Readers Roundtable: Racing and Watches

imageWatches and racing. It seems like something so simple, but deciding whether to wear one, which one to wear, and what setting to put it on if you choose one with multiple settings can be a maddening process! As my husband prepped his race-day gear for his annual half marathon this weekend, he asked me what watch he should wear. We looked at the old Garmin, the new Garmin, the Timex, and considered whether he needed a watch at all. We went around and around considering all the options and he wasn’t even racing it competitively!

I know every time I race, I go through this same process. I’ve tried different things, but still don’t feel settled on what works best for me. I often feel like Iย needย a watch, although is that even true? How does a having a watch help us race better? Might it prevent us from racing our best? Anyway, before I go down a hole, I’ll just ask you:

Do you ever race without a watch? If not, could you?

And if you race with a watch, do you go old-school withย simple stopwatch or are you all about the GPS. Lastly, if you use your GPS, what display settings do you use for race day?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I’ve run my best races when I forgot to bring my Garmin. Literally! I PR’d! By a lot! My takeaway from that is that the watch actually holds me back; if I see PR pace on the watch I panic and back off!

    Unfortunately, I am too neurotic to make the conscious decision to race without a Garmin…but I’ve been practicing running by effort and the last few races I ran (as workouts) barely looked at my watch at all. I still met my goals. So I the Garmin data is most useful for post-race anaysis. I don’t think that knowing my supposed “current lap pace” or whatever has much value during the race; if I’m honest with myself, I can always tell if I’ve started too fast and need to back off, or if I need to kick it up a notch, or whatever…

  2. I always run by feel when I’m training anyway (a leftover from years of not wearing a watch), so it really depends on the race. Most of the time when training and racing I’ll set the Garmin going (I use the 220), but leave the display on the time so the only feedback I get is that happy chirrup to say which mile I’ve just done and the time it took to run it. It’s meant I’m a lot more comfortable identifying good vs bad days, what paces that means, and when and how hard I can push without being a slave to the GPS gods.
    The only times I have used the Garmin actually displaying the pacing is when I’ve been going for a very specific time in a race I know well and have run before (my local 10k and hometown half marathon), and even then I barely looked – it was more a kind of quick check that everything was still matching up i.e. “I think I’m running at 8min/mile [glance at watch] yup, all good and feeling fly” [goes back to enjoying the race and having a fantastic morning out].
    It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me to be that dialled in to what my body is telling me, and has kept me (mostly) injury free because I’ve been able to tell the difference between needing to say “shut up, legs” and “oh dear, that’s not meant to happen, let’s take the nice easy shortcut home for some quality time with frozen peas and the foam roller”.

    1. I wear a plain-old timex and use it just to get an idea of my splits, so kind of the same thing, but reliant on the accuracy of mile markers which … well, might not be wise. The one thing that I find can be an issue with the stopwatch is that I start calculating how much time I have left and then can start looking at it every few seconds as I get antsy to finish!

  3. I like to race with a watch. It means I’m following the plan. That said, my best 5ks have all come without a watch. I think I have a hard time understanding what my body is capable for speedy efforts. When I go by feel, things just go faster.

    1. I notice I pay more attention to stuff outside of my head, like passing people and getting to this or that landmark ahead when I don’t have a watch. I’ve also had a couple of great shorter races without one. But it’s so hard not to take it! A watch is a crutch!

  4. I wish I could race without a watch, but I know I’d go out too fast and die in the later miles if I wasn’t keeping an eye on pace! I have a Garmin 220 and during a race I have it showing distance, pace and overall time.

  5. I prefer to race with a watch (Garmin Forerunner 10) because I use it to minimize going out too fast (I still do, but not as much), but I’m capable of racing by feel. After a few miles, I settle in and run by feel and only use the watch to do occasional checks to make sure I’m not slowing down too much in the middle.

  6. Oh gosh … It really depends on the race, the distance, my goals, etc. whether I’m even wearing a watch, what kind of watch, and which functions I’m using. In general, I don’t rely on GPS-derived data to give me anything more than ballpark accuracy. I tend to use a watch primarily to keep me in check at the start of the race and to keep me focused (not slacking) in the not-quite-final stages before the end is truly in sight.

