Every day, it seems, I hear about new and more sophisticated real-time data-tracking technology — gadgets that promise to help me optimize the distance and pace I run, or the number of hours I sleep, or the amount of space in between my heartbeats. Having an endless stream of immediate feedback will make me a better me, or so the story goes.
It’s an enticing proposition. After all, the world’s best athletes are increasingly turning to technology in their attempts to shatter records — just look at Nike’s “Breaking2” quest, in which an athlete came thrillingly close to running a marathon in under two hours. And as an analytical thinker myself, I’ve long believed that more information is always a good thing. But I’m not so sure about that anymore.
A few months back, I realized I’d read tons of stories about people adopting the latest gadgets to help them improve at their chosen pursuits, but hardly any about people who were ditching them. So, already somewhat fatigued by years of type-A, data-driven running, I decided I’d fill the gap. I set out to train for the Eugene Marathon, a race run on May 7, without the assistance of real-time data on my pace, heart rate, or cadence, all of which I’d been using for the last decade. I also turned down more than 20 pitches to try new technologies that claimed to help me optimize my sleep, track my blood sugar, speed my physiological recovery, or even do something called “DNA-based training.” I’d record the time, distance, and effort at which I ran, but that was it. In an age of the quantified maximalist, I’d be a minimalist.
Heading into this experiment, my best marathon was 3:06, and my most recent, in November 2016, was 3:07. I wanted to go faster.
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As it turned out, running without all of the stuff was an absolute pleasure. I didn’t have to worry about the exact pace at which I was running, or the number of times my heart was beating. I ran by feel, keeping my hard days hard and my easy days easy. I felt free.
But training in this manner wasn’t just more enjoyable. It was also far better. In the past, whenever I was running slower than a prescribed pace or lower than a prescribed heart rate, I’d force myself to speed up, even if it was clear that my body didn’t want to. But this time around, with no immediate feedback, whatever felt “hard” on a hard day was hard, regardless of those other measures. On more than a few occasions, when I’d look at my numbers following (but never during) key workouts, I was shocked to see that I’d had some real breakthroughs, running much faster than I thought I could. I was so shocked that, had I seen these crazy-fast numbers during the workout itself, I would have inevitably freaked out and slowed down. But because I was blind to this, I just ran.
A review of more 50 studies on endurance performance, published last year in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, found that trying to stick to a specific pace can be counterproductive. When I spoke to the lead author Noel Brick, a sports psychologist at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, earlier this year, he told me that contrary to what we may assume, that’s especially true if you’re behind where you want to be: “Relying on a watch excessively can promote unhelpful thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety, if you are a few seconds down from your goal pace,” he said. In a more recent study, Brick and his colleagues found that runners were a whopping 10 percent faster when they were focused on relaxing or the act of running itself versus external metrics like pace.
Another unexpected upside: Ditching the gadgets also helped me become a less psychologically fragile runner. Since I no longer feel reliant on technology to run well, if the tech conks out (something that always seems to happen during important races), I know I’ll still be okay.
While this is a story about running, it’s also increasingly becoming a story about living. You could very easily replace all the above instances of the word running with writing, studying, or sleeping; across the board, our obsession with optimizing productivity may be stifling our performance. We risk pushing ourselves too hard on the days that we just don’t have it, and not hard enough on the days that we do. In our obsession over immediate feedback and our anxiety about hitting whatever arbitrary targets we’ve established, we may be setting ourselves up for failure. In an ironic twist, new research shows that people are so worried about their sleep trackers that they’re literally losing sleep.
Make no mistake, I’m not a Luddite. My message isn’t that we should completely abandon technology. In my own experiment, I did use a watch to track distance and time, and I did look at my pace after runs. But I also stopped short of obsessing over additional metrics, or any metric during the act of running itself — a decision that enhanced both the pleasure and quality of my training.
Will I use real-time tracking technology in the future? Probably. But I’ll do so more discerningly, aware of both its pros and cons, and the fact that sometimes, I’m better off without it.
I ran the Eugene Marathon in 3:05.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.