The most impactful change I made this year

With the year drawing to a close, I started thinking about the changes I’ve made to my training in 2017. There have been so many alterations, but the conclusion that I came to is that the most impactful change of all was possibly one of the smallest.

I’m fairly addicted to my watch while running. During marathons, I often spend more time staring at the numbers than seeing the roads I’m running down. I can get quite hung up on seeing pace and splits, to the detriment of entire sessions where I give up just because I’m running too slowly, or too fast, or just that then numbers aren’t showing me what I expect to see.

No, this year I didn’t give up on wearing a watch (that would have gone too far!). But I did take a step towards lessening my reliance on the watch: I turned off auto-lap.

The auto-lap feature of my watch means that every kilometre it will vibrate against my wrist and tell me the time it took to cover the previous kilometre. At first, I found it a reassuring confirmation that I had covered part of the distance that I needed to go, and got to the point where I could almost judge when the next buzz would come. The numbers provided instant feedback of how the session was going. It was always nice to see that I was keeping pace or even exceeding it.

But the more I ran with the watch, the more obsessed I became with those regular updates. In a race, if a kilometre was slightly slower than intended it would throw me into a depressed state, and I would start to think that my goal was unachievable. Often, I gave up. My race-state brain couldn’t comprehend that I would make up the time later in the race. I found similar situations happening in my training runs as well.

One thing I had noticed with the races I was participating in was that the distance shown on my watch did not match up with the actual race-distance. It’s not uncommon that my watch would record 4.95km or 5.03km for a parkrun, and this discrepancy increases the longer the race is. I’ve never run a marathon which has recorded as exactly 42.2km, it’s mostly 0.3km or more out.

This discrepancy makes it very difficult to pace a marathon. In Copenhagen 2016, my watch was already out with the markers by a kilometre and so I felt I had to compensate my pace to allow for the extra distance that would come at the end. By Paris in 2017 I had a new strategy: time the race from the markers and not from the watch. Assuming that the course markers had correctly marked the course, I would have a better idea of how I was tracking towards my goal.

To do that, I had to turn off the auto-lap feature. A few button presses and it was done. And while the race didn’t go to plan, my kilometre-marker strategy worked a charm.

After that race, I just forgot to turn auto-lap back on again. At first I missed the buzzes, but I quickly adjusted and started to find a beauty in running without feedback. Sure, the numbers were there on my wrist if I wanted to look at them, but I could also just set off and run for kilometres on end without worrying about how fast or how far I’d gone. It became so normal that when I tested out the Suunto Spartan Sport, one of the first things I figured out was how to switch off their auto-lapping too. I felt incensed by the vibrations against my wrist when I just wanted to run.

For most of this year I’ve run without the auto-lap turned on. It’s certainly not been the only thing that has helped me improve my long-distance running this year, but I feel like it’s been a massive help. I’m less stressed about pacing, especially on easy runs where it does not matter how slow you are going. I’ve even found myself turning the watch to ‘time’ face, so that I don’t get any feedback about speed or distance at all The only downside to not having auto-lap switched on I’ve seen is that I no longer get kilometre splits on the watch itself. However, all of my runs get uploaded to Strava where this data is available, so the information is not lost.

Turning off auto-lap was one of the best choices I made this year. (Ironically, Sye has told me that turning on auto-lap was his best running decision this year…) I feel more relaxed in my running, don’t get pace-based emotional fluctuations during races, and as a whole have become somewhat less obsessed with the numbers on my wrist. Long may it this trend continue!

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