A good few runners that I meet now, including myself, are always checking their watches making sure they stay within a couple of beats of a target heart rate or running an exact pace. I’ve noticed how much it changes your mental ability to run a distance as you become so fixed on the device and can’t function without it. You forget about the enjoyment of running in the moment and fantasise on the result even if it hurts. You calculate and run according to the data on the screen rather than unplug and listen to what your body is telling you.
If you know anything about training zones, then you know it’s an efficient and fast way to train and adapt for a particular race. Every couple of months you re-test yourself and adjust your zones based on your body’s adaptations. A heart rate and pace watch allows you to maintain a particular zone during your run and allows you to be very specific with your training that results in being able to run faster and more efficiently. There are certainly a lot of benefits when you are training but how much does it hinder our enjoyment and mental ability to run naturally?
When I trained for my first marathon, I ran with a group that ran 10 minutes and walked for 1. The team leader controlled the pace and stops which meant I didn’t have to look at my watch. It was an excellent way to train for the distance and my first marathon. I did, however, want to run the race without stopping which meant I had to put in some training running without stops. It was a lot harder than I thought since the mind was so accustomed to stopping every ten minutes. The body was more than capable, but I had to force my mind into running for longer. I was confronted with the difficulties of pacing myself with my watch that felt unnatural at times.
I recently raced in a sprint triathlon and in the panic of the swim start I accidentally stopped my watch rather than start it. For the whole race, I wasn’t able to look down to see what my heart rate was or my pace on the run. It meant I couldn’t see if I needed to back off on the speed or intensity. Instead, I was going by feel. I finished in a time I was reasonably happy with, but I have to wonder how much my watch may have affected my mental attitude towards the race. Would I have slowed down or sped up at the wrong time because I wanted to keep to a target speed or heart rate? Could that have compromised the rest of the race? It’s hard to know for sure, but it does make me question how much it affects my true performance and ability.
Comparing this experience with my half-Iron run, I feel like my watch changed how I performed. Maybe if I didn’t have my race pace and time in front of me, I would have just got on with the run and ran by feel and finished in a faster time.
Hilly run courses have given me some interesting results. I’ve finished some races faster when there are hills and not relied on a watch, than when it’s flat, and I try to conserve myself by sticking to pace. It certainly raises another question, am I able to run faster than I ‘think’ I can. I believe the answer is yes, but how do you break that barrier? Fatigue is just a trigger in the mind to tell you to slow down or refuel. You still have plenty of energy and just need to train your mind into pushing for longer.
Becoming distracted by music, is the same in some ways as always checking your watch, it changes your focus. A lot of races ask you not to run with any music as a safety concern so that you are aware of your surroundings.
Music can have a positive impact on performance as it elevates mood as the external stimuli blocks out the perception of fatigue and our limits. Music is said to be a tool for those who find the act of running boring and challenging without a motivational stimulus. You need something that distracts you from the workout and works as a pick me up when you need a boost of energy. The problem comes when you rely on that stimulus too much and then on race day you can’t use it!
I certainly started out running with music as a distraction and stimulus. I then grew to enjoy the sensation that I get when I can easily zone out on the run with my favourite music. I have gone into races desperate for that pick-me-up beat and found it mentally difficult to push myself. I could have done with some music on the half iron run!
I certainly believe that I need to reduce and ultimately remove my use of music and be more in tune with my running. I’ve read from other runners that by cutting out music, you are more aware of your cadence, breathing, body position, and able to optimise your efforts more precisely. Not to mention, it’s safer, especially on the trails in British Columbia. You also train yourself not to rely on music as a motivator and strengthen your mental game.
I believe it’s safe running on a pedestrian path with music but consider having one ear bud out or at a low volume, so you are aware of what’s around you. Continuously observe the area around you and watch for anyone coming from behind. You should avoid music on the trails for the safety of mountain bikers, other runners, and in BC, bears and cougars!