  7. I can’t imagine racing without a watch because I never have! I don’t like the idea of not knowing how I’m doing. My current dilemma is finding a watch that will last 10+ hours.

  8. I’ve found over time that my best races come where I can only see the overall race time (which, obviously a simple timex stopwatch could do), or overall time and Overall average pace. I like to have my watch on me for the data later (nerd), but really it comes down to just having the bare minimum of data while actually running. I drive myself nuts if I can see current pace, lap pace or whatever- at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if I ran a XX:XX at mile 20…what matters is the average of those 20, what time the clock as it and how much longer I need until the finish.

    1. I wish I could behave and leave it alone, but I find when I get bored or tired I want to see what I’m doing so I change the screen. It seems so silly, but I CANNOT help it! If it’s there I’ll look.

  9. I raced once without a watch and it was a disaster – I felt like I had no idea where I was in the race and how fast/slow I was going (an ultra with what felt like zero distance reference points). I use my watch strategically now. For races shorter than a half I have the pace and distance showing the entire race. Any longer, and I set a point where I change the display from average pace to mileage – for a marathon, that’s usually at mile 20, like a reward for staying strong the entire 20 miles and can now use the distance to count down how long I have to hurt for.

  10. I am a nut about my Garmin, but keep telling myself I need to try a race without one to see if it would make a difference for me. Race day watch drama always seems to happen for me- GPS signal probs, finding my watch didn’t charge the night before, forgetting to start it… so half the time the watch is giving me wrong info because of all of that!

  11. It’s so funny. I know I will likely race better without one, but I feel a little panicky at the thought of not wearing it. Seems like a common reaction. Interesting!

  12. As a new runner I just had a Timex but went to a Garmin before my third marathon. Since then I’ve run one race without my watch and it was a hot mess. I set a mile PR in the first mile of a 5k, then ran the next two miles each a full minute slower. (Even worse, that was my 5k PR for years.) I wear it to race, and I look at it, but I’ve conditioned myself to not fret about it. I go by feel, and use the watch to help me make adjustments. Since I do mostly heart rate-based training, I have a pretty good idea of how the different effort levels feel. You have to trust your body more than the watch!

  13. I never run with a GPS. I have one, but have maybe used it 2-3 times over the 5 years I’ve owned it, and that was for long runs in an unknown area. Racing with a watch- it depends. Shorter races, I sometimes wear it to check my mile splits, but generally just like to race. Longer races (10 miles and up) I usually wear a watch so I can try to run an even race, but my 2 fastest marathons I actually ran without checking my splits, so maybe that should teach me something!

  14. Great and timely topic! I used to only wear my watch (Timex and GPS) only during workouts and races as workouts but for yesterday’s race I decided at the last minute to wear my GPS and it was the best decision I made. Had I not worn it and still started to fade from the 3:35 pace group around 5 miles, I would’ve assumed my day was over and slogged an even slower death than I did. It was so helpful to see that I could slow to 8:20s-8:30s for longer than I thought I would be able to and feel ok.

    It’s funny because my typical black and white thinking used to see this as an either/or issue but all of your responses and my experience yesterday proves that the answer just depends! For 5k and under, it seems more fun to race without a watch. But I can now see how it would be helpful to use one (carefully) in a longer distance race. Plus, if the pace groups stink, you can have your watch be your backup! Makes me not so anxious about pace groups now, too.

  15. Since December, in this recent return to running I’ve raced with my Garmin (like Barley, I’m a data and number nerd) – although when racing shorter stuff I just have a timer going. If I have time to look and interpret splits while running I can run faster! However, as a relative newb I find it helpful in longer races to have my pace on the screen so I know that I’m putting forth a good effort + also an effort that I know I can sustain! Maybe one day I’ll be brave and go sans GPS … maybe a 2017 goal?!

  16. If I’m racing seriously, I always wear my Garmin. I usually write my splits (by elapsed time) on my arm and then click off a lap every time I hit a mile marker (I turn off the auto lap feature). I always have the display set to overall elapsed time and lap pace so I know how I’m doing overall and whether I need to pick it up or pull it back during the specific mile. I would actually like to try racing without a watch altogether — when I ran Chicago last year the splits on my arm smudged so I mostly ran by feel — and I got a 17-minute PR. But, like many others here, I’d be kind of nervous to leave it at home during a race that matters to me.