Is using a GPS watch in training and racing beneficial or detrimental?

 In Ultramarathons

20140217-170530.jpgThe latest GPS watches can give you an amazing amount of information – from current speed, distance and heart rate to altitude, VO2max and calories burnt – but are they really helping you run faster or train more effectively? Or would you be better of without one?

Training and racing based on speed

Many people have difficulty determining what pace they should run at in both training and racing. Told to run as hard as possible for 60 minutes some have no idea what speed to run at and will consult pacing calculators to work out the “correct” pace based on previous race results. Knowing how to pace yourself over any distance from 400 metres to 100 miles doesn’t come from consulting pace calculators or heart rate zones and monitoring this with a GPS watch as you run.

In a trail ultra your speed may vary from over 20 minutes per kilometre up a steep climb to faster than 4 minutes per kilometre for a quick descent. How do you know as you make that steep ascent if 20 minutes per kilometre pace is too slow or too fast?

Maybe you can look up a pacing table for a grade 3 technical ascent that’s 2 kilometres long at the 40 kilometre mark of a 100 kilometre race with current air temperature of 22 degrees. Oh wait … there’s no such thing!

So how do you know if you are going to fast? Check your heart rate?

Training and racing based by heart rate

I’m not a fan of using heart rate as the basis of determining training intensity as a person’s heart rate can vary greatly from day to day, and even hour to hour. Stress, sleep, fatigue, time of day, temperature and hydration levels all affect heart rate significantly. Basing your training on specific heart rate training zones doesn’t take into account these variables.

Let’s go back to our example of the 2 kilometre climb. If you are running a 100 kilometre ultra (for example) and plan on taking 15 hours, that will mean you need to keep your heart rate low to ensure you can last the distance. Keeping your heart rate at less than 75% of your maximum seems like a sensible approach.

So you set your GPS watch to beep anytime your heart rate gets above 75% of your max. As you start the 2 kilometre climb your heart rate rises until barely a few hundred metres later your watch is beeping at you saying slow down. You look at your pace and see you are doing 20 minutes per kilometre. How much slower can you go? Presuming that your GPS watch knows best you slow down to 30 minutes per kilometre but still your watch beeps. You slow down further so now you are walking about as fast as some one climbing from the South Col on Everest. Is that the best idea?

Could you actually handle a period of time at a higher heart rate knowing that you can recover on the descent? If so how long can you spend with your heart rate high?

These are questions that no watch can answer and you won’t find it in any pacing tables. Relying on heart rate or average speed to monitor your effort in an ultra is not an effective means of monitoring effort.

The ideal GPS watch?

The ideal watch will tell you exactly how fast you should run according to distance, temperature, terrain, stress levels, etcetera. Currently there is no watch on the market that can do this. But there is something that can give you all that information and more. Best news is it’s completely free and everyone has one. It’s called your brain.

Unfortunately your brain takes a bit of training before it can feed you the right information. Like anything, the more training you give it the more accurate it becomes. Good runners can determine exactly what pace they can run any distance at. If told to run 10 minutes as hard as you can off they would go without consulting pacing calculators or heart rate training zones.

How to develop your internal GPS

To increase the accuracy of your brain all you need is a stopwatch.

Spend some time doing intervals, for example 8 x 800 metres aiming to get your times for each rep consistent within a few seconds. Take a time check every 200 metres to keep an eye on how fast you are going.

Another great way is out and back runs. Run 5 minutes out, turn around and try to make it back in 5 minutes, rest and repeat, trying to run the same distance out and still make it back in time. Go too fast early and you won’t make it back in time, go too easy and you’ll make it back with time to spare.

Constantly monitor your perceived rate of exertion during all runs. Pay attention to your breathing rate, assess how your muscles feel, monitor your energy levels and your mental alertness. All these things give you information that you can use to adjust your pace.

This is something that takes time to learn but the more you keep looking at your GPS watch the less you learn to connect with the subtle signals your body is giving you. Come race day it’s such an important skill to know when to back off and when to push hard.

So are GPS watches a waste of money?

There is certainly a place for them and then can definitely help your training. But the information they give you should be combined with the information your body is giving your brain.

Interpreting the body’s signals should be given a much higher priority than the information from your watch. Unfortunately it is hard to learn how to read your body’s signals if you always run by your watch.

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