GPS watches and running apps have taken over. But is the technology good for training?



Jerry Macari, a former 2:24 marathoner who is now a running coach in New York, said he thinks his athletes don’t trust him. When he asks his runners to forget their fancy GPS watches and leave the timing to coaches, they ignore him.

“We’re running a 400 meter interval,” said Macari, who heads a training group and running goods store called Urban Athletics. “And then everyone is starting in the starting position with their hand on their Garmin or their Timex. And I say, I’ll time it! And they have such a hard time [with that].”

The starting line at this year’s New York City Marathon on Nov. 3 will likely resemble that of Macari’s 400-meter interval workouts: Many runners’ start position will include their fingers hovering over the “Go” button on their smart watches. New York City marathon coaches and runners are using advanced data to track workout programs and online communities to share them. But while some find the GPS tracking helpful and online communities encouraging, others find the data inaccurate and the newsfeeds distressing.

Ten years ago, many runners sported a Timex Ironman watch, which included stopwatch and interval timer buttons on the sides of its round face. Now, a host of smart watches have usurped Timex: Garmin, Apple Watch, Fit Bit and others track everything from times and intervals to heart rates and running routes. The watches can load apps like Strava or VDOT 02, which track advanced bodily functions, send workouts back to coaches and allow athletes to post workout times to social media feeds. Even runners without watches use GPS apps on their phones.

No available data shows how many runners use GPS watches or apps. However, the vast majority of runners – from casual to competitive – use some version, according to multiple coaches. Macari estimated that 90% of his runners used them, while another coach, Megan Jones of the Dashing Whippets, said she only knew five or six people who didn’t use the watches. Strava did not immediately respond to a request for data on their user growth.

The VDOT 02 app, launched in 2015, is one of many virtual training apps which allows you to train without ever meeting your coach. The app adapted the training plan created by acclaimed running coach Jack Daniels into a virtual form. Launched in 2015, the app allows coaches to send runners workouts and monitor their results, which the app records, said Brian Rosetti, founder of the Run Smart project which runs the VDOT 02 app. Runners can also sign up and browse through hundreds of coaches to train them virtually, or use the data to create their own workout plans.

While the VDOT training program is “sound,” said Macari, its use through an app lowers its effectiveness. For example, Macari said it is always best to have a coach in person administering a workout so coaches can encourage athletes to run faster than the times they’re given.

Even using GPS tracking technology when training with coaches in person can sometimes do more harm than good. Macari said that when his runners obsess over tracking their own data, they end up not focusing enough on their rhythm and technique. “It’s really difficult to have a good training session or race if you’re constantly having to do math equations,” he said.

What’s more, Macari said that because GPS technology often tracks distances inaccurately, runners don’t get correct workout times. Macari manually measures the distances of his workout trails by walking them with a wheel – a painstaking task that sometimes takes an entire day to complete. So Macari knows when Garmin technology is off by even less than a mile, making workout times inaccurate. “They trust the machine more than me,” said Macari of some of his GPS-happy athletes. “I get a little insulted, to tell you the truth.”

Some runners, however, find GPS tracking to be motivating and helpful to their training, even if the data provides slightly inaccurate results. Elvia Negron-Perez, who said she has run marathons in 49 of 50 states using a run-walk method, trains with a Garmin watch because she feels it is more accurate than some other GPS technology. If her Garmin watch is slightly off, it bothers her but doesn’t negatively impact her overall training.

GPS tracking also assists runners who have difficulty pacing themselves. Joel Lowy, program manager for the Galloway NYC group Negron-Perez trains with, said he relies on the GPS tracker on his Apple Watch when he doesn’t have a pace group. “If I didn’t have my watch every five minutes reporting to me my average pace, I’d be messing it up,” said Lowy, who plans to run the NYC Marathon in November, in a phone interview. “I get excited and I run too fast, and then I get tired and I run too slow.”

With the rise in GPS technology also comes a rise in the peer pressure to perform for the data. Jones of the Dashing Whippets said she fractured her tibia during a marathon in Milan after sticking to a training plan that was too intense. “I should’ve taken my recovery more seriously,” she said in a phone interview. “I should’ve listened to my body instead of pressuring myself.”

Jones’ injury illustrates how the constant influx of training data – and the ability to post workout results in apps and newsfeeds – pressures runners into overtraining on recovery days. Strava, for example, provides its own newsfeed where users can share their work results with friends. Jones said multiple runners have told her “I just need to get off Strava” to alleviate the peer pressure they feel from constantly sharing their workouts. Another Dashing Whippets coach, Chris Forti, said he struggles to convince his athletes to take their recovery runs slower, even if those runs won’t rack up as many “likes” on Strava’s newsfeed.

Negron-Perez, however, said her online community of runners helps her through tough workouts. She posts her results to Facebook, often adding selfies and hashtags, and makes sure to comment words of encouragement on friends’ workout results whether fast or slow. “When somebody has a bad day, somebody doesn’t run well, you cheer them on because not every day is a good day,” she said.

Research is slim regarding how online communities impact runners psychologically, said professor and director of the Center of Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas, Dr. Trent Petrie. Generally, Petrie said that he would encourage athletes to continue engaging in online communities if it makes them feel good, and said they should step away if constantly interacting with runners online leaves them stressed and upset.

Regardless of the mixed feelings and lack of research, the GPS trend continues. Said Macari: “People are addicted to their phones, people are addicted to their Garmins and their GPS.”