Updated: July 3rd, 2022
Looking at your watch whilst running – helpful or hurtful?

There is a constant battle between too little data and too much. Running data overload is a thing and drowning in training data can bring your motivation to a standstill. Because running watches are so advanced now – it’s a heart rate monitor, GPS tracker, music playing, texting enabler, sleep, stress and period monitor and data machine all in one, and yet are so light and small – how DO they do it?!

The question is, are you better off running with or without these magic running companions? The University of Birmingham’s research says it is down to you and the day you’ve had. Sometimes it’s super helpful and other times it will hinder your running performance, just as easy.

Running watch data and apps

Mental fatigue and data.

Today we’re exposed to, well, everything. 24-hour news cycles, the array of social media platforms, pandemics, work emails, phone calls… technology is amazing but it means it is near impossible to ‘switch off’. Mentally we are exhausted. Every single one of us. So why would you want to take that on your run? Surely more technology won’t help the situation?

Fact! Mental fatigue affects your physical performance.

Also, fact; having data feedback helps you perform better when mentally fatigued.

Confused? The University of Birmingham (UK) conducted research that can apply to runners.

Mental fatigue and data research.

The hypothesis? Whether physically seeing feedback data on whatever exercise you are doing (in this case it was a rhythmic handgrip test for muscular endurance) helps reduce the negative effects of mental fatigue on physical endurance performance.

A small sample size of 63 participants (36 male and 27 female) aged 21 (±1.5 years) completed the study of three tasks one after the other.

  1. 5-minute physical task. (Pre-test) self-paced rhythmic handgrip task as a measure of physical endurance performance
  2. 20-minute cognitive task – The 2-back task for mental fatigue. (Whereas the control group watched an emotionally neutral documentary film about trains).
  3. 5-minute physical task. (Post-test) repeating the self-paced rhythmic handgrip task.

The participants were split into three groups: control group (n=20), no feedback (n=20) and visual performance feedback (n=23). The control and no data groups did not receive data feedback after the first physical test. Whereas the feedback group DID get to see visual data and understand how they performed objectively.

Running watch screen


Visual performance feedback prevented mental fatigue from affecting physical endurance. So checking your watch during a run you’re finding difficult, due to mental fatigue, will help your performance.

The no-feedback group’s performances all declined between the first and second endurance tests, whereas the control group and data-feedback group did not. The control group were not mentally fatigued, but the feedback group was and performed similarly – no decline in muscular endurance.

Neil Dallaway, PhD, a sports science researcher at UoB said: “When they knew how they were doing, the people in the state of mental fatigue did as well as the people who weren’t in the state of mental fatigue.

“If you get home from work one day and you are really tired and you’ve got an interval session or a fartlek, you may not do as well.

So then if you use your watch for the feedback, it could help you perform as well as if you weren’t mentally fatigued.”

Runner looking at his watch whislt running

At some point, we have all looked at our watch early on the run and been shocked to see we’re running considerably slower than we thought. It’s like a little wake-up call – maybe we need more rest? But keeping an eye on the data is proven to stop your performance from slipping.

Should you detach from the data?

Negative feedback is often the reason runners don’t go for the data-driven watches – it’s the fear of making your hobby quantifiable and comparable to others, and that can suck the fun right out of running before you’ve even gotten started.

It’s easy to attach your ‘success’ or athletic prowess to the data your watch is telling you, but you really shouldn’t. You wouldn’t attach success or failure of your driving ability to the amount of gas in your car? You will stop and re-fuel when you need to… it’s the same with running and the data on your watch.

Seeing the facts on your wrist and thinking ‘ah I’m running slower than I wanted to’ and it frustrates you – that’s entirely normal!What isn’t helpful is when you take that thought and catastrophize it into ‘I’m running too slow, I’ll never reach my marathon goal. What’s the point? I’m the worst runner out here.’

Training watches

Perhaps your body needs a rest? You could alter your training to heart rate-based ‘effort’ to avoid trying to beat the data. Think objectively ‘if I’m running slow, why is that? Have I eaten enough? Am I hydrated? Have I had enough rest? Is my training in line with my hectic life?’

Your running performance can be affected by so many things, so removing the emotion from the data can transform your entire running experience. From ‘I’m no good at running’ to ‘how can I give my body the best chance of getting through today’s run?’

Make your watch work for you.

IMO this is the easy part – what you don’t see, you don’t know (well, instantly on your wrist mid-run) so alter your watch face data. Remember it is a TOOL to HELP you run, not the be-all and end-all so you can run.

For my training runs, my run face is very simple it has 3 bits of data:

  • Heart rate dial (I’m a heart rate zone runner)
  • Count down timer
  • speed for this mile split

Running watch map
Simple, yet effective.
Running by feel is my favourite way to train, so often I will also take off the mile split time, because if I cant see the pace, then I can’t judge it.

Leaving your watch at home is an option, carry your phone and upload Strava or Runkeeper Apps to monitor the data for you (to check it later). But remember that study? Having some data when you’re mentally exhausted could just help you get by.

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