For years, runners and fitness buffs have been using devices like Fitbit and running watches to track their progress. We thought we’d cracked the formula for getting fitter: simply put more effort in than you did last time, and you’ll end up improving your race times or losing weight. 

But it’s not that simple – and evidence is starting to show that it may actually be a complete waste of time. If our bodies were cars, we would constantly be taking them in for an oil change

The more we exercise, the harder we work out, the greater wear on our bodies. But every once in a while, instead of putting in some higher octane fuel or replacing the transmission fluid with something more powerful, we simply top it up with some new oil and send it on its way.

The idea of exercise as a maintenance process is starting to take hold in the fitness world – and this could be good news for us couch potatoes. “We spend so much time thinking about hitting certain thresholds: five kilometres, 10km, an hour running,” says sports scientist Tom Goom. “But what we should really think about is understanding how our bodies work and how we adapt.” It’s something that many professional athletes already know. 

Just two weeks ago, Mo Farah said he wanted to run a marathon in under 2 hours and 25 minutes – but that no matter how hard he trained, he would never be able to do it because his body just isn’t made for running that fast. He even suggested that, despite his success on the track, he was “designed to be a good marathon runner” instead of a great sprinter.

The bolded part is what’s interesting about the whole thing. I think most people know but don’t acknowledge it: If your goal is just to lose weight, then why are you trying so hard? Just jog 5k every day and eat less food than you expend each week, simple enough, right? Regarding more serious athletes – which is where these more advanced tracking devices come in – you’re expecting the impossible if your body isn’t made for high-intensity exercise or very long distances (e.g., you’re not a cheetah).

Professionals ignoring pace

Running watch-free is beneficial for more than just the casual jogger or weekend warrior. Some professionals also have had success with leaving their watches at home. “I’ve stopped wearing my Garmin watch on my runs, and I just run by feel,” says British distance runner Andy Vernon. 

“It’s made me more relaxed about the whole experience.” It’s paid off, too: last year, this strategy helped him win bronze at the European Championships. For someone to break 90 minutes for the marathon, every second counts – but he says he wouldn’t be able to focus on his running if there was an electronic device tracking him. It’s not only athletes who are jumping on the trend. Data analyst Brad Ray used to run with a GPS watch, and heart rate monitor stuck to his chest – but now runs without them because they were slowing him down.

“I was a slave to the watch,” he says. “You’re spending so much time looking at your wrist, trying to keep within certain [heart rate] thresholds – you can get caught up in that rather than focusing on what really matters.” 

He says knowing how far he has run half an hour after his jog is much more satisfying than seeing how many kilometers he has clocked up. “It’s kind of like mindfulness – you’re not beating yourself up every time you make a mistake, you’re just running.”

The bolded part is really interesting because it shows how the mind can be tricked simply by wearing a watch to run with. If your goal is to beat yourself up about heart rate thresholds, pace, speed etc., then it was probably a good idea to get one of these devices in the first place – because that’s what they’re designed for, after all. But if you just want to run and not get bogged down by how fast or slow your pace is during each week (and even during a run), then I think it makes sense to give these devices a pass.

Examples of athletes who have succeeded without advanced tracking

Nike hasn’t released details of the project yet, but it will be interesting to see how their efforts compare to other sports companies like Garmin, Timex and Adidas that are making strides in this area.

Runner’s World reported that Serena Williams has never worn a watch since her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1995. She has also claimed not to know what her splits were during the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

Katherine Switzer wasn’t wearing a watch when she became the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon in 1967 dressed as an official runner.

Olympic gold medallist Justin Gatlin broke his coach’s watch during a 100m race, which is why he decided to make the switch. “The reason I don’t wear my heart rate monitor now is because it kept falling off at practice, so eventually my coach just took it off.”

Foul play? 

As for whether or not the lack of a monitor will ruin your training or racing? The jury is still out. There are arguments that without a watch, you’re more likely to follow your natural rhythm and run “on feel,” but there’s also little evidence to suggest this can work in practice, especially if you’re training at high intensity.