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By Columnist Ron Byland – USATF, RRCA and Lydiard Certified Running Coach:


Photo Credit: Army Medicine, 2014: Soldiers Running Paces and Styles

Recently, I ran a marathon with a few of the runners I coach. Over the course of the race, many people were talking, questioning and almost arguing with themselves about how far they had run. They also questioned their running pace. Runners need to learn what certain running paces feel like. But is the old school technique of running on a track with a stop watch better than modern GPS tracking devices?

GPS Tracking and Running Pace

I purchased a GPS watch a few years ago to see how they worked. Now I’ll admit it, I am old school and grew up running on a track. So, in my opinion, this is still the best running pace computer available. You learn to run by feel when using a regular stopwatch and running on the track. I see it happen often; many runners don’t have any concept of what their body and mind are telling them and rely solely on devices.

I would say approximately 90% of the runners I train, use some GPS device. Personally, I have never used a phone tracking app while running, but from the data I see as a coach, the app seems less reliable. I like my runners to have the ability to upload their data to my Addaero site. Then I can review the workout results and other vital information provided by the device. This information is a critical part of the training. But I believe a runner needs to learn the feel of running and use the GPS device as a supplement.

Problems with Relying on GPS when Running

A common issue I find with many runners using GPS watches is their ability to follow their running pace is flawed. This flaw is an issue for a few reasons. These are as follows:

Looking down – Firstly, runners wearing these tend to look at their wrist every few steps to make sure they are still on pace. This distraction takes their eyes off of the race course and their surroundings. Runners need to learn to work the tangents on the course. Therefore, if you are always looking down at your GPS, then it is easy to run farther than the actual race distance.

Irregular running pace – Another reason is runners tend to speed up or slow way down when they watch auto-laps at the mile. It takes a few seconds for the GPS clock to even out after each mile. However, I’ll watch runners speed way up as they think they just lost big chunks of time over the first couple 100 yards of a race. Plus, I’ve even seen a group of runners consistently pick up the pace each mile, then debate whose GPS watch was correct. This scenario made for great race entertainment.

Loss of running ability – Lastly, in a short race, I find the GPS device becomes a deterrent to running to the best of your ability. During a short race, many of my runners realise they are running faster than they usually do in training or a longer distance race. After this realisation, they purposely begin to slow down because they don’t believe in themselves and the fact they can push their running pace.

To avoid these problems my suggestion is to start your watch and to then turn it over. Try not to look at the GPS watch and instead, run by feel. You might just surprise yourself.

Advantages of Using GPS when Running

On the flipside, there are several benefits to using a GPS device.  These include:

Records your achievements – First off, you get a pretty accurate record of your mileage and pace. When I coach, I provide the runners with the correct paces to target during various types of workouts throughout their training. These runs include long runs, tempo, intervals, etc. If you do not have access to a local track, then spray paint a ¼ mile mark around the neighbourhood. This option gives you instant access to your data.

Maintains your plan – I like runners to use their GPS device for their long run or race, as it does help keep them honest. How many times have you lined up for a full or half marathon, tapered and raring to go?  The gun goes off, and your race plan goes right out the window. With the use of a GPS device, you have an easier time sticking to your race plan. Thus, you can aim to set a new personal record.

Handy weight loss device – Plus, you can use a GPS device as a weight loss tool. I find they are a good way to keep you on track of reaching goals. For instance, if you go for a three-mile run and your watch states you burned 300+ calories. Then, you are less likely to have that extra large bowl of ice cream after dinner as a reward. Yes, I’m guilty of that!

Learning Your Running Paces

If I turn my attention back to the track, then one of my favourite workouts uses GPS.  To help runners learn the ‘feel’ of running paces, I have them run a few ¼ mile repeats. As they run, they use their GPS watches and dial in on their pace. Once they feel comfortable, they then turn their watch upside down so they resist the urge to look. Next, they see if they can run the same pace just by feel. It is far harder than it sounds.

During this training session, I discuss ‘feel’ with the runner. Paying close attention to their breathing and leg turnover is essential to their progress. Why? Well, if your breathing becomes extremely laboured, then often you are running faster than you think. So you need to focus on how your strides feel and then ask yourself if you are still running with a relaxed cadence.  Does your cadence feel smooth, fast and efficient?

Learning what your running paces feel like becomes crucial because there are a lot of unplanned circumstances that can occur during a race. These incidences can include:

1. Your watch not working at the starting line.

2. The watch battery runs out of charge during the race.

3. GPS signals are interrupted by big city building or other runners.

So to overcome these issues, learn what your paces feel like. Eventually, your running paces will become second nature. Hence, you’ll reduce a lot of race day stress!

Have a great day and I’ll see you on the roads!

Coach Ron


About Our Marathon News and Review Columnist

Ron Byland HeadShotBackground
• USATF, RRCA & Lydiard Certifications
• 25+ Years coaching experience
• 30+ Years of Competitive racing
• Coached runners of all levels from beginner to Olympic caliber runners
• Founder & coach of Minneapolis based Mile To Marathon Run Club

Mile To Marathon Coaching Options

• Customised Personal Training Programs
• Personal One-on-One Training Sessions
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• Corporate Run Programs for 5 to 500 Runners
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• Corporate Speaker

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Disclaimer: The information published in this column are the author’s own professional and personal knowledge, and opinion. This information and opinion are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any manner. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition and consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any nutritional program or exercise program. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on InShape News.

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