4 Ways GPS Tracking Ruins the Fun of Running

I've simplified how I run in order to maximise the amount of enjoyment I get out of it. Part of that simplification was ditching my Garmin and deleting Strava and I couldn't be happier with the results.

Before I get into the downsides I experienced, as someone who had been running without any gadgets for many years, I think it would be appropriate to explain how I came to track my runs in the first place.

Coming into possession of a GPS watch

I've been running for most of my life. I was in the school cross country team and would compete to a reasonable standard, training several days a week. Throughout uni and beyond my running was a lot less structured, not training as such, just going out for runs because I enjoyed it. Every now and then I'd be persuaded to pay to go for a run (something which I regularly do for free), and join a fun run, race or other running related event. I'm not some elite runner training for my next big race, just an average bloke who goes out and runs around a few times a week.

A couple of years ago, every "runner" I knew was getting themselves a GPS watch, and I liked to think of myself as a runner too. After holding out for a bit, I finally gave in to the allure of a GPS running watch. As a software engineer, I think I was naturally drawn to the idea of having statistics and numbers associated with my runs, though I can't deny that there was an element of "every one else has one so I should probably get one too" (a notion that I have since rejected in just about every aspect of my life). 

I didn't get anything fancy. Far from it. I purchased literally the cheapest watch capable of GPS tracking that I could find, just to test the waters, and I had heaps of fun! I could finally see how long my regular routes were (at least to a higher resolution than Google maps was getting me) and could start tracking PBs with much more accuracy than I was getting by glancing at the clock before and after heading out. Amongst friends, my family is well know for being competitive, and this watch allowed me to go head to head with my biggest rival, myself. Running had just been turned into an all out battle.

Unleashed onto Strava

Strava was a different beast. Even after getting a GPS watch I resisted the pressure to join. I didn't feel the need to share my runs with others and to be honest I didn't really care about the precise details my friends' exercise habits. That all changed when, a year and a half ago now, my parents generously got me a Garmin for Christmas. It was a big improvement from the bottom-of-the-line watch I'd been using. With the upgrade to my wrist wear, the excuse I'd been using that my watch was not compatible with Strava had been yoinked, and I finally (again) relented to the peer pressure.

Strava really kicked the competition up a gear. If you're unfamiliar, Strava will display badges, crowns, and all manner of shiny symbols next to your runs to let you know you've absolutely destroyed your former self (well done you, pat on the back!). There are also month-long challenges that encourage you to up your weekly milage and to climb as many hills as you can etc etc. In short, it highlights all sorts of criteria in which you can try and outdo yourself.

If you'd prefer, you can consume most of the ideas of this post in this out-of-breath narration set in the gorgeous Australian bush!

1. Always going too hard

Initially, all this self-competition was a dream. I was smashing my records left and right, constantly getting the dopamine hit of Strava's shiny icons on just about every run I did. Naturally, that starts to slow down after a while. No matter much blood, sweat and tears I put in, there was a limit to how hard I could go. Strava wasn't the only issue either. Every kilometre my watch would give me a helpful little buzz and show me exactly how fast (or slow) that kilometre had been. Being a competitive person, I always took it as a reminder to not start slacking off. Every run was done at a gut-busting pace, right at my limit for the distance I was running.

I tried to combat this in a few ways. First off I tried to focus on the time spent running rather than the distance or pace, eg "I'll just go out for a 40 minute run, after 20 minutes, no matter how far I get, I'll turn around and come home". Nice in theory, but my brain would latch onto the allotted 40 minutes and start trying to figure out how far I would get given the pace I "should" be running at, putting me right back to worrying about letting the pace slip. I also tried to just ignore the figures on the watch. If I didn't know the numbers I wouldn't be able to know if I "had" to speed up or not. The little bugger was strapped to my wrist though! Try as I might, I found it impossible not to catch a glance every now and then, again leading me to push myself harder than I should.

