In the last few years, GPS watches have completely revolutionized the way runners train.
They’re a great invention. Seriously, before the GPS watch, I used to drive my intended route and spray paint mile markers along the way. Illegal? Probably. But runners are known to be a little crazy.
When I first began coaching online, assigning athletes long intervals and tempo runs of varying distances was a challenge, since many runners, especially new ones, don’t have access to well-marked running paths. Luckily, GPS devices like the Garmin Forerunner and dozens of iPhone apps have made training a much simpler process.
However, as adoption of GPS devices increases, more and more runners are becoming completely dependent on them, sometimes to the detriment of their training progression and racing skills. As great as they are, the fact is that becoming too reliant on your GPS device can actually hinder your fitness and race times.
I’ve outlined the three main drawbacks to GPS dependency and how to counter them.
Constantly Adjusting Your Pace to Match the GPS’s “Current Pace”
Anyone that has ever run with a GPS device knows how much the readings for “current pace” can fluctuate. It doesn’t seem possible that a device that can measure distance so precisely can’t get the your current running speed correct.
In fact, the accuracy and design behind GPS technology is exactly the problem. In addition to natural pace changes — think of how you sometimes move forward and backward on a treadmill belt, despite the belt moving at a constant speed — a GPS device 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 drop quickly, since the device thinks you’ve stopped running.
Over the course of a mile, the GPS will precisely measure your speed, but it can lead to ineffective data in regards to current running pace.
What you can do?
On your next run, check the GPS 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. Listen to your breathing, feel the rhythm in your legs, and 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.
This brings up next problem with GPS dependency.
Not Learning How to Pace Yourself.
Racing is an acquired skill. Just like a basketball player 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 during training and workouts, a runner never develops the learned sense of pace that is critical to race day success. Even wearing a GPS 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 it’s time to 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.
In my last post, I outlined various ways to teach yourself how to feel your pace. In addition to those methods, you can implement workouts that require you to change paces frequently, only using a GPS to confirm your sense of pace after each mile. Cut-down runs and alternating tempos are also a great way to teach yourself what slight differences in pace feel like.
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 them to previous runs and your normal easy pace.
Unfortunately, sometimes the body isn’t feeling great and requires a much slower pace to recover. Life isn’t perfect, so feeling tired and lethargic on an easy day is sometimes part of the training process.
When a runner has a GPS strapped to their wrist, they often neglect to listen to their body and try to maintain what they think their easy pace should be. Consequently, they don’t recover as fast as they should and hinder their performance in subsequent workouts. And of course, all runners — beginners and veterans alike — love to challenge themselves to run just a little faster every day and best their previous best.
The best way to avoid this major pitfall is to ditch your GPS entirely on easy recovery runs and cool-down miles. The purpose of an easy run 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 and more effective, and have 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.
Here's some homework for you to help you break your GPS addiction: ditch it for one week. After that week, only take it with you for hard workouts and only use it to play the guessing game outlined above. If you can do this for 3-4 weeks, I guarantee you'll be significantly better at pacing and it will come more naturally to you.