Use Senses Instead of Sensors

Here’s a resolution that will transform you as an athlete more than anything else you could do.

I realize if you were going to set a New Year’s Resolution for your running this year you’ve probably already done it. But as of today you’ve still got 357 days left in the year, so it’s not too late.

This year I encourage you to dedicate yourself to getting your natural human abilities back. Replace your sports watch with yourself.

I’ve been helping runners improve their form since 2002 or so, and what I noticed as sports tech appeared and got more elaborate was that it didn’t help runners improve their form one bit.

What watches and other gadgets measure are simple outcomes—cadence, right/left balance, ground contact and flight time, vertical oscillation–of complex processes.

When those numbers indicate problems, runners are generally unable to get them to change. The information is simply not actionable. And in cases where you do have some control, such as cadence, what you do to make that change is generally different from how a runner who’s never had trouble with that aspect of their gait moves.

Sports tech for running form is only remotely useful as a way of checking whether you have a problem and subsequently whether you’ve solved it.

But you actually don’t need a gadget to tell you that, you can feel it yourself. And the really great thing is that sensory information also functions as a roadmap to recover the ability if it slips—something your Garmin or Runscribe cannot do.

Take the example of cadence (also called stride rate). Your watch gives you a number for this.

But your senses give you an experience of slow vs. fast, experiences like hard, soft, springy, heavy, light, loud, pounding, quiet… You consult your feeling of rhythm, the sensations on the bottoms of your feet, perhaps something about how your legs feel, the sound of your footfalls. You might also feel how well your cadence fits with your speed.

Inevitably you’ll also notice that one foot makes a slightly different sound than the other, spends longer on the ground, involves different leg muscle activation, feels less springy… the possibilities are endless, and all of them build insight into how you’re moving and what could change as part of improving your cadence.

Tell me that doesn’t beat the pants off what your watch can do.

When you improve your form so your cadence improves from 155 to 170, you’ll feel changes in things like springiness, how hard your feet feel, your leg muscle activation, and more. Later, when you notice changes in any of