Naked Running Could you do it?

Are we too consumed by the numbers, and over analysis of each split and every bit of vert gained? In a running era where it didn’t happen if it’s not on Strava, what are the possible benefits of ditching the GPS watch, aka “running naked?” More and more coaches are encouraging runners to relearn how to run by feel or by intuitive pacing. This strategy accounts for a more natural adaptation to external factors such as heat, humidity, climbs and changing terrain. That is one side of the naked running scenario; the science driven by a desire to perform. The other side speaks to simplicity, and our need to truly be in the moment. Ditching your watch will enable you to embrace a climb without a single thought given to a leader board, course record, personal best or points needed for a free smoothie!

Wearable tech is a booming business, and we’re certainly not slamming the progress and innovation in this arena. Accurate knowledge of your pace, distance, time and heartrate on the fly is something that the previous generation of runners could not have imagined. A detailed digital log book of training and racing experiences can be a worthwhile motivator when it comes to tracking your marginal gains on a journey towards specific goals. Watches can be key to pacing in a race, and using heart rate functionality is equally beneficial in achieving optimal training effort. But, as with anything, there is a flip side.

Cape-based coach, Ian Waddell elaborates with some sage advice, “I have noticed many athletes have become slaves to the stats of their GPS watches causing much unnecessary stress plus disconnecting them from their bodies’ feedback, not running in the moment or appreciating the nature surrounding them on their runs. Chasing numbers, judging oneself according to numbers and comparing oneself to other athlete’s numbers all causes discontent and can take the fun out of your sport.

I believe GPS watches are a useful training tool when used occasionally to compare “apples with apples” i.e. same running routes, same races, and same intervals sessions over time to measure the improvements in performance and recovery. However, for a complete understanding other indicators need to be taken into account such as energy levels, perceived effort, recovery, enjoyment, how the body felt, breathing, headspace, purpose of the training session etc. All of this also needs to be put in the context of your overall training program and the training phase you are in in relation to your goal race (pre-season, race season, recovery period etc.)

Running for the love of running must not be lost at the expense of an obsession with stats.”

We asked runners from the sharp end to the social crew to share their insights and experiences around leaving the watch behind either occasionally, or permanently.

Kyle Durston – African adventurer, originally a Cape based trail runner

“When I started, I was running without a watch.

I wasn’t going fast enough to start counting minutes, let alone seconds. It was more about whether or not I could run between two lamp posts instead of one before walking. Then I grew fitter and started trail running and entering races. And I treated myself to a watch because I’m a bit of a collector. Every run I managed to map with my watch was like adding a book to a library. Like a digital reference to a memory, as well as a way for me to celebrate my achievements.

Then, recently, my watch broke.

It didn’t just not work… it measured the route correctly and showed it properly on the integrated app. But it wasn’t measuring distance. I ran what I know to be a 10km route. And it told me I did 200m. While showing me a map that showed the full 10km.

Well this sucks. I thought.

But I didn’t stop running just because I couldn’t keep records of it. In fact I ran a lot more. I kind of enjoyed it more. Especially since some of those runs were with friends. Some of whom were less fit than me. And I could happily and easily say to them that I don’t give a **** how long it takes them to get up the hill. And to stop apologising for holding me back.

I think there’s room for both in a runner’s life.

When you’re running to test yourself. Or to train. Or to push your limits. Or even to make sure you pace yourself well – a watch is great. But I think that trail running in particular is about exploring and adventure and having time for yourself and just enjoying the run – which I think you get more out of without a watch. Wearing or not wearing the watch creates a different mindset for your run. Subtle, but you’ll realise it at the end.”

Chris Strydom – Bloem based trail runner who has more than a few podium placements to his name

“Around two months ago after I broke my collarbone I decided to run without a GPS watch for a while, whilst getting my fitness back. I ran purely on feel and focused on enjoying every run. It helped me fall in love with running all over again. I knew I was running terrible distances and paces, but I had no watch that told me about it, which really helped me to enjoy the "comeback". I'm back training with a watch but every once in a while when I just feel like running without any pressure, I leave the watch behind and it really helps one to reconnect with the primal instinct of running without the clutter.”

Natalie Jardine – New comer to the trail running scene

“I’m a relative newbie to running, and trail in particular. I ran with my app on my phone a lot and then did a trial with a watch. I found that I became a bit obsessive with what the watch said and it started feeling unhealthy. 

The watch was awesome in terms of calories burned, speed and distance measurements, but it didn’t let me run for fun. I did a few trails over the last month without the watch or my phone app on and it felt glorious. Such freedom. Not measuring myself all the time, but back to running for my original reason: coping with stress and life in general.”

Mmama Kubjane – Cape based ultra-distance trail runner

“Ditched my GPS watch the week before my UTD100k run in April. (I wasn't going to run faster than its battery life either way haha!). The plan was to run from one checkpoint to the next. It was the best way for me to break down the 100k and to run by how I was feeling between checkpoints.”

Leigh Allinson – UK based runner who comes out to South Africa to race at least once a year

“Been running without (a watch) for a few weeks although not for any reason, I think it's great to forget about time and just run to how your feeling on the day, absorb more of the environment you are running within and enjoy the freedom that running can bring to your state of mind.

The main reason I switched to trail running was to get away from that time obsessed mind frame of sub x minute miles. I found chasing time put pressure on me and took away the fun element. Still like to GPS track but just keep it away from visibility to avoid the constant checking when it's on the wrist.”

So there you have it. Some solid reasons to mix it up, and leave the watch at home from time to time. Sure, you’ll have fewer Kudos and a few gaps in your digital log book, but you might rediscover some deep running joy, and improve your performance.

Words by Kim Stephens