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Running Free: Ditching the GPS and Learning to Obsess Less

Garmin 620My relationship with running has changed a lot this year. In many ways I feel like I’ve come full circle back to where I started – running simply for enjoyment, the release, and the health benefits that it provides. I ran only a single race this past Spring, a ten mile trail race that kicked my butt, and I have nothing planned for this Fall. I’ve not obsessed about my weekly mileage – some weeks I approach 30 miles, others I may only do 10-15. This past week has been a big fat zero.

The reason for the change in approach is that I knew this year was going to be one of transition. As I’ve shared in a few recent posts, I’m heading back into the classroom, and have started a teacher certification program for high school biology. I spent last week at the high school where I am interning, and I taught my first lesson on Friday (nothing like jumping right in!). I decided to push running to the side for the week so that I could focus on the new experience. In years past, six straight days without a run would have driven me crazy, but I’m in a place now where I’m OK with it. No need to stress out about a few missed runs.

For much of this summer I’ve been trying to wrestle myself into a healthier relationship with my running since I knew things would be challenging come Fall. One of the first steps I took back in July was to start running more frequently without my GPS watch. Like many runners, my GPS had become an extension of my running identity, and a permanent fixture on my wrist. I obsessed about pace, and would feel guilty if I didn’t live up to what I felt I was capable of – can’t have a Strava report with a 10:00+ mile pace for a run! I obsessed about mileage – always need to add a bit to get to the nearest whole number, that 4.97 mile run just won’t do! I felt the need to reach weekly mileage goals, and heat and hills were no excuse for a slow-paced run.

Since I don’t have a Fall race planned this year, I thought it might be a good time to try ditching the GPS for a bit. I’m not gonna lie, those first few runs without the watch were tough. I seem to think that if a run isn’t recorded, it never really happened. Silly, I know.

To ease the transition away from the GPS, I decided to allow myself to use a heart rate monitor to gauge effort (displayed on a Garmin Vivofit – no GPS recording). The purpose was more to hold me back than to push me harder. I quickly came to realize that in the heat of summer (I tend to run in late afternoon), what I felt was my easy pace would have my heart rate way above the aerobic zone. So I started to allow myself to walk a bit if my HR went above 150 or 160 bpm (depending on how hot it was outside). Coming to terms with walking frequently during hot runs was also a challenge, but it has made for a much more enjoyable summer of running. And on cooler days I’ve found that it really hasn’t hurt my fitness very much.

As the runs without a GPS started to accumulate, I found that I was really liking the fact that I had cut the cord. I no longer felt the need to add on a bit at the end of the run to reach a whole number – though I generally had an idea of how far I’d run, the tenths and hundredths of a mile were impossible to estimate. It simply didn’t matter. And pacing was a total mystery – I just ran by how I felt on a given day. I have no idea what my pace was for most of my runs since mid-July. This bothered me a bit (a lot, really) at first, but after a tough, hilly 4-mile run in Maine in mid-August where I brought the GPS back I was comforted that my fitness hadn’t been destroyed by a lack of GPS recordings.

Running without a GPS has been an incredibly freeing experience. I feel like I am now enjoying my runs a lot more. I don’t feel guilty if I stop to take a photo or enjoy a view – that short break won’t mess up my pace report or GPS track, and no need to fiddle with stopping or starting a watch (heaven forbid I forget to restart the GPS!). There are times when I still find the watch to be helpful – for example, measuring out a route in a new place, after which it is no longer needed. And if I were training for a race there are times when I think knowing pace is important. But without any major race goals in the foreseeable future, I think I’ll continue to run mostly without the watch.

How about you, have you tried cutting the cord and running without a GPS?

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. I understand your reasons. I haven’t completely ditched the watch (I listen music on them, too, during running), but I started to pay attention on effort (HR) rather than pace, too. I feel the benefits of it on my body after a couple of weeks. It’s hard to let go of the pace goals in my head (I’m not a fast runner at all, but the thing I’m not hitting my target pace could drive me nuts), but it pays off in the end, especially if you need to look out for the good ol’ busted knee.

    • Yes, I find HR to be a much better indicator of effort, particularly since I tend to have trouble in heat. I went on an easy five miles yesterday and my HR was only about 7bpm off my max HR for a bit toward the end and I was not going fast at all. If going by pace I would probably have thought I was working hard enough.

  2. I’m pretty much where you are at mentally, but still use my GPS mainly as an activity tracker for my distance and time. The actual pace doesn’t really matter when I run. I almost always start my run by “feel” – checking my breathing, knees, hips, turnover, foot impact – just listening to my body for the first mile or two. For me, a nice bonus at the end of a run to compare what my watch tells me to how I perceive I did. I feel like I’m better able to understand and assess my body, rather than letting technology tell me how I should perform.

