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Your GPS tracker can cause more harm than good

Article written by Pip Coates, August 25th, 2015 for Executive Style


How are you using your GPS?
How are you using your GPS?



I have a collection of running watches that have served me well over the years, although you certainly couldn’t call me a tech addict. For me, the GPS watch has been a useful tool for pacing and for monitoring time or distance.

However it’s also really annoying when the battery inexplicably dies during a marathon (thank goodness I’d written my splits in thick black pen up my arm), or when it goes into meltdown during a race because of all the other watches in its orbit, or when it repeatedly reminds you you’re not going at the pace you should be. Despite the fact you’re trying your damn hardest.

People have developed addictions to their GPS devices that can end up causing them more harm than good.

GPS breakdown

It works like this: you enter an event, you get yourself a coach and/or a training plan, you tell all your friends and sign up for public training forums such as Strava or Trainingpeaks.

You log your sessions, compare your progress against friends or others training for the same event. You might use Runkeeper on your phone, too, just so you’re never out of touch with your stats.


“You can almost put money on the people who come in with overuse injuries having trained with two or three different devices.”

Mark Green


Then you have a training session when you’re off your game. The data doesn’t look good; you didn’t hit your target times. Or your coach has you slated for a tempo run, and even though you’ve got a knee niggle, you persevere in order to please your coach and not sully your good training record.

Or you’re scheduled for a long, slow distance recovery run, but you’re feeling good – and your watch is telling you your pace is good – so you push it. At the end of the workout, the figures are admirable; you upload them and let the world admire. But you missed the point of the run, which was to recover.

The data drain


Sydney physiotherapist Mark Green and his colleagues at the Body Mechanic have found a correlation between the amount of data people record and their likelihood of getting injured.

“It’s anecdotal in the clinic, but you can almost put money on the people who come in with overuse injuries having trained with two or three different devices recording their sessions,” Green says.

He says the problem about being obsessive with GPS tracking – and especially with making your data public – is that self preservation goes out the window. People keep training to keep their log looking good, especially on public forums like Strava where their friends are watching what they’re doing.

“Plus, coaches often follow what their athletes are doing on Strava which is brilliant, but because of this, athletes will get nervous about missing sessions and will do absolutely everything, even if they’ve got a niggle.

“The bottom line is, if your knee is sore you should probably have a day off and try to work out what’s wrong with it.”

Listen to your body

Some running club members even unofficially compete to win Strava segments, so a consistent pace run becomes something akin to a fartlek session instead.

“People lose the art of listening to their body and of knowing what pace they’re running by the level of effort they’re putting in,” Green says. “It’s amazing how many people who rely heavily on GPS watches have no real sense of pace.”

Knowing the feeling of subtle differences in pace helps teach you about the feeling of required effort, which if worked on in training, becomes very useful at the back end of races. With a GPS device, the signal can get lost and the device plays catch up, so the numbers are not always exact.

It’s distracting to always be trying to match your watch rather than responding to how you are feeling. Also on long recovery runs, it’s best to ditch the GPS and enjoy the experience for the sheer enjoyment of running. This is one run when numbers don’t count.

On the plus side

Still, GPS devices are brilliant tools, as long as they are used wisely. Green says they can be great motivators, especially for the unmotivated, and they’re a good way for coaches to track multiple athletes.

Their benefits are also retrospective: you could refer to a successful three-month training block that lead to a good race result, for example, and try to replicate it.

Green says GPS devices can be used as an injury predictor, too. “If a runner develops a sore knee they can look back over the past three months of training to see what may have caused it. They may have broken the 10 per cent rule [don’t increase weekly mileage by more than 10 per cent] with too much of their training and they could use that information to prevent doing the same thing again.”

One final reason to not be a slave to your device – and in particular to public training forums – is the effect on your mental health.

“When clients are injured I suggest they switch off Strava so they can’t see what their friends are doing,” says Green. “They get almost depressed that their friends are out there training and they’re not … so take running away from obsessed runners and they can get depressed pretty quickly.”

And no one wants that.