The best smartwatches offer plenty of fancy features for regular runners, and I’ve tested gadgets with tons of tools that have helped me improve my speed and timing.
These features range from built-in GPS, which lets you track where you’ve been, to precise breakdowns of the different stages of your journey, and even modes that tell you how long you need to rest between workouts.
But after years of using running tech — smartwatches, running watches, and fitness trackers — I’ve begun to realize that they can be more of a curse than a blessing.
I tested quite a few smartwatches and wearable fitness tools during my time at TechRadar – I even used to write a fortnightly workout column – and became addicted to the using these devices to track my time, distance and stats. I used to run three or four times a week and do home workouts every day.
That is, until Black Friday, which is a horribly busy time for tech journalists. I was working 12+ hour days, often overnight, and it completely ruined my running schedule. I didn’t exercise at all for several weeks because I didn’t have the time or the energy.
Exercising afterwards was… a mixed bag. It’s hard to build up strength and endurance after losing it so dramatically, and smartwatches have made it that much harder.
Because I was using my smartwatch all the time, I already knew the exact times for my various routes. I knew that my “standard” route, around three different London Underground stations near my home, initially took me 45 minutes, but I had managed to cut that down to an average of 42 minutes and a personal best of 39 minutes .
I knew how much time it would add if I took a warm-up lap in the park, took a different route to the river, or ran to a nearby Heath instead. Each of my regular and beloved routes had their personal best times (PB) anchored in my head.
But after letting my exercise routine fall apart, I didn’t even come close to those moments. My standard route took me around 48 minutes, and even reaching that time felt grueling. It was the same for my other tracks. It was discouraging.
And all the while, the smartwatch strapped to my wrist reminded me of my bad times, how long I had to run, how my heart rate was increasing. The trackers became constant reminders of my poor health. So instead of constantly being insulted, I just stopped running.
Learn to run again
After a few disappointing races in December, I stopped racing or training regularly. I didn’t need to be reminded of my inability to get close to my PB or hit the same number of reps as before.
This, obviously, was something of a Catch-22 situation. I wasn’t running because my timing was horrible. My timings were terrible because I wasn’t running. It was better to avoid it completely.
Every time I even considered going for a run and fired up a smartwatch or fitness tracker it reminded me “you haven’t run in 50, 60, 70 days. You idiot, Tom”.
But then I moved. I strayed from all the routes I had carefully crafted, all the distances etched in my mind and the attached lap times and personal bests faded. I was in a new part of town with no numbers or numbers to worry about.
And so, one sunny day, I did something unthinkable – I just laced up my running shoes, left the house and ran. I didn’t bring my phone or running headphones, especially not my smartwatch. With only a bottle of water and my house keys, I hit the road.
I live quite close to Hyde Park, a large open space in London, and I found myself running around it until, with a shrug, I pulled into one of the tracks that cut it in two.
If you’re familiar with Hyde Park, you’ll know that these tracks aren’t all straight lines – they jut out into open spaces, intersect each other, lead to other winding tracks. I didn’t follow any predetermined direction or track, I just ran where my feet took me.
It was a refreshing trip into nature (well, as natural as it gets for a park in the middle of a metropolis), where my route was dictated by my whim and my music was just the sound of birds and dogs.
When I came back, I had no idea how far I had traveled, nor how long I had traveled. And it was an incredible experience, I lost myself in the sublime feeling of running, the joy of putting one step in front of the other.
How I felt about the race was not quantified by measurements or statistics provided by a wearable gadget, or by comparisons with previous trips, just by how good I felt after the race.
I had an even stronger response going down a nearby channel a week later. I brought my phone this time for the music, but again I ditched the fitness tracker and didn’t time myself.
I don’t know much about the canal I traveled other than that it goes on for miles and miles and miles. And the more I ran from central London through the outskirts of the city, seeing my surroundings change again and again, the more I seemed to enter a timeless state.
It was a adventure – not in the sense that tech brands try to sell gimmicks, showing off fancy GPS that works in the mountains or modes that track your climbing speed. I wasn’t in the wild, I was in Park Royal, but without knowing where I was, how long I had run or how far I had gone, I was detached from all those numbers devoid of sense.
I kept running along the canal, I kept turning around bends to still undiscovered stretches of land, I kept wondering “what’s after this next turn?” ‘what will the next zone look like?’. After being repressed for two years of confinement, my desire to travel has appeared.
After a long time, I reached a threshold. I knew that if I continued, if I continued to see what the channel had in store, I would never want to turn back (I was only supposed to be on my lunch break from work – maybe continue my run without end in this limited amount of time was a bad idea). So I turned around and retraced my steps.
It is for me the pleasure of running. Being lost in the feeling of your feet touching the ground and embracing any path that happens to be graced by your shoes. Forget the silly things like time, distance, and heart rate, metrics that anchor us to the boring realities of exercise, and instead let’s see what the horizon holds.
I don’t think I would be able to have this experience of sublimity if I was using a smartwatch, if I had a device attached to me that was silently screaming ‘you’ve been running for 15 minutes’, ‘you’ve run 1km’. I needed to lose those numbers to get the fun of the track back.
keep an eye on it
I can’t be the only person to feel trapped in his constant need to outdo himself, to make each circuit faster, longer or more efficient than the last. But that distracts from the fun escape of outdoor exercise.
Even if you don’t think your self-comparison is wearing you out, I recommend you try this: take out your smartwatch and drive a route you’ve never traveled before. Don’t worry about times or where you are, run until you get tired, then turn around and come back.
If you have a natural space to run in, that’s fine, but it doesn’t matter. Try to avoid making repeated circuits in the same place – it’s fine if you don’t really know where you’re going (be careful, obviously).
For people who like to measure every step they take, this workout will be a waste. It won’t be on your permanent record – even you won’t know how long you ran, or the distance. Not only are these measures irrelevant, but do not knowing these things is at the heart of this exercise.
Hopefully, by freeing yourself from all those numbers, you’ll find yourself running because you want to to, not because your fitness tracker says you have to. Hope this helps. Otherwise… well, you still learned something about your way of working, and that’s great too.
Running is about escaping your worries, after all, not adding to them. So if you feel like your fitness tracker is doing more harm than good, you need to get rid of it.
Does all of this mean that smartwatches and running watches are bad? Absolutely not, different people work in different ways, and some people like to be tracked and have numbers to put every action in context. And I can’t even guarantee that I’ll never wear these devices again – my job is literally to test the technology, after all.
But when I’m not testing a workout garment, I know what I’m going to do: unclip the strap from the watch, steer me in a new direction, and let the road take me where I’ve never been before.