  3. Congrats on the cord cutting. After terminating my fall marathon training (overtrained / apathy / summer fun), I’ve also stressed leaving the GPS at home. I’ve been much more geared on running in my old Ironman watch, running for time and letting effort take care of itself. I’ve also tried to get out on some of my “old” routes and trails. I know all the mile markers on my recent routes from staring at my Garmin, and I still find myself subconsciously trying to hit a pace when using the plain digital watch even if my margin of error has increased by 20 seconds / mile.
    I still allow myself to use the GPS twice a week: 1) for my long run, to make sure I don’t push the pace too much and so that I remember to drink every 15 minutes, and 2) for a weekly 15-30 minute tempo run to make sure I don’t push the pace too much.
    I wish you the best of luck as you recalibrate your career and running.

  4. I would never ditch the technology, it’s basically the thing that got me interested in running to begin with. I doubt I would run at all without it.

    • This. I can be a bit obsessive about logging every kilometer during my runs, but running trails made me realise speed depends on the circumstances. The positive part of interacting with others on Strava and evaluating my performance through lots of stats are a part of my pleasure in running. And beside that: I need to know how many kilometers i’ve run on each shoe, so that I can tell my wife it’s really time for some fresh pair of shoes 😉

  5. I’ve been going through a similar process lately. For me, ditching the GPS has allowed me to reclaim a spiritual side of running that I had been missing. I get in the zone more easily when I’m not distracted by my pace and heart rate.

    I’m of two minds, however, because I tend to communicate on Strava to keep in touch with friends from all over the country.

    Eventually I hope to start using my GPS again and to grow the tiny sliver of my personality that does not obsess over details.

    No Garmin No Rules.

  6. I still use my GPS when going out for a long run, at least when it’s a new route so that my 20 milers don’t turn into 30 milers. The last thing I need is for my wife to get worried and call search-and-rescue!

    That aside, I find that trail-running (I’m in Boulder) has largely cured my OCD dependence on the GPS. When running on trails or up and down mountains, the concept of following a particular pace or trying to hit a particular distance just goes out the window. I’ve had runs where due to altitude and terrain I’m in the red-zone despite maybe hitting a 25min/mile pace. The pace/distance info provided by the GPS simply isn’t useful in such conditions.

    • Very true. I found this in the trail race I ran earlier this year. I was doing 10-11 minute miles and nearly hit the wall by mile 7 out of 10.

    • Dave, I also have ditched the GPS on trail runs. Road runs I still use it most of the time. You are so right, when you are doing a steep mountain trail there is really no point to knowing your pace!

  7. A smart article. I’ll ditch the tech from time to time, but I sort of enjoy the quantification. (Small aside: if you’re worried about reactions to 10-min-plus miles on Strava, maybe you need new friends.)

    • Pace is relative :) It’s more a personal comparison thing, I seem to feel that my easy pace should be 8:30/mile, and that was one of my hangups with the GPS since it bothered me if I ran slower than that.

  8. It’s funny that you mention this post, Pete, as I decided to try this very approach two days ago. A week ago I ran a strong half marathon, but ran with much less intensity this past week to give the legs a break.

    Two days ago I decided in the driveway to not look at my Garmin 220. I did turn the watch on, but utilized the buzzer to listen for each mile. I ran by feel and discovered that my average pace after 15 miles was a nice, easy 9:02. Moreover, I decided to check the mile splits for grins and noticed that every one was within 10-20 seconds of the next.

    Running by feel is a great workout to try from time to time – especially in the summer when the heat and humidity are high. As you noted, a heart rate strap can be a better measuring stick as it gauges effort better than pace. In other words, runners can be going much too fast from a pace standpoint in the summer months.

  9. Andy Pickler says:

    I was also for several years in the GPS-obsessed crowd. Like most people, I will never earn a penny from running, and I realized that orienting all my running around “performance” was not good for me mentally/emotionally. So for now my “happy place” is to not use a GPS at all when I’m not training for a race, and to only use a GPS on very specific training runs during a training cycle. All my easy/recovery runs during the training cycle are simply run by feel (because I already know all the distances in the paths around my house). Additionally, I’ve ditched the heart rate monitor, because I was not good about “scaling down” my running, but I certainly used as a reason I “needed” to run faster. I’m sure this will all continue to evolve for me, but I’m also like you (Pete) in trying to reach that “happy middle ground”.

