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Break Free From Your Device Dependency

The psychological characteristics that lead to over-reliance on data, and 3 ways to teach yourself how to trust your own perceptions and judgments more than you trust your watch.

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A couple of years ago I received an unexpected call at a random time from Alex, a triathlete I coached. The few such calls I’d gotten from Alex previously had brought bad news, so I was braced for disaster when I answered.

I needn’t have worried. It turned out Alex’s power meter had died at the beginning of a ride, and he was now standing with his bike at the side of the road, wanting to know if he should go ahead and complete the workout sans data or push it back a day and try to get the device fixed in the meantime.

Incidents like this one are happening with ever greater frequency — episodes that leave me utterly gobsmacked at how dependent athletes have become on the tracking devices they use in training and racing. And it’s not just triathletes like Alex. Too many runners these days don’t trust their own common sense and perceptions, instead putting all of their faith in high-tech tools, to which they willingly sacrifice all personal agency as athletes, as if these things were indispensable and infallible. Why?

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A recent study by psychologists at the University of Cassino and Southern Lazzio in Italy helps us answer this question. One hundred and eleven runners completed a survey designed to collect information about their running, certain psychological characteristics, and their experiences with “sports trackers.” The researchers’ main hypothesis was that less experienced runners would exhibit higher levels of device dependency, which was scored on the basis of how individual subjects answered questions such as, “If you could not have your device with you, would you still train?” 

This postulation turned out to be largely correct. Runners who managed to escape device dependency tended to pass through clear stages in their use of these tools. The first stage was one of exploration and discovery — learning what their device could do. From there, runners moved into a consolidation phase, characterized by a more focused and purposeful use of key features. Then came the final phase, marked by a rigorous selection of features that left runners attending only to data deemed essential to goal achievement. The study’s authors concluded, “The more experienced runners  . . .  have shown that over time they have acquired a progressive mastery and internal control of their performance functions, so that they were sufficiently autonomous to structure the relationship of use with the sport trackers in a strictly instrumental way, for which there was no perception of dependence or submission.

Not all of the experienced runners included in this survey had a healthy relationship with their sports trackers, however. The researchers found that individual psychology also influenced the likelihood of dependency. Specifically, device-dependent runners tended to score lower for resilient recovery, which the authors define as “typical of a subject who is able to overcome traumatic or stressful events.” It doesn’t take a psychologist to see how a person who struggles to shake off setbacks might treat a smartwatch as a kind of security blanket. Do you remember the Garmin ransomware incident in July 2020, and how a lot of athletes freaked out about it, while others told the athletes who were freaking out to take a chill pill? Well, it’s a safe bet that, as a group, the athletes who freaked out had a lower capacity for resilient recovery compared to those who stayed calm.

Two other psychological variables that were measured and monitored in this study were target orientation and process control orientation. As these terms suggest, runners with a target orientation are focused on the goal of each workout, and of the training process as a whole, whereas runners with a process control orientation are focused on assessing how they’re doing right now. Interestingly, the researchers found that runners with more of a target orientation were less device dependent, possibly because they were willing to be flexible and adaptive in how they got from point A and point B. In contrast, the authors note, “The need for control in the process can turn out, in some cases, to be excessively rigid, preventing the subject from focusing attention on the dynamism of the purpose-oriented process, crystallizing the projection of attention on the internal control components.

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Overcoming (or avoiding) device dependency is fundamentally a matter of learning to trust your own perceptions and judgments more than you trust your watch. Experience is essential to this process. The more 10K aces you’ve run (for example), the better a sense you will have of how you ought to be feeling at 1K, 2K, and so forth. As we’ve seen, though, not all runners benefit equally from equal experience. Here are three specific measures that will help you accelerate the process of learning from experience:

1. Run by feel

Male runner with black tights and blue rain jacket running over a wooden bridge without a watch looking happy and liberated.
Photo: Getty Images

Whether you measure the intensity of your runs by pace, heart rate, or power, you should demote this objective metric to secondary status and elevate perceived exertion (RPE) to primary status in some, or even most, of your runs. For example, threshold intensity is an effort level that can be sustained for one hour and is associated with an initial RPE of 6 on a 1-10 scale. The next time you do a tempo run targeting this intensity, feel your way to this effort rating and ignore your watch until you’re done.

After the run, check to see how closely your heart rate, pace, or power corresponded to your actual threshold value. If you were off by more than a little, make a correction in your next tempo run, again going by feel.

2. Work on your pacing skill

The key difference between distance running and things like sprinting and powerlifting is that distance-running performance is limited by perception rather than speed or strength. At no time in a race longer than 400 meters are you running as fast as you can except perhaps in the final stretch. Distance-running events are paced, in other words, and pacing is done by feel. To feel you can run faster is to be able to run faster, and to feel you’ve reached your limit is to have reached your limit. Hard physical limits never come into play.

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No formula, test, or device will ever be able to do a better job of telling you what you’re capable of than your own perceptions, because it is your perceptions themselves that determine what you’re capable of. The most successful runners — by which I mean those who do the best job of finding their true performance limit — are really good at reading their perceptions while running, which is another way of saying they’re really good at pacing. 

This is where devices can be useful. The mistake many runners make is allowing their watch to tell them what they can and can’t do. The proper way to use a device is to train your ability to allow perception to tell you what you can and can’t do. The performance data supplied by a sports tracker can and should be used to calibrate your perceptions, so you get better and better at linking subjective effort to objective numbers.

In my coaching work, I use little pacing games to accelerate pacing skill development. Here’s an example: The next time you do fast repetitions at a fixed intensity, try to complete each one in precisely the same time, down to the hundredth of a second. Let’s say you’ve got 10 x 400 meters on the docket and you complete the first rep in 1:39.44. Your goal now is to run the next nine also in 1:39.44. This is the opposite of device dependency — for it is you who are bossing your watch, not the other way around.

3. Keep it simple

The runners who participated in the device dependency experiment described above represented four levels of experience: 1-3 years, 4-5 years, 6-10 years, and 11+ years. The researchers looked at usage rates for individual device features across experience levels and found that runners with the most experience were least likely to pay attention to distance, time, heart rate, activity log, calories, elevation change, and training programs. If you’re wondering what’s left, the answer is nothing! The most experienced runners were least likely to use all device features.

This doesn’t mean they wore their watches for fashion purposes only, however. Nearly 78% of runners with 11 or more years of experienced reported using the stopwatch feature, for example; this number just happens to be smaller than those reported by runners representing the other three experience levels. What these data show is that experienced runners were very focused in their use of device features, whereas less experienced runners were more scattered.

The KISS acronym (keep it simple stupid) is useful guideline to follow in managing your relationship with your sports tracker. A study led by Freya Bayne of London South Bank University and published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020 found that athletes performed better in a 30-minute indoor cycling time trial when they were supplied only with elapsed time information than they did when given elapsed time, elapsed distance, speed, power, cadence, and heart rate. The lesson here seems to be that the more metrics you try to pay attention to you, the less control you have over your own performance.

Again, there is no substitute for experience in developing a genuine sense of control in your relationship with your running device. Still, it can’t hurt to know ahead of time where it is you want to end up.

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