I’ve been reminiscing on my early days of running. Back when running was uncomplicated by social media and GPS watches. It was a chance for me to be alone with my thoughts, out in nature, and to push my body.
Clicking the start button on my old Timex, I would head out with a set time I wanted to run. The pace was based on effort. On days I felt good, I’d run faster. If I felt crappy, I’d run slower. Once the run was over, I would relax on the porch, listen to music, or chat with my friends. Later, I’d open up a notebook and jot down the “data” from the run: time, estimated distance, how I felt, where I ran, etc. The only other person that saw this was my college coach and it’s safe to say he didn’t read much.
Back then, I compared myself to myself. To measure progress, I could look at times on specific routes or splits for track intervals. I could also compare myself to friends and teammates with whom I ran. Most importantly, I’d compare myself to other runners during races.
As I became more competitive, the desire for data started to grow. My simple stopwatch no longer cut it. I wanted to know the pace I was running for every run. Keep in mind this was pre-GPS so to do that, I had two options, run on a track, or go drive the course ahead of time.
As fun as it sounds to run circles around a track, I opted for the latter. I came up with a simple, but time-consuming approach. First, I would map out my course online. Tinkering until I created a route that was the desired distance. With the route set, I would print out a hard copy and hop in my car. I’d zero the trip meter and drive the route. Slowing as I approached each mile. I’d take note of a landmark, mile 1 was at that mailbox, mile 2 at that intersection, etc.
It was tedious, but I needed the data. And now I could click the split button at each mile and have feedback on my pace throughout the run. I was stoked.
This was the beginning of a very slippery slope.
Fast forward to the present day. We now have all the data we could wish for on our wrist. Time, pace, elevation, heart rate. You name it, your watch can provide it.
As a result, my runs look a bit different. I won’t start until my GPS watch has a signal ensuring the entire run gets captured. Heading out the door, I have a set distance I’d like to run and a goal pace. My watch can provide instant feedback on both. As I’m running through the trails or roads, I still let my mind wander but I am no longer “alone” on my runs. My watch is there and lets me know it. Every mile I am interrupted by its beeping notifying me of my current split. Even if I turn the beep off I still can’t help but glance down and check my pace. With the information there it’s too tempting.
As soon as my run is finished, my watch syncs with my phone and uploads the data directly to Strava. I open up the app and check to check the details – pace, distance, vert. I now judge my run based on these metrics. Did I average a 7 minute pace? Yes – sweet, great run! No – damn, have to run faster next time, what is everyone going to think about the slow pace… How I felt becomes an afterthought. It’s unimportant compared to all this data and what my followers will think. While I’m on the app I’ll check out everyone else’s runs and see how mine compares.
Herein lies the problem – the pressure of knowing everyone can see our runs and the constant feedback our watches provide.
Thanks to social media and apps like Strava, we can now compare ourselves with everyone on a daily basis. This makes it difficult to have a healthy relationship with our running. The run you first thought was great, no longer looks so good compared to your competitor’s run. Comparison is the thief of joy.
Our runs are no longer judged based on how we felt or how we perceived them. Instead, they are judged based on how they stack up compared to all the people we follow. On any particular day, our mood can go from confident and feeling successful to plummeting into negativity after a quick comparison on Strava.
Add to this the pressure that your friends can see all your runs, apps like Strava can lead to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. More often than I’d like to admit, I worry what people will think when they see my runs posted on Strava. Will they see my easy run and think I’m not fit or getting old? Thoughts like these make me pick the pace up, turning an easy day into a hard run. Stack up enough of these and I’m asking for an injury. I know it and still, the pressure gets to me.
Occasionally, the opposite happens. I have a great run and my paces are faster than normal. I can’t wait to get home to upload the data and see the “likes” stack up and the comments pour in. But this is just positive reinforcement encouraging me to run faster than I should.
My self-worth gets wrapped up in it all. I am no longer running for myself, but the perceived acceptance of the online community.
These problems are intensified for the runner trying to return from an injury. The pace needs adjusting and volume needs to be decreased. And often runners need to start with a walk/jog progression.
I recently sat down with friend and professional runner, Jax Mariash. Sipping on a cup of coffee Jax is lean, bright-eyed, and radiates energy. She has been running professionally for 6 years and has dealt with her share of running injuries. She is currently coming back from 4 complex foot surgeries. Here’s what she had to say on the topic of Strava. “I found myself struggling with my ego on Strava. I have been using the app for 6 years and throughout my comeback I found myself focused on what my competitors are up to. I’d check their mileage and paces and compare myself to them. I should have been listening to my healing body. I would second guess everything. At times, I thought I was making good progress and getting fit, only to upload my workout and feel slow compared to others who were healthy. Segments records and top ten stats seemed impossible to reach. I felt like my professional running career was over. I was so wrapped up in comparison that I totally forgot I was coming back from massive foot surgeries.”
Comparing ourselves to others and thus being embarrassed to run slow, many recovering runners give in to the pressure and run too fast, too soon. And their healing bodies can’t keep up. All for a like or two or two on Strava.
Taking easy days is hard but a necessary part of training and coming back from injuries. Easy days give our bodies a chance to absorb and adapt to our training. Without them, we break. As a Physical Therapist, this is the trap I’ve seen too many of my patients fall into, myself included.
Over the past few years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with GPS/Strava. To escape it, I once traded my fancy Garmin for a $40 Timex watch. In theory, it’s great – get all the data you can and document it. And I love the data. I love the ability to track everything and have an accurate training log. I love to see what other people are up to. But is it healthy? Is it adding value to your life? Or, like many I’ve spoken with, is it taking the joy out of running?
Most runners love running for its simplicity. All you need is a pair of shoes and you can head out the door wherever you are. No fancy equipment is needed. Our watches are the most advanced thing we use. It’s also the most burdensome.
Have you ever thought about ditching your fancy watch and running the way it used to be? Free from the negative connotations of social media? Free from the constant feedback except that of our bodies?
Do you need to know all your splits, HR, and elevation for every easy run? Do you need to put it on display for others? Or have you become addicted to data and social media?
What if we used our watch as a tool for training – instead of allowing it to dictate our training. Of course, there are times when the data is helpful. For instance, during workouts or long runs. But we do not need to rely on it for all our training.
I challenge you to discard the GPS watch for your easy runs and/or take a break from Strava. Find your old fashion sports watch, have a goal time you’d like to be out for, and run. Learn to listen to your body again. Run fast if you feel good. Slow down if you feel crappy.
Don’t get caught up in what others are doing in their training. Don’t worry about what they think about yours. We judge ourselves enough already. Don’t let running turn into another stressor. Just go run.