• Past studies have shown that people who are mentally exhausted will see their performance drop off, such as running performance.
  • New research from the University of Birmingham showed that when receiving regular feedback during a task, people who were mentally fatigued performed just as well as a control group.
  • That means even if you’re mentally taxed before a run, having something like your GPS watch to provide real-time data may help keep your performance in check.

The Great Watch Debate is as old as running itself—or at least as old as watches. Does tracking your pace on the run keep you honest? Or does running watch-less set you free?

According to a recent experiment by researchers at the University of Birmingham, the kind of day you had might help you decide.

Feedback and mental fatigue

Research shows that when you’re mentally fatigued, your physical performance suffers. And let’s face it: these days, between pandemics, wars, 24-hour news cycles, and the stresses of daily living, who’s not mentally fatigued on one run or another?

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The good news is that, according to this University of Birmingham study, receiving feedback as you exercise—like you would from a GPS watch—can help you get more out of what might otherwise be a sub-par performance.

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The subjects in this experiment were split into three groups: control, feedback, and no feedback. The control group performed three tasks. First, they did an endurance test that involved squeezing a force-measuring device as hard as they could once every second for five minutes. Then they watched a documentary about trains. Finally, they repeated the endurance test.

The no-feedback group followed the same protocol, only instead of watching the documentary, they took a mentally fatiguing memory test before they repeated the endurance test. The feedback group also took the memory test, and when they took the second endurance test, they were shown feedback—specifically, how much force they were producing and how that compared to their first test.

As prior research would suggest, the no-feedback group saw their performance decline between the first and second endurance tests due to mental fatigue, while the control group didn’t. Interestingly, the feedback group, who were also mentally fatigued, performed similarly to the control group: their performance didn’t decline.

“When they knew how they were doing, the people in the state of mental fatigue did as well as the people who weren’t in the state of mental fatigue,” said Neil Dallaway, Ph.D., a sports science researcher associated with the University of Birmingham. And while the experiment measured hand-grip strength rather than running performance, Dallaway believes the results are still applicable to runners.

“If you get home from work one day and you are really tired and you’ve got an interval session or a fartlek, you may not do as well,” he said. “So then if you use your watch for the feedback, it could help you perform as well as if you weren’t mentally fatigued.”

Practical feedback

In addition to overcoming mental fatigue, there are other, practical reasons to use watch feedback while you run. When you’re running a workout or a race that doesn’t include mile markers, it’s useful to know how far you’ve run and how far you have to go. Knowing your pace can also help you to self-correct when you’re trying to hit a time goal.

Tony Ruiz, a longtime running coach and competitive masters runner, tells a story about a 5K where he checked his watch at mile 1 and saw he was running considerably slower than his goal pace. “I went, ‘Oh my God,’ and it just kind of woke me up,” he said.

While seeing a slow pace can help you pick things up, you can also use your watch to keep the pace under control. Ruiz advises athletes running half marathons and marathons to check their watch at least once per mile at the start of the race, because going too hard too early can be a recipe for disaster. However, he tells marathoners to pretty much ignore their watch after mile 20.

“If you're running a really good race, by then you already know this,” he said. “But if you're slowing down, let’s say at 21 miles, I’m not sure checking your watch is going to give you any kind of positive feedback.”

Assigning meaning to the data

Fear of “negative feedback” is the reason some runners shy away from their watch, and yet the watch itself is not the problem. “Data can be very helpful. Where it starts becoming an issue is with the meaning that we'’e attaching to what the watch tells us,” Shannon Mulcahy, M.S., a sports psychology consultant, said.

Consider a gas gauge on a car: If the gauge indicates you can drive 30 more miles before you’re out of gas, you’ll use that information to decide when to get gas. You won’t look at it and think, “This drive is going great,” or “I’m a terrible driver.”

Unfortunately, Mulcahy says, runners often fail to look at their watches with the same level of objectivity.

“It's not really problematic if you look at your watch and you're like, ‘I'm running slower than I wanted to,’ and that frustrates you. That’s normal,” she said. “It’s when you see that you're running slower than you wanted, and it all of a sudden goes to, ‘I’m never gonna reach my goal. I’m a terrible runner. What’s the point?’ And we start catastrophizing.”

Giving emotional meaning to your watch data is what can transform it from a useful tool to a run-ruiner.

Making your watch work for you

The ultimate lesson is that your watch is a tool; you just need to figure out how to make it work best for you. There are a lot of options.

One is to use your watch during workouts but not easy runs. This helps keep easy runs easy because, as Mulcahy said, “I don't think we’re very good at looking down and seeing slow paces because, again, we’re deciding that they’re slow.” If you can’t see the pace, you can’t judge it.

Leaving your watch at home on easy days is the simplest option. However, if you like to have the data to share on Strava or for other purposes, you can switch the display so it shows you only distance or time elapsed during the run, not pace.

Another option Mulcahy shared that can help athletes who have trouble staying dispassionate when they see a pace (any pace) on their watch: Change the unit of measure.

“I have a client who is an American, but she lives in Europe. She was trying to train more in kilometers, and she started noticing that she was very analytical during her workout,” said Mulcahy. “There was really little meaning to the data; it was just very instructional.”

Ultimately the goal is to keep emotion at bay and use watch data for what it is: data. Some runners are great at this, and some runners have to find workarounds. But the science says that if you can get into that analytical mind frame, especially when your brain is tired, the data will help.

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