Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who watches the watchless?

So, I've become a fan of running watchless, in a sense.  I still wear my Garmin, and transcribe the collected data onto my neurotically detailed training log.  But I no longer check time, pace, or distance during any run, including both easy runs and workouts; in fact, I go so far as to try to block out the splits my coach calls out during track.

[and yes, I believe I just fessed up to ignoring statements from my coach during workouts.  I may have doomed myself to a 12x1000m workout]

It's worked very well for me, though I do fear that I risk becoming the Garmin version of the obnoxious Vibrams 5 Fingers convert.  I'm trying not to go there.  Really, I'm trying not to go there.  But, I am hoping I can spell out why I think it's worked for me, and may work for some others, without descending into the trap of insisting that it will work for all.


First of all, here's how my Garmin used to be set.

Total distance and time on left, lap distance and time on right. 
Used this for all runs and races.
(I have NEVER used the pace function -- I don't trust it)

And, since my "rebirth," my new screens:
Easy runs and workouts.
How I race - a totally useless screen - shows cadence. 
Since I have no foot pod, there's no data here.
It's the closest I can get to a perfectly blank screen.
For all runs except races, I display time of day, so as to ensure I'm not late for other commitments.  For races, I go one step further and "blank the screen."  I don't use time of day for races because it would be tempting to start staring at the Garmin and trying to extrapolate pace..."if the race started at 8:00 and it's now 8:26, then my pace is..."

Running with my watch this way was tough at first -- the lack of constant feedback from my Garmin felt very much like riding a horse without a helmet, which indicates just how distorted my dependence on knowing time and distance had become.   It still takes a leap of faith each time, but now the leap is more of a bunny hop.

It's become easier because it works.  At least for me.


And I think that running watchless might work for others as well (again conceding that different people have different motivational profiles).  Here's a few reasons why:
  1. I've noted a weird phenomena when racing watchless.  Every time I'd pass a mile marker, most people to each side of me would glance at their watches, and then make a pace change.  Often a sharp one, And changes in pace, be they surges to make up the 5 seconds lost on the last mile, or hitting the brakes to correct, are inefficient and waste energy. And distance running is all about conservation of energy.
  2. To a similar point, every time you look down at your watch, you distort your stride.  The more you stare at it, the more you interrupt the flow of your gait, and again waste precious energy.
  3. Splits talk people OUT of good races.  As an example, the Richmond Half-Marathon has a hilly section, and so several miles in the middle of the course had pretty uneven splits.  I've read report after report for that race where people checked their splits at "mile 8", saw that they had slowed, and started to wonder whether they were falling apart.  Some of them managed to pull out of their funk, while others gave in.  But either way, they made things much harder on themselves mentally.    In contrast, I happily bounced along through miles 7, 8, and 9, with no self-doubt -- I felt good and in control, and that was what mattered.
  4. Finally, when you focus on times, you shift focus away from what's really important -- how you feel at that moment.  You're undoubtedly also focusing on how you feel, but your primary assessment of your performance at that point is what you see on the watch.  This makes no sense.  Ultimately, it's your body that's running, not your watch.

To my fourth point, the classic justification for using a watch during races is to prevent one from going out too fast.  But the thing is, the watch does NOT know what is too fast or too slow for you on that specific day -- only what your time is.  Your body is the ultimate judge of whether the pace is right.  So when you focus on the watch at the expense of your body, you're running by the wrong metric.  Perhaps a 6:48 first mile ISN'T too fast for you today?  Or perhaps that 7:20, which seems conservative and appropriate, is in fact the wrong pace for you to be starting your race at, on that day. 

When you run by feel, and simply focus on getting the best effort that you are capable of that day, you will always perform the best you can on that day.  If you're not capable of making your target time that day, staring at your watch won't help.  And if you're capable of running much faster than your goal on that day, then your watch may talk you out of doing what you're capable of.

[Another reason I hear for paying close attention to splits is that it can be motivating -- i.e. "I saw that I could PR if I really pushed the last mile, and so I did."  And perhaps that is an effective spur for some. We all have different motivational profiles.  For myself, I know that I'm impatient enough that if I'm racing a race, I'm going to try to get to the finish line as fast as possible, regardless of what the watch says.  Races are uncomfortable towards the end, and the faster I finish, the sooner the discomfort ends and I get to eat my egg and banana.]


