To know or not to know - "how far have I run?" is the question

February 08, 2018

For such a simple sport, people can really make running complicated. Fancy shoes, performance fabrics, nutrition supplements, and GPS watches all give us opportunities to spend money, while there’s a whole industry devoted to thinking up ever more inventive training regimes.

In training for my first marathon, I’ve had some useful advice from more experienced runners. Ollie suggested protein recovery drinks, which seems to be really helping so far.

One area where people have given conflicting advice is on the subject of GPS watches.

Conroy suggested setting your watch to display the distance in miles, rather than kilometres, so that you get more of a sense of how far you still have to go without needing to do any maths.

Conversely, Jacqueline’s tactic is to turn your watch around so that you can’t see it, so you’re not getting constant reminders of how far you still have to go.

I think I’m with Jacqueline on this one. Data can help us, but it can also conspire with our minds to play tricks on us.

Being aware of your current pace can really help you to improve. If you’re aiming for a new personal best or doing interval training, it’s very useful to know that you need to speed up.

But if you’ve set yourself a target distance, and you keep looking at your watch to see how far you’ve gone, are you motivating yourself, or making it more difficult?

If you’ve ever had a factory job, you’ll know the sensation of clockwatching. You’re bored, and you want time to go quickly, so you keep looking at the clock, but it’s hardly made any progress since the last time you looked. Just as the proverbial watched pot never boils, the more often you check your progress, the less progress you’ll have made. It can be demoralising to see how slowly the miles are ticking over.

For me, clocking up the distance is a challenge. One of the most difficult things about running is persuading myself not to stop. Like having to stop to cross roads, thinking about the distance I’ve done gives me another possible excuse to take a breather, another thing that’s likely to stop me getting into a state of flow where I can forget about the distance and how tired I am.

Rather than aiming for a specific number of miles, I prefer deciding on a destination (that looks on a map to be the right distance away) beforehand, and trying to keep running until I get there. If I don’t think about how far I’ve gone, I can check Strava when I get there, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised at the distance I’ve covered, especially if the route goes along a river or coast. Then again, I’m training for a marathon, so even if I’ve already come a long way, there’s still a long way to go.