really nice… but I would probably obsess over that too. I tend to get obsessive over things… it’s a problem! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hanna @ TheMillennialNextDoor

    I admire your ability to be so low-tech, not just with running but with not getting an iPhone so you don’t get distracted by the internet. It’s one of those things everyone talks about doing when they get frustrated with the internet but few people actually pull it off, so kudos!

    I do have a Garmin, but it seems the difference between us is that I don’t have the personality of needing to constantly look at it. I bring my Garmin with me on almost every run, mostly because I can’t stand not knowing how far I ran, but I often go the entire run without looking at it. I like to run by feel and review the splits at the end and see how I did. I personally believe that running by feel is an effective way to train, it enables my body to learn what certain speeds feel like so that in the event my GPS does go on the fritz in a race, I’ll know it’s off and will be able to find my goal pace anyway through all the practice I’ve done. I also find it valuable in making sure I’m going slow enough on easy runs. Running by effort for those runs almost always results in me going a little too fast, because my body’s natural rhythm isn’t always what’s best for my recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I did eventually get an iPhone (long story!), and I’m absolutely horrible about always being on it! I think you are right about the different personalities thing– some people never struggle with obsessing over their Garmins and some people (I would totally be one!) really have to work hard in order to keep a healthy outlook on pace when they are wearing one.


  4. I’m not 100% committed to my technology either. I love the freedom of being able to run without a watch. I will say Garmin has the best customer service of any watch company and if you end up getting a watch, go for them. Working at a running store, we’ve never had an issue with them taking a watch back because it didn’t work appropriately.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 50in50marathonquest

    Great post…a low tech triathlete!! Really like and appreciate your attention to detail for your training prep…doubling up post-it notes, awesome!! I’ll admit my Garmin runs me at times…I love it and I hate it but don’t think I could train without it. Ironically my marathon PR was set in Chicago where my Garmin went berserk due to the buildings. Luckily I had a temp pace tattoo on the inside of my wrist that they gave out at the expo…I used that and elapsed time to pace. Wondering, do you use an app for cycling or same kind of process?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a basic bike computer that I use for cycling. It measures distance, time, current speed, and overall speed. I like that, because I do like to have an idea as to how fast I’m going. I also struggle less with being obsessive over cycling because I’m just not as good at cycling. 🙂 I did do my first 70.3 without any sort of bike computer… just time elapsed and the mile markers on the course.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve totally been screwed by being a slave to my garmin in a race– it was a novice mistake but I missed qualifying for Boston in that race by 2 minutes as I only stuck to my watch and not the elapsed time and distance on the course. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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