Back in the day, it used to be if you wanted to know how far you ran, or if you were planning to run a certain distance, you’d jump in your car, and measure the planned route.
When I say, “back in the day”, it wasn’t that far back. I remember taking the opportunity to measure my running routes whilst my kids were asleep in the back of the car. Killing two birds with the one stone – measuring my running distances, and getting a few more precious minutes of down time! My youngest is only nine, so we’re not talking more than nine years ago here!
If you were really advanced, you’d use mapmyrun and geodistance to map your route out before your ran.
And then came GPS watches!
GPS Devices Have Changed the Way We Train
In some respects, GPS devices, running watches in particular, have made coaching runners a lot easier, particularly if you’re wanting your runner to do tempo runs, cutbacks, or long intervals where pace is important.
On the down side is the fact that runners can become completely dependent on their watches, which can sometimes hinder their ability to “feel” the pace, and really know what their own body is capable of.
As a coach, it’s important to be mindful that setting specific paces for runners to train at will not take into account how they are feeling on the day. I always try to prescribe pace as a range, and also give a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) I want the runner to be training at. Using the two will usually give a better outcome than just training pace alone.
Sometimes, I map whole training plans using only RPE. It can take the pressure off, and allow the athlete to enjoy their running more. Most of us start off running because we think we might enjoy it, not because we think we’ve got a chance of beating our friends on Strava, so I see keeping the enjoyment in running as a super important part of coaching. Of course, beating your friends can add a whole new level of enjoyment.
Drawbacks of Becoming Too Reliant on Your GPS Watch
1. Getting too hung up on your current pace
Readouts for your current pace on your device are rarely your actual current pace. Garmins and similar devices receive signals via satellite every 1-2 seconds (that’s when conditions and signal strength are good). The device is constantly making calculations about your speed.
If you lose your satellite connection (and it might only be for a second or two at a time), the GPS measures the distance you ran in that downtime, and calculates the time it took you to get where you are now, which gives you a pace.
During this time where the signal is lost however, the current running pace will slow quite a lot. The device thinks you’ve stopped running. Over one kilometer, the device will measure pace and distance fairly precisely, but if you look at your current pace at around about the time you may have momentarily lost the GPS signal, you’ll think you’re travelling much more slowly than you actually are.
Constantly looking at your current pace may cause you to adjust your pace frequently. You won’t be developing a steady rhythmical feel for your running.
2. Not developing a good sense of pace and rhythm
If you’re training to race (and not all of you will be), you need to learn how to pace yourself. You need to learn what you are capable of at any given time. You might wake up on race day and feel fantastic. It might be your day. And if you’re planning on running the race based on some preconceived idea of pace, with no thought to what sort of effort level that might entail, you could be robbing yourself of an opportunity of a PB.
Conversely, you could wake up feeling like you shouldn’t get out of bed, or it might be 10 degrees hotter than expected. In those cases, you’re going to need to listen to your body, and slow down a bit, not stick to your planned race pace.
And if you never practice running on feel in training, you’re not going to be able to do it in a race.
Simply saying you’re going to run 10 seconds slower per km than planned, or 5 seconds faster, isn’t really going to cut it. Unless you know what 10 seconds slower per km feels like, or 5 seconds per km faster, these figures are just random numbers plucked out of the air, and may not be do-able.
At some point in your training, you need to put away the GPS and really take notice of how you’re feeling. Know what it feels like to be running easy, know what it feels like to be pushing hard, and know what it feels like to be somewhere in between.
Your GPS is not going to tell you if you have it in you to surge up the next hill and overtake your arch rival, or if you have it in you to push for the last 2kms of a half mararthon. Only being in tune with your body and how you’re feeling, and knowing your capabilities and limitaions, can do that for you.
3. Being a slave to your running watch might cause you to over-train
If you’re hell bent on running at a certain pace ALL of the time, you’re not likely to listen to your body and slow down when you need to. If you’re recording your data daily, it’s easy to get caught up with comparisons between your current run and previous runs. Back before I knew better (even before the days I was driving my kids round and round the neighbourhood putting them to sleep), every time I went out for a run, I was trying to beat some kind of previous best. And I wasn’t even training as a runner-running was just a bit of cross training at the time!
If you’re running hard speed workouts, and/or running lots of mileage, you need to do some running at an easy pace, to let your body recover. If you’re always looking at your GPS to make sure you’re running at the “right” pace on these easier runs, you’re not listening to your body. And if you’re not listening to your body, then you’re far more likely to be heading for an injury. (Back before I admitted this to myself, I ended up with two bulging intervertebral discs).
There’ll be days when your body just won’t feel energetic and “with it”. On these days, you need to give yourself permission to take it easy, and that’s much harder to do if you’re data obsessed.
How to Use Your GPS Device to Your Advantage
- During a long run, check your pace after the first few minutes, then every 20 minutes or so after that, if at all. Be aware of how you feel. Get a sense of what a particular pace feels like. Learn from each training sessions by being aware of how you feel, rather than knowing what your watch tells you. You can download our eBooklet on pacing for your long run, if you want to get a sense of just how easy your long run should be.
- Include workouts which have you changing paces frequently, such as tempo runs, cut backs and fartlek. You can check your pace infrequently, or leave it till after the run to take a look at how you went.
- If you’re an experienced runner, add some fast finishing long runs to your program, to get a sense of how much you can push towards the end of a race.
- Don’t look at your GPS on your recovery runs. Easy rounds and recovery runs have very little to do with pace (unless your coach is telling you you’re likely going too fast). Their effectiveness lies in their ability to help your body recover, build strength in your legs and your mind, teach your body to spare glycogen, and improve your body’s aerobic capacity.
You need to develop an innate sense of pacing in training. By implementing some of the above strategies, you’ll become less dependent on your GPS running watch, and more able to assess your level of running intensity by feel, and whether that level of intensity is sustainable over time.
Some training sessions are best done at a particular pace, or percentage of your maximum capacity. GPS devices are awesome for these kinds of workouts. Just know when and how to use them.