Will a running watch make me a better runner?

I don’t think a running watch will make you a better runner. I don’t think you should go out and buy one. I think if you regularly use one it may be time to share a “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and lay it aside for awhile.

But I may be wrong.

A running watch may actually make you a better runner. I don’t know. I have never owned one. My running watch for the past nine years has a been a simple Timex Expedition which I found along the path while out running. And my prejudice might be the cause for my consistently average finish times in ultras instead of faster times. That is why I am submitting my bias against running watches to be challenged.

*I initially wrote this series for a different website, but it was never published. I feel like today is a good idea to start posting it over here! Please leave a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree!


I want to prove myself wrong. I would really love it if I attached an expensive piece of technology to my arm and became a better runner. Everyone views luxury watch owners as more advanced human beings, right? Hey, just putting on a FitBit informs everyone around me that I am health conscious and probably have a more well rounded personality than they have. Or not. Either way, I suppose I owe it to myself, and all those I heckle with my anti-watch sarcasm, an opportunity to face the facts.

So here is my plan. Over the months of May through September I am going to be both training and racing with a running watch. My wife has graciously allowed me to borrow hers (with minimal collateral like my phone, computer, baseball card collection, and birth certificate) and I will be using some key functions on the running watch which my trusty Timex does not have, such as elevation gain, heart rate, pace, etc. I suppose this is up in the air since I really don’t even know what running watches have on them nowadays. In order to truly evaluate these functions I will be focusing solely on that function during the preparation for the next race on the schedule and ignoring any others. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?

I have four races to use as tests cases in order to challenge my Running Watch Intolerance.

• Base Case: 101 Peregrinos. It is a 100+ km race with 3,721 meters of gain which took place in April.

• First Day of Reckoning: In June I will be running the Travesía Integral de Los Montes Aquilianos, a 60 km race with 3227 meters of gain.

• Second Day of Reckoning: In July I will be running the Voyageur 50 mile race with 1230 meters of gain.

• Final Day of Reckoning: In September I will be running the Superior 100 mile race with 6400 meters of gain.

What has happened

Base Case: In April I ran the 101 Peregrinos race. I did all the training in my normal way, namely, time on feet. I trained by doing runs in-between 1-3 hours multiple times a week and a 50 km self-supported run in the mountains a few months before. I didn’t focus on speed or elevation, but just hit the trails in a similar environment as the race. For this training and race there was no watch involved.

On race day I felt good. It was my second year running it and I knew what was coming. Because I didn’t have a watch to tell me my pace I printed out a guide to the distances between aid stations and did calculations in my mind to help me stay on pace.

No watch! I love it

One thing I enjoy about being watch-less is the freedom to listen to my body and set a pace which fits me at that moment. I have a fairly good idea of what my body is doing since I am not constantly looking at numbers on my wrist, but evaluating my breathing, temperature, and stomach.

I also really enjoy the shame free exhilaration of running and feeling fast as I move through the race, even though my actual speed may be less than “fast.” Who cares if I am moving at a minute slower kilometer than training runs if I feel like I am fast and passing others!

No watch! I hate it

After forty-five kilometers the profile of the race moves from undulating trails to consistent elevation gain for twenty-five kilometers. At this point I seemed to come to a crawl, literally. Because I had no way of evaluating my current pace between aid stations, I could tell that I lost incentive to push a little harder. I think it is here a running watch could have encouraged me to push through the weariness. It also would have saved me the mental anguish of trying to do mathematical calculations in my mind while simultaneously trying to convince my body that it would be a bad idea to curl up on the side of the trail and take a nap.

During the heat of the day I could tell that I was struggling more. I would imagine that knowing my heart rate at a given time may help me be more consistent and even slow down a little as I watched it climb. I think. Just guessing on this one at this point.

The race finish is in the dark, at least for all of us who are not elites. A running watch would have been great during these hours. With nothing to really gauge distance and pace except for how many times my running buddy had to kick me in the pants, I lost even more of an incentive to push to the end. Plus, on the nice ones they have some button to push for emergency assistance, right? That would have come in handy…

What’s next

I have finished the race and begun training for the first “Day of Reckoning.” My plan? I am going to replace my Timex with my wife’s Garmin Forerunner 235 and only watch the elevation as I train for the next race. No more of this “time on feet,” distance training, or just running and feeling free. Nope. I am going to be “Seth, the elevation gain, machine.”

I sure hope this works.