This is not to say I don't enjoy running fast, I absolutely love it. With the wind rushing past, muscles and sinews firing in unison, I feel like a majestic gazelle effortless gliding across the plains (in reality I'm sure I look more like a man possessed, crazy eyed, with so much sweat it seems I've just emerged from the depths). My point is, it's fun to go fast, but not every single time I laced up my shoes. The expectations fed to me by my watch and Strava were beginning to take a mental toll.

2. Tunnel vision

Because I was alway trying to run a PB, I fell into getting hyper-focused on my runs. Any hinderance to going as fast as possible, no matter how minor, became a major annoyance. Having to pause at a set of lights to cross the road. Letting a meandering dog walker past. People walking abreast on the path with no semblance of awareness for the goings on around them. Don't these people realise I'm trying to set a land speed record here??

In the grand scheme of things, these are seconds-long distractions for runs that were often approaching an hour long. Barely a blip. But to me, and the numbers that would come out of my watch at the end of the run, they were valuable seconds that could mean the difference between a virtual trophy and some blank, white pixels. What a miserable git I was becoming!

Not only was I blowing inconveniences way out of proportion, I was also not taking in any of the environment around me. I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the world, but I was blind to it all, focusing my attention instead to a couple of square centimetres strapped to my wrist. There are always marvels to see, new paths to explore, obstacles to enjoy, but I would never let myself stop to smell the roses.

3. Having off days

It is incredibly normal to have off days. Days where you feel like your shoes are bricks and every step is a battle of sheer willpower. But you, you bloody legend, pushed through all of that and still went out for a run. In my mind, that should be celebrated just as much as setting a PB. Running often demands mental toughness and there is no better way to display it than slogging through a hard run. But then you get up the data from that run. Oof. No shiny medals on Strava. "This run was easier than your usual run", no it bloody wasn't! 

I want to stress this again, it is absolutely normal to have off days, but by tracking my runs it sure didn't feel like it. I would sometimes find myself going from feeling proud of the run I'd just completed to a dejected mess all because of what my watch told me. I don't want anything, especially not a bit of plastic, to have that much sway over me.

4. Buckets of data...for what?

Once you've completed your run, and you've had a look at the data you've collected, how often do you go back and revisit the stats? For me, the answer was never. I would look at (a very small portion) of the data collected immediately after my run, then chuck it up on Strava where it sat collecting dust for the rest of eternity.

There are an endless number of metrics and graphs you can look at in mouth watering detail, but the only metric I really cared about was conspicuously missing, that of course being how much fun it was.

Ditching the watch

Thankfully the solution for me was incredibly simple. I stopped tracking my runs and uninstalled Strava. That's it. 

After a bit of reflection, having uncovered all of these drawbacks I was experiencing from using a GPS watch, I decided it wasn't for me. I'm not even sure if I got any benefits out of using it in the first place. Yes I could see how far or fast I was running, but this whole exercise has led me to realise that, for me, these metrics are not the reason I run.

It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that this is, of course, and incredibly personal decision. Everyone has different goals for their own running, and some of those goals will be incredibly well aligned with the use of GPS running watches. I have absolutely no problem with that at all. My aim with this post is just to get you to think about it and make sure that your goals are being met. I think that these little gadgets are amazing from a technological point of view, and if your goal is to become the best and fastest runner that you can, then they can be an invaluable tool.

To me, however, running is a way to let my mind wander, reflect, and think. It's a way to get in a bit of exercise and outdoor time. Most of all, running is a way to have fun. By releasing myself from the shackle I was strapping to my own wrist, I now look forward to every run. I allow myself to meander through hidden paths that I'd never have noticed while sprinting past. I let myself have fun by trying to run along the top of a stone wall, or hurdle a fallen branch. I can spare the seconds to pick up some litter and run on to the next bin. I'm now am proud of every single run that I go on and that feeling doesn't get destroyed by some numbers on a screen. I can now stop and smell the roses when I go out for a run.

To discover how to have more fun on your own runs, be sure to check out my 5 tips.

Of course everyone has a different perspective and I'd love to hear yours (and your running friends!). Do you track your runs? Is that net positive or negative for you? And most importantly, why do you go out to run in the first place?


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