So, after all this, why do I still wear my watch? Well...
  1. I have a real issue with timing chips failing -- I think it's been three races this year where the finish line didn't catch me. I like having the Garmin data so that I can provide it to race staff as proof that I did indeed run the race and finish in the time I'm claiming.
  2. It's nice to run in the moment, but I do have a job and obligations, and so I need to know the time of day.  And I don't own a watch that can sustain the abuse that a Garmin can.
  3. One of my big foci this fall is learning how to run relaxed, and NOT to rush like crazy to the finish line.  By using the Garmin, and checking my splits later, I continually see that I pace my races and workouts optimally by staying relaxed and ignoring times, and that my last miles are the fastest when I try NOT to rush.  It's self-reinforcement.
  4. Simply put, I can't quit it.  If you don't have the data of the run, then the run didn't count, and no benefit was received.  It's a rule.


  1. I did a few "watchless" races this year, and it actually back-fired on me - both times, I felt like I was running so slow and so far below what I wanted that I ended up giving up mentally. Had I been watching my mile splits, I would have realized that I was actually doing just fine. So I'm still a big fan of leaving the watch behind/blank for easy runs, but I think for right now, using it is actually helpful instead of harmful in races. But that's just me.

  2. I like to use my garmin as a reference point during races, but I don't let it panic me into going faster/slower. In last few miles of my most recent races I've used it as motivation to meet a time goal as I tire. "I just need to keep it at xx:xx pace for 12 more minutes!" It works for me.

    As for my training runs, I hardly look at it. I run how I feel, and just look at the mile splits when it beeps out of curiosity.

  3. Great post, and I have a lot of thoughts on this one.

    1. Regarding the "going out at the right pace argument"-- I know I always go out way too fast because I can't judge from the moment I start running. Usually I look at my Garmin about two minutes into the race to discover I am running a pace there is NO WAY I can sustain! I think that if I had feedback for the first mile only, I might be able to go watchless.

    2. I am one of those people who gets super motivated at the end of the race by knowing I am going to PR. I shot down to a sub-6:00 pace in my 10K because I was worried I wouldn't make my goal. And that was when I thought I was already giving everything I had!

    3. My watch malfunctioned at the Houston half marathon in 2008. I had been injured in the weeks leading up to the race and saw it as a fun run anyway. I ended up PRing by 2:00, and I had no watch. In that example, the watch would have definitely held me back.

    So, I want to accept your challenge to go watchless, but I think I would need to ease into it by just looking at the Garmin just once or twice during the first mile, and then not again until the very end.

  4. I like to wear my Garmin for every run (just to have the information later), but I don't look at on most training runs.

    I'm not sure I could handle the completely blank screen in a race. I've been working on not freaking out and speeding up or slowing down based on what it says, but I do like to check and make sure I'm in the general range that I was planning on. I think this worked well for the marathon when being appropriately conservative in the early miles was important, but I can see the advantage of just running in anything shorter.

  5. I'm right there with you. I've become super dependent on my Garmin over the last year, mostly related to tri training, but when I run I can pace brilliantly just on feel -- better than I can when paying attention to my watch. All of my best road races (and training runs, for that matter) have been that way.

    I'm also experimenting with different screens -- I haven't gone blank just yet in case I feel like feedback would be helpful, but for the most part I never look at the watch anyway. Maybe I'll try your approach though!

  6. I almost always wear the Garmin for training runs, to get the data, but prefer a regular non-GPS watch for track workouts and races. It's one less thing to worry about. For marathons, I've gone back to old-school manual splits and a pace band. Works for me.

  7. I wear my Garmin for every run/race, but I always leave it on the heart rate screen and use that to push me to go faster or force me to slow down. It still gives me my mile splits though, so I'm not totally blind to my pace. Also I like to manually lap my miles during races because as we all know the GPS in our Garmins isn't perfect, especially if it's overcast or you are around a lot of tall buildings or in a heavily wooded area or your Garmin just feels like reminding you that sometimes the things we spend $200 on don't work perfectly.