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In 2020, the journal Psychology published a study on device dependency in runners. Pierluigi Diotaiuti and colleagues at the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio gathered information about training device usage from 111 runners, who also completed a questionnaire designed to assess device dependency, which was scored on the basis of how individual subjects answered questions including this one: “If you could not have your device with you, would you still train?”

I now put a slightly different question to you: If every modern sports watch on earth suddenly vanished, leaving behind only old-school stopwatches to use in your training, would your training be negatively affected? In other words, do you feel you need your current training device to train effectively? I’m too lazy to turn this question into a formal survey, but I think it’s safe to assume that a substantial percentage of athletes would answer in the affirmative, which makes me sad. As a coach, I believe every athlete should be able to train just as effectively without a fancy sports tracker as they do with it. Why? Because sports trackers are only truly useful to athletes who don’t actually need them.

Don’t hang up! All will be made clear if you bear with me. Let’s start with an analogy. Consider the thesaurus—that big compendium of words with similar meanings. A thesaurus can be a lifesaver for writers who, in the process of composing a blog post or whatever, suddenly forget a word they know, or who wish to avoid overusing a word in a certain context by mixing things up with a synonym. As useful as it is, however, the thesaurus does not have the power to turn a bad writer into a good one. In fact, the best use this resource is made by the best writers—those who could get by just fine without it. When bad writers lean on the thesaurus, you can tell—the words they choose leap off the page like mad libs, not quite fitting. Skillful writers are more in control of their thesaurus usage, rarely pulling from it a word that wasn’t already part of their working vocabulary.

It’s the same with smartwatches. Almost by definition, an athlete who depends on their device to pace their workouts and races is not good at pacing. Worse, these same athletes are actually being held back from becoming good at pacing by this very dependency. Example:

Amir completed a set of speed intervals on his indoor bike. Minutes later my phone notified me that the workout had been uploaded. When I analyzed the data, I saw a massive spike in power at the start of each interval before Amir settled back into the correct wattage zone. Knowing the answer, I asked Amir what was behind those crazy spikes. Can you guess? Bingo! Noticing a lag between the time he started each interval and the time his bike’s power meter caught up with the change in output, Amir had pedaled like mad in the first few seconds in a desperate effort to produce the desired number, then slowed down on dis- covering he’d overshot the target—not once but twelve times in a row. Amir’s a smart guy. On some level, he knew his power meter was lying to him, giving him yesterday’s news, so to speak. Yet he acted as though he believed the number on the computer was more real than what his body was doing.

Like most device-dependent athletes, Amir probably thought his power meter was helping him pace his workout, and in a limited sense it was. But in a greater sense it was holding him back, sort of like how training wheels hold a young cyclist back from learning how to stay upright on their own. There are no good cyclists who need training wheels, and an athlete who depends on their training device for pacing will never be able to pace as effectively as one who doesn’t.

Again, my point is not that training devices are bad and should never be used by anyone. I’m merely saying that these gadgets are most useful to those who don’t actually need them. I’ll now give you a personal example of non-dependent smartwatch usage: In January 2020 I started the Irvine Half Marathon with the goal of averaging 5:51 per mile and finishing in 1:16:50. I was confident in this goal because I’d been running competitively for 30 years by this point, and I knew what my body could do. However, the workout performances upon which my goal was based had been achieved in regular racing flats, whereas on race day I wore carbon-plated super shoes, and I quickly discovered that the high-tech footwear made 5:51 per mile feel more like 5:56 per mile. Had I trusted my Garmin more than I did my ability to read my body, I probably would have stuck with my original goal pace. (Actually, that’s not quite true, as my original goal pace was itself based on my ability to read my body.) But as it was, I went ahead and ran 5:46 miles, which felt like 5:51’s, finishing with a pleasantly surprising time of 1:15:30.

Here we have an example of a sophisticated and effective use of a smartwatch that only an athlete who didn’t really need the device could pull off. I define pacing as the art of finding your limit, and in this race I found my limit in the only way an athlete ever can, which is by knowing subjectively what the body can do and then doing it through precise self-regulation. As a coach, I want every athlete to reach this level of pacing mastery, and it drives me nuts that so many athletes are willingly allowing device dependency to stand in the way.

The advantage I had as compared to many athletes is that I had accumulated many years of experience in training and racing without a smartwatch before these products came on market. Consequently, I was the boss of my chosen gadgets from day one, as one must be to benefit from their use. If I were the king of endurance sports and could rule athlete behavior by fiat, I would require that each beginner train for one full year with nothing more than an old-fashion stopwatch before they are allowed to begin training with a smartwatch. I’m confident this rule would go a long way toward preventing device dependency and accelerate the acquisition of pacing mastery. Everything you need to pace skilfully lies inside your body and mind, but it’s possible that only by forcing yourself to depend on these things only will you discover that you can.

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