    • Yes, that’s the challenge. I know that if I had a race goal I would probably use the GPS more, but right now I’m enjoying going without. The mental/emotional part was the hardest to overcome initially, but I’ve found that with time I’ve grown to be ok with not having a detailed log of pace/distance for each run. Since I’m running for health and enjoyment right now, no need to create GPS stress :)

  10. Mark Schueler says:

    I stopped keeping track of pace awhile ago, preferring always to run by feel. When I’m feeling frisky, I run faster or do fartleks. When I’m feeling tired, I run slower or cut my runs shorter. I still track them, I just don’t actively pay attention while I’m running–instead focusing on the weather, my breathing, my effort. It’s worked great so far, and I haven’t felt the need to totally cut the cord. I do usually tack on a little more distance to get the whole numbers, but not always, and when I do it’s more to give the extra effort at the end to finish strong.

  11. The only times I go without are by accident, lol. That’s not true, when I run with the stroller I don’t always use GPS, cause it’s better to not know how slow I am. Running with a stroller is hard enough.
    I’m training for a triathlon and a 20k right now so most of my runs are with GPS.

  12. Great post Pete! It is funny that the same technology that is supposed to make our lives easier and freer, only slowly takes them over. Technology without boundaries can be just just as bad as the more traditional addictions. Running should be about our health- both mental and physical. We have to be smart enough to see what it is doing to us and just simply turn it off during “our” time. A simple watch to track how long we are going to go out. A simple watch to time our fartleks or intervals. If we know the path and it is an easy day, why do we need to know how fast or slow we are running? It’s an easy day, right? If we leave our adult at home, we can recapture- if just for a moment, the inner child that wants to come out and play, as we did when we didn’t have a care in the world except the here and now, and the endless possibilities of the world stretching out before us. :)

  13. Pete, thanks for sharing. I would like to get there someday.

  14. I’ve gotten out of the habit of wearing it because I was too lazy to charge it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has done this. Plus, I know the distances of the routes I always run. I also kind of know about what my pace probably is on these routes because I’ve done them so many times. I know what an 8:00 or 7:15 or whatever feels and looks like. Finally starting to feel fit again after taking all of June off. My entire right leg hurt for some reason. No idea what the injury was. It just ached. Still ached when I started back up, but I ran anyway and focused on form stuff I know works for me, and now it’s fine.

  15. Lightning Racer says:

    Looking for an Ambit 3 upgrade for me and a Forerunner 220 for my girlfriend that I’ll unload off of any GPS ditchers…

    I love my GPS. I ran for 27 years without one, and like having one better, so I can see pretty lines showing where I ran in the mountains on a map. It has not made me one bit more obsessive about mileage or pace. I generally don’t look at the pace when I’m running, and don’t do auto mile splits. Neither are relevant for the trails that I run on. I like being able to look at details of distance, elevation gain, HR, pace on different sections, after the run, but during the run, I just run and look at the HR occasionally to verify effort level vs feel – not necessarily to go easier or harder, but to see if they jive. If my HR is really low, and I can’t get it above 110 for example, that would confirm that I’m really tired. Or if my HR is 140, and I’m going easy, I’m probably feeling the effects of a virus still, and shouldn’t back off.

    • Lightning Racer says:

      Correction for the last sentence:”should back off”.

    • Don’t get us wrong: there’s nothing wrong with the GPS. I’m quite a bit of a tech junkie and I love using all my gadgets. But it can have a bad effect on us, especially on beginner runners, but experienced ones as well. So many times, you just want to train right to achieve your goal through running, let it be anything, using the pace, as per training plan. If you don’t pay attention, it can get under your skin and get the joy out of your running, set you back, etc.
      You’re using it the right way, it seems, but many of us learn it the hard way :-)

  16. I have a very similar experience, both in recent life situation, and with running.
    I have gone from a heavy GPS-junkie in Hoka´s, to no GPS and in VFF.
    Now I don’t longer care about my ridiculous lack of speed and distance, I just jog and walk in the forest, enjoying nature… and that is good enough.

  17. I have been much less concerned with pace lately. That said, because of my background in math, engineering and economics, I love to track any and everything so I usually follow my mileage pretty closely. I have a marathon in January and I am just training so that the run feels like any other day and my recovery is nothing to report.

  18. I’m a tech junkie, so of course I sprung for the GPS when I started running, as I liked the watch better than the apps for the phone. I totally get wanting to dumb it, and it’s something I’ll probably do occasionally in the cute.

    But for me, I’ve learned I kinda need it to hold me back. Both in effort, because I found I can feel great and my HR will be higher than I wanted it, or I won’t know how far I’m going. With a couple early injuries, avoiding too much, too fast is important for me.

    I will also say that it is fun for me to monitor my dynamics, and look at the stats. It doesn’t really change anything for me, but I do enjoy it.

  19. Very true, I do find myself obsessing over the GPS. Most of the time I use it but sometimes I ditch it.

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