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Ditch Your GPS Watch?

How to decrease your dependency on satellite technology


Jeff Gaudette—In the last few years, GPS watches have completely revolutionized the way runners train. I’m not old by any means, but I still recall doing many of my training runs in high school, college, and even as a professional on roads that I spray painted after measuring them in my car. When I first began coaching athletes online and assigning long intervals and tempo runs of varying distances, it was quite the challenge for many runners, especially the newer ones, to manually mark out routes for their most important workouts. Luckily, GPS devices have made training a much simpler process.

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However, as adoption of GPS devices increases dramatically, I find more and more runners becoming completely dependent on their watches, sometimes to the detriment of their training progression and racing skills. Is it possible that becoming too reliant on your GPS device can actually hinder your fitness and race times? I think so. Here are the three possible drawbacks to having a dependency on your GPS and how you can counter them.

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1. Constantly Adjusting Pace

Anyone that has ever run with a GPS watch knows how much the readings for “current pace” can fluctuate. It doesn’t seem possible that a watch that can so precisely measure distance can’t get the current running speed correct. However, the accuracy and design behind the watch’s technology is exactly the problem. In addition to natural pace changes–think of how you sometimes move forward and back on a treadmill belt, despite the belt moving at a constant speed–a GPS watch receives a signal from the satellite every 1-2 seconds under optimal conditions, which means it is constantly making calculations about your speed and pace. Likewise, if you lose connection with the satellite, even for a few seconds, the GPS measures the distance you ran during the lost signal time and calculates the time it took you to get to where you are now, thereby giving you a pace. During the “lost” signal time, the current running pace will dramatically slow since the device thinks you’ve stopped running. Over the course of a mile, or even a half mile, the GPS will measure quite precisely, but it can lead to ineffective data in regards to current running pace.

What you can do to counter your dependency:

Don’t be a slave to the current pace; instead, learn to feel the pace like a Jedi. The next time you do a workout with the GPS watch, check the watch during the first 2-3 minutes of the first mile to make sure you’re on pace and then don’t look at the watch again until you’re finished.

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Listen to your breathing; feel the rhythm in your legs, the motion of your arms. You won’t do a great job the first time you try, but after the third or fourth time, you’ll notice a substantial improvement. Overall, this will lead to a refined sense of pace and effort.

2. Not Learning How To Pace Yourself

Racing is an acquired skill, much like shooting a lay-up or swinging a golf club.  Just like an athlete wouldn’t want to attempt a game-winning free throw if they had never practiced under those conditions, a runner doesn’t want to toe the starting line without a well-developed sense of pace. By relying exclusively on a GPS watch during training and workouts, a runner never develops the learned sense of pace that is critical to race-day success. Even wearing a GPS device during a race doesn’t guarantee pacing success–what if the signal is lost, you have to surge frequently to get around other runners, or you make a late race decision about how hard to push? Developing an innate sense of pace in training is a critical to taking the next step in racing.

What you can do to counter your dependency:

Implement workouts into your training routine that require you to change pace frequently and only use the GPS to confirm your sense of pace after each mile or record the data at the end of the run. Cut down runs and alternating tempos are a great way to teach yourself what slight differences in paces feel like. In addition, these types of workouts can demonstrate to your mind and body how the effort required to maintain a certain pace gets harder as the race goes on, improving your late-race execution skills.

3. Always Pushing the Easy Days

Perhaps the most common mistake I see with runners who are addicted to their GPS devices is not listening to how their body feels during easy recovery runs. As a data-obsessed runner, it’s easy to record each mile split and compare to previous runs or what a normal easy run pace may be. Unfortunately, sometimes the body isn’t feeling great and requires a very slow pace to recover. Maybe it’s from a previous workout or perhaps it’s general life stress, but feeling tired and lethargic on an easy day is part of the training process. When a runner has the GPS strapped to their wrist, they neglect to listen to the signs the body is projecting. Instead, they try to maintain what they think is their easy pace. Consequently, they don’t recover as fast as they should and hinder their performance in subsequent workouts.

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It’s also common for runners, beginners and veterans alike, to challenge themselves to run just a little faster every day. With a GPS, it’s easy to monitor how fast you’re running on a commonly run route and, when the realization occurs that a PR for the course is within reach, runners tend to push themselves harder to beat their previous best.

What you can do to counter your dependency:

Ditch the GPS watch on your easy recovery runs and cool down miles. The purpose of these runs has nothing to with pace and the speed at which you complete them has no bearing on their effectiveness. When you free yourself from the constant data of a GPS watch on an easy run, you learn to listen to your body and maximize the value of each mile you run as opposed to being a slave to inconsequential data and hindering your progression.

No doubt GPS watches have made training easier, more effective, and allowed runners and coaches to be more creative with their workouts. However, be mindful of the dependencies you might be forming and implement these ideas during your current training cycle to ensure you can maximize your physical and mental preparation for your next race.

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