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Running shoes, keys, watch – I used to always grab the essentials before heading out for a jog.
When I first began running in high school on the track team, it made sense to carefully clock every mile and push myself to race for personal bests. But as I transitioned from running for sport to running for recreation as an adult, I found that tracking my workouts became more harmful than helpful.
Casual runs turned into a competition with myself, usually ending in frustration if I failed to keep up with the pace dictated by my watch.
Ditching your running watch, especially if it’s a smartwatch or fitness tracker, could actually improve your workout – or at least your stress levels and enjoyment of running, some research suggests.
It wasn’t until my watch battery died several years ago that I first experienced the sense of calm that comes with running for the pure joy of it. I never replaced the watch battery, and experts say that might not be a bad thing for my fitness goals.
“There is certainly evidence out there that people are becoming obsessed by it – people who used to have an interest in their sport and got enjoyment out of the sport, but now that’s switching to the data,” said Eoin Whelan, a senior lecturer in business information systems at the National University of Ireland Galway. His research explores the psychology behind engagement with social media and fitness tracking apps. (That includes a 2020 study, conducted with Trevor Clohessy of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.)
“People are getting more enjoyment out of gathering the data and analyzing that and sharing it with other people,” Whelan told CNN, adding that there is a big element of social comparison for those who use fitness tracking apps. “People will compare themselves to people who are better than them, who are running faster or running longer. And ultimately we know that makes them feel bad.”
Whelan also noted that people who are very reliant on smartwatches, fitness trackers or fitness apps are more likely to skip their workout if the batteries on their tracking device are dead.
“It’s like we can’t interpret our own body signals. We are becoming very dependent on the technology to actually do that for us,” Whelan said. “Some of the athletes that I coach, you can ask them a simple question like ‘how did you sleep last night?’ and they can’t answer unless they look at the data.”
It’s not all negative, though. Whelan’s research also shows there are many upsides to using fitness trackers. In fact, some runners gain motivation by comparing themselves to others, or they build online communities that help them reach their goals. So ditching the data might not be best for everyone.
“We know from other studies that when people use these technologies, they’re more motivated to exercise, and they tend to exercise for longer and at a higher intensity as well, which is all good for their physical well-being,” said Whelan, adding that the concern is when the use of fitness tracking shifts from motivational to obsessive. “We also know that not everybody gets those benefits.”
An extension of screen time
In general, research shows that too much screen time, which could include looking at your smartwatch or fitness apps, has negative impacts on mental health. Excessive smartphone use is also linked to worse headaches, disrupted sleep patterns and greater impulsivity.
The information people gather from smartwatches and workout tracking apps can contribute to “information overload” problems, according to psychologist Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His research shows that having a constant flow of information due to technology can lead to “stress, anxiety, loss of sleep, depression, and more.”
“When we have our screens close at hand (or on arm) they are often just extensions of the connection apps we use on our phones,” Rosen said via email. “The more we allow notifications and alerts to beckon us, the more stress and anxiety chemicals are released, making us on edge and our mental and emotional systems are flooded with a message that says, ‘check me now.’”
Rosen advocates for creating screen-free zones as well as taking “tech breaks,” where you set a 15- or 30-timer during which you don’t check your phone. The time limit tells your brain that you can check the phone soon and reduces “the anxiety of feeling you have to check in all the time.” Running unplugged or without a watch could also serve as a short tech break.
“[Being] screen-free does not have to be a long time,” Rosen said. “Short bursts are likely better for you.”
Professionals ignoring pace
Running watch-free is beneficial for more than just the casual jogger or weekend warrior. Some professionals also have had success with leaving their watches at home.
Welsh runner Steve Jones famously set a world record at the 1984 Chicago Marathon without wearing a watch. He later told journalists he didn’t even know he was on world record-pace until he crossed the finish line.
More recently, Olympic marathoner Trevor Hofbauer made headlines for winning the 2019 Canadian Marathon Championships without a watch. He told CNN he stopped tracking his pace years ago and only trains based on his effort and his overall running time.
“I used to be fixated on it,” he said. Getting rid of the pace tracking on his watch, as well as switching off other technology while he runs, has helped him get more “in tune” with his body, he added.
“I ditched music and found a lot of enjoyment in just listening to nature and being in silence and having solitude and greeting other people on the pathway,” Hofbauer said.
He said he may go back to tracking his pace at some point in the future, but for now, running with a clear wrist also means a clear mind.
“If you have too much information being fed to you in real time, it can kind of get in your head,” Hofbauer said. “For me, the more simple the better.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story did not specify at which campus in the National University of Ireland system Eoin Whelan is a senior lecturer.