Updated: April 10th, 2022
Is data overload zapping the fun out of running? Potentially…

Yes, fitness watches and 24/7 app tracking can be one heck of a powerful training tool, but when is it too much? One minute you’re checking your heart rate to rest and recover properly; the next, you’re in information overload.

It’s easy to assume that to be a runner, all you truly need is a decent pair of running shoes and you’re good to go, right? Ummm, have you ever seen a runner (or been out running yourself) WITHOUT a fitness tracker, of some kind?

I thought not. Wearable technology, from smartwatches, fitness trackers, heart rate monitors, and GPS devices have become just as important. According to recent 2020 research, one in five American adults regularly wears a smartwatch or fitness watch of some kind.
And interestingly, women tend to use fitness watches more than men (25% female vs 18% male).

Running watch with workout notificatio

Why use a fitness tracker?

From the activity rings on your Apple Watch, to sleep parameters on your Garmin, there are definite benefits to tracking activities. Just wearing one is said to boost motivation – logging an extra 1,850 steps per day, on average, compared to non-users according to research.

Although we don’t buy them for sheer motivation (don’t get me wrong – when I buy new kit of any kind I cannot wait to get out running and test it). But fitness tracking kit can be super helpful to runners of all kinds, from seeing how far you’ve run, to how hard you’ve worked, your speed metrics to your body’s response to your workouts. There’s so much you can learn from the numbers game.

Particularly useful in training sessions involving intervals or threshold training that are based on the data collected from fitness tests you do at the start of your training plan, or workout zones set by, you guessed it, more numbers.

Beaten up Garmin fitness tracking watch

Heart rate-based training is one of my favourite ways to train. Because if you’re super stressed out, had a hard day at work, or are raring to go; your heart rate has room for being human. If you’re stressed, your heart rate will naturally sit higher than usual, so your run that evening will likely be slower but with just as much effort as it was the week before. Make sense? Here’s an example:

Usual resting HR:75 BPM
Heart rate max: 190
Run zone 1: 50-60% of HRM = 95 – 114 BPM

However, if you’re stressed out or fatigued your usual resting HR would sit higher, for example:

Stressed resting HR: 85 BPM
As you can see, hitting the zone 1 training session (95-114 BPM) for you could be best achieved by a brisk walk, rather than a run today. These metrics, the numbers have kept you from overtraining (And potentially suffering an injury).

Fatigue runners shoes, whils she sits against the wall to rest

But when is it better to run by feel or by statistics? Running by feel certainly has its place. And to be honest, when on a recovery run, I will wear my Garmin but keep it covered up and blatantly ignore the information, that is, until it’s time to stop. Because the speed my fitness levels and threshold data say I can do, it doesn’t mean I can rock up and perform like the numbers want me to – too many factors can impact your running or workouts: fuel, weather, hydration, age, injury, illness, and so on.

When is it time to ignore the data?

Problems are inevitable when you get too caught up in the numbers, causing anxiety, fear and obsessive dependent behaviours for two reasons:

  1. The data can be inaccurate.
  2. Although we like to think of ourselves as running machines, the fact is we are human. And as a human, we are anything but predictable.

The risk of inaccurate data is a real problem – when I bought my Garmin, I loved the idea of a sleep tracker but, I realized it thought I was sleeping when I was in bed reading (I mean, I was pretty relaxed). When the data come back in the morning that I had 10 hours of sleep I knew it wasn’t data I could 100% rely on. It’s just a harsh reality, because who is regulating these things anyway?

Dog with disguise glasses and nose

Review studies found trends with specific gear brands and their reliability, for example:

  • Your heart rate measures are more accurate with Apple Watch and Garmin, Fitbit unfortunately was less so.
  • Fitbit, Apple Watch and Samsung were better at measuring your step counter.
  • Energy expenditure? No brand stood out accurately compared to laboratory testing.
  • GPS can also be off, apparently, trackers tend to overestimate distances slightly.
  • Sleep? Few wearable tech is reliable because they’re so new.

I started the article by saying how the tech has generally aided the motivation of wearers vs non-wearers of fitness tracking technology. But once the feedback of your run is quantified, it’s hard to actually switch off from how you’re performing… whilst you’re actually doing it!

I can safely say we have all, at least once, checked our running speed, distance or efforts and instantly judged the numbers staring back at us. ‘Oh my pace is so much slower than I feel’, ‘how has it only been 2 miles?!’ ‘My heart rate is too low’. Sound familiar?

Runner in the mountains tying her hair ready to hit the trails

See sometimes, these trackers can zap some of the fun out of fitnessI mean why do we do it anyway? To feel good? To have fun? To work hard and feel accomplished? Are you still getting those feelings post-run, after checking the data?? The information bleeping on your wrist can turn stress-melting runs into work and more stress, and absolutely sap the motivation out of you.

How to have a healthy relationship with the data?

Have you read this far thinking ‘ah, yes this is exactly how I feel. Now how do I get back to loving running again, but still know I am improving towards my [insert race distance here] goals?’

I’m a strong believer that you should listen to your body – that’s the REAL data. Running by feel can help get you back in the zone, back to finding the joy of running again. But I understand it’s easier said than done to ditch the Apple Watch for a while. So it’s okay to track it, just don’t take it as the only truth.

The aging runner

Whilst training for my ultras, I found it really important to also record how I felt pre, during and post-run to help me understand when reflecting back. If I knew I had a bad night’s sleep, or I felt low, or even tracking my menstrual cycle and its hormonal effects, then mentally, I knew it was okay to ignore my pace or take the data with a pinch of salt – I mean, I’ve done the best I can.

But also, it can seriously help gain some perspective over the data, or it could become the new way you track your progress.

You know your body better than anyone else, so trust it.

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