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I Don't Own a Garmin: My Quest to be the Patron Saint of Data-Free Runners

Roughly once a month one of my athletes asks for help programming a workout into a Garmin. I am useless in these requests. I always have to explain that I don't own a Garmin and therefore, have no clue how to help them. I'm then met with incredulousness and the following questions:

how do you know how fast you're running!?

how do you know how far you ran??


I refrain from sharing that I also don't have a Strava (well, I do, but I haven't manually updated it in a few years and I think I have 9 followers) or that I don't keep a training log anymore. I have no idea what my resting heart rate was today, or how much I weighed this morning.

The truth? I haven't always been data-free. I love numbers. I love the fact that numbers show trends and trends can predict the future.

and trends can predict the future

That's where the problem arises. There are two types of runners in the world: those who stand on the starting line and say, "I will probably run between x and y time, based on z splits I have hit in workouts or the runner who stands on the starting line and says, "anything can happen today."

I have always been the latter. Frankly, I didn't have a choice because my high school coach (who is also my current coach) stressed this mantra over and over. As soon as the leaves turned gold and the air became crisp in Indiana, it was time for the "anything can happen" chants to begin.

Being a slave to data and standing on a starting line with the belief that anything can happen rarely goes hand-in-hand. There is, of course, the exception for the first training cycle where you ever have data. Everything is generally in a constant state of improvement because you have nothing to compare against. This trend can provide great confidence because you are given concrete evidence that your data is "better" than 16 weeks ago. If you are training for a fall marathon, this improvement is especially likely. You slog through summer miles then reach the fall and the same effort is suddenly 2 min/mi faster. YOU FEEL INVINCIBLE. You arrive to race day full of confidence, knowing you are without a doubt in the best shape of your life. You either a) run a great race, or b) not run a great race.

If the former occurs, then your future training cycles will forever be compared to this one. If you don't have a great race, you will look back and study every piece of data and obsess over where did it all go wrong?

In picking apart the pieces you will ignore the most important factors that tell you whether your training was on track: how dark is your shorts tan? how tired are you at the end of the day? how do you feel when you wake up? how is your appetite? how much fun are you having? how many times did you dread your workout? how many times could you not wait to meet your RBFF? how effortless did you feel? how out of breath were you? how springy were your legs? how often did you silently beg for the traffic light to be red at the intersection? to be green?

Instead, how many times did a run that felt great become tainted because you saw your data afterwards and realized the pace wasn't as fast as you thought? Or that you didn't run as far as you thought? Or you zoned out on your friend's convo because you glanced down and saw the pace was 10 seconds slower than you wanted and now you are spiralling into all the thoughts of what could be wrong and wondering if this is signalling the end of your running career? Or, even worse, you're now two-stepping your friend and talking over your shoulder because you HaVe To HiT tHe SpLiT on a recovery day?

The truth is, humans are nearly incapable of being unbiased observers of data - particularly their own.

It's also impossible not to compare data to other data. But, comparison (even when the comparison is only against yourself) is very rarely productive.

For instance, my "sweet spot" where every run feels effortless around 7:00 pace is about 60 miles per week. The more miles I run, the slower I get. This is also likely because the more miles I run, the harder my workouts tend to be based on timing of where I am in my training. In a typical 90 mile week I'm probably running hard on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. For all other runs my first mile is around 9 minute pace. I would actually argue that being slower throughout the training cycle is a sign of improved fitness because it indicates I'm running harder than before on long run/workout days.

Other factors that make comparisons difficult: weather, stress, caloric/carb intake, terrain, mental state, running with or without friends, running with or without music, the stars are/aren't aligned, Mercury is/isn't in retrograde, a dog is/isn't chasing you, etc.

Running has 9,000,000 variables. This makes training exciting but also extremely frustrating. Unless you live in a bubble where you can control every.single.detail of your life day in and day out, making a comparison from a random run you did now versus a year ago will tell you absolutely nothing about your current state of fitness.

Take my two fastest marathons for example. I ran 2:38:39 at Twin Cities in 2015 and 2:40:11 at Philadelphia in 2018. On paper, one is faster than the other. In reality, I am far more proud of Philly than Twin Cities.

First, the weather. I have come to terms with the fact I will never have as perfect of a running day as I did at TC. It was 50 degrees, no humidity, no wind. A marathoner's DREAM. Philly was 30 degrees with an even colder wind chill. Conducive to fast early splits, not conducive to a fast back half.

Crowd support: Twin Cities has insane crowd support the whole race; Philly was great the first 7 miles and around miles 15 and 20, but very quiet the rest of the way.

In-race competition: TC I ran with the fantastic Liz Northern and her training partner through 20 miles. In fact, they let me tuck in the whole way even after I had offered to do some of the work. At Philly I ran with a group of men through 8 or 9 miles before things strung out and we lost contact. I was alone for the remaining 17.

I could go on and on. My point: what happens on paper doesn't come close to telling the whole story.

I believe part of the reason why I am Garmin-adverse is because GPS just wasn't a thing when I was growing up. My first time seeing a GPS watch in real life was junior year of college. In high school my coach would frequently take our watches away from us, particularly for track workouts. I suspect now (I have never received verification) that he gave us confidence-inducing splits during workouts. and why not? Part of the reason I no longer keep a training log is because I have allowed my mind to turn a GREAT workout into a sub-par one because I just had to go back and compare. I tend to live my life through rose-colored lenses so I almost always finish a workout thinking it was the greatest one I ever ran. When I can confirm this isn't the case, it's a big let down.

So I eliminated the source of the let down.

Of course, in my case, I have a backup in that I have a coach. If I'm not hitting the splits I should be or if I'm way off what I've done in the past, I know he knows. I also know that instead of telling me I'm not fit and giving me something to dwell on he'll just write me workouts to lead me in the right direction. Sometimes the less you have to think about, the better.

At this point I should be clear in that I DO have a GPS. I have a Soleus that I bought in 2015 that is very utilitarian. It tells me pace and distance and that's about it. I can't upload data, I can't save my data, there is no option to sync to Strava, etc. I wear it very infrequently. In fact, the only time I will undoubtedly wear my GPS is if I'm running a tempo or a progression. Sometimes I'll wear it for long runs. All other times I am on the track, on a 1k road loop in Indy that has every 200 m marked, or a trail in Indy that has every 400 m marked and therefore wear my old-school crono watch. If I'm running a fartlek I also only wear a crono watch and focus on effort and feel instead of pace. Times I undoubtedly won't wear a GPS: on trails. on recovery runs. with friends.

But Anna, how do you know how far you have run?

That's easy. I either map a route ahead of time and run that (most of the time minus a watch) or I run for time. For instance, if I want to run 10 miles I'll just run for 75-85 min, depending what the effort feels like. If I'm not exact it really doesn't matter. I'm actually the worst because when I run with people they are on the hook for knowing when we need to turn around because I never remember my watch on easy days.

But, don't you think pace matters?

No. Here's the thing: knowing my pace doesn't change what my body needs to do. I run anywhere from 7:00 - 10:00 pace for easy days. If I'm running 10:00 pace, it's because my body NEEDS to run 10:00 pace (or because I'm with friends who are running that pace). If knowing your pace is on the slow end of your range bothers you, then what good does it do to know? Inevitably, if I see a mile split I will try to make the next one faster no matter what. It's just human nature I think. So, what good does it do to turn every day into a progression run, especially if my legs need to run easy? Ditching the watch, for me, has been the best way to just let myself be.

I also know when it comes to speed work that pace isn't of utmost importance. I would encourage you to look more at the average of 3 workouts than opposed to giving weight to one workout at a time. Some of the most beneficial workouts I have ever run were ones that I couldn't hit my paces to save my life. These include mile repeats, tempos, long runs, and track work. You must have the understanding that the benefit of training is adaptation. There will be days (sometimes weeks) where everything feels hard and you are slow. If you allow the number on your watch to dictate how you feel about yourself or your running, you will be miserable. You might quit. Usually right after a week or two where everything sucks I have a breakthrough.

If I can give you five compelling reasons for ditching the data (or, at the very least, giving yourself grace with it) it would be the following:

1. More room for confidence when you choose your own narrative and don't allow the numbers to create one for you.

Actually, there's a really important point that I want to make before I move on because I don't think I touched on it: What about when the numbers give you confidence? For instance, when you are running faster workouts than ever before? I definitely agree that this can help you go into races feeling better and more prepared than ever. But, there's a very fine line between being driven by outcomes and being driven by the process. Also, what I have found is that even when everything is going really, really well it's never enough. There is always the voice that says you could have/should have run faster. For me, that voice is usually loudest when everything IS going great and I'm nailing all my workouts. So, I think it's something you have to be really careful with, especially because the temptation is greatest to look back on old data and compare. Even if the comparison is favorable, your ego might tell you it's not favorable enough.

2. More room for enjoyment in training / with your training partners. corollary: you'll be less of an asshole training partner.

3. Fewer limitations placed on yourself based on previous versions of yourself (especially when these comparisons don't tell the whole story).

4. Less temptation to run hard every day.

5. Fewer items on your mental to-do list. I didn't realize how energy consuming it was to track data until I stopped tracking data. If I missed taking my HR in the morning I felt like I had already failed in my day before 7 AM.

To be clear, I'm not telling you to throw away your watches, heart rate monitors, training journals, etc. Well, I kind of am. But, more than anything I'm encouraging a balance. If you answer yes to any of the following, a data detox might be right for you:

[ ] you have allowed numbers to ruin social runs

[ ] a workout has gone from "good" to "bad" because you compared it to a past workout

[ ] you routinely run too hard on recovery days because you don't want to see "slow" numbers

[ ] you forget to "be" during runs because your watch data is more important

[ ] you have no idea how to gauge effort because you are so attached to your watch

[ ] if you realized you forgot your watch you wouldn't know how to (or have the motivation to) adapt your workout

[ ] if you aren't wearing your watch during a run you find yourself constantly looking at your wrist out of habit

[ ] you obsess over what paces/distances other runners are running and compare them to your own data

[ ] you are inflexible when it comes to hitting splits (no adjustment for external factors)

[ ] you have used negative adjectives to describe yourself based on watch data

I know some of these items might sound extreme, but as a coach I have seen them all. Ditching your watch may be uncomfortable at first, but you will be amazed at the things you notice during your run when you allow yourself to just be instead of focusing on the outcomes!

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