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In any relationship, disagreements are bound to occur. These moments of friction are not limited to differences of opinion, such as whether dogs are better than cats or vice versa, but may also include discrepancies in how reality is perceived. Perhaps you and your spouse disagree on whether aliens walk among us in human disguise, for example.

An athlete’s relationship with his or her training devices is like any other relationship in this regard. There are moments when the information provided to the athlete by a device—or at least the athlete’s interpretation of the information provided—is at odds with the athlete’s own perception of what’s happening. Heart rate data is perhaps the richest source of such dissonance. Raise your hand if the heart rate reading on your device has ever told you that you’re working hard (or easy) while your subjective perception of effort said the opposite? Thought so.

Each conflict of this sort must be resolved in one direction or the other. The athlete must either overrule the device and act on her own perception of reality or acquiesce to the device’s take on reality and obey its dictates. In my experience as a coach, athletes with a high degree of mental fitness almost always overrule their device in these situations, whereas athletes with work to do in their mental game usually acquiesce and obey.

Actually, it’s not just in my experience that this division is seen. A number of studies have shown that higher-performing athletes tend to be a lot more selective in their use of device features and real-time data during workouts and races. In other words, higher-performing athletes exert greater control in their relationship with their fitness devices. You might say that they play the parent role, while their watch is confined to the child role, whereas with less successful athletes the inverse is true.

There are two reasons for this. The first is related to the fact that, in endurance sports, performance limits are determined by perceptions, not by physiology. An athlete who feels he can’t continue at his present effort level is always right, regardless of what any objective measurement says. Because of this, every athlete who has enough experience to know her limits should trust her perceptions more than she trusts her device. But not all athletes are equally self-trusting. Athletes burdened with relatively low levels of self-trust tend to look outside themselves for guidance and assurance, allowing themselves to become subservient to and overdependent on their devices, as was demonstrated in a study led by Pierluigi Diotaitui and published in the journal Psychology in 2020. And that’s the second reason that higher-performing athletes veto their device’s opinion virtually every time in contradicts their own: they are blessed with a high level of innate self-trust.

Recently I came across another interesting paper that sheds light on this topic from a different angle. Written by a four-person team led by Fabian Otte of the Institute of Exercise Training and Sport Informatics, it bears the colossally descriptive title, “When and How to Provide Feedback and Instructions to Athletes?—How Sport Psychology and Pedagogy Insights Can Improve Coaching Interventions to Enhance Self-Regulation in Training.” The argument that Otte and his coauthors make is based on the premise that success in sports is dependent on athletes’ ability to self-regulate their performance, which is something that coaches neither can nor should do on their athletes’ behalf. The coach’s role is not to teach sports skills but to facilitate athletes’ learning of sports skills. Otte and colleagues write, “An increased amount of feedback and instructions (in terms of information quality and quantity) likely is not more beneficial for athletes. In contrast to the common notion, ‘the more, the better,’ athletes at particular skill developmental stages actually benefit more from self-regulatory approaches and minimized explicit feedback and instructions used sparingly.”

For self-coached athletes, fitness devices largely take the place of a coach. But existing products are not designed to inform and instruct athletes in a manner that is consistent with how the most effective coaches do their work. This was noted by the authors of a recent observational study of device usage by runners, who advised manufacturers to start making products that give runners more control, providing “meaningful running-related data presentations at specific moments in time to comply with runners’ needs, wishes and goals, rather than a technology-pushed presentation of specific sets of data.”

In the meantime, it’s on you to assert more control in your relationship with your fitness gadgets. Step one is accepting it as an explicit goal to overrule your device (almost) every time it disagrees with your perceptions. Let your watch know who’s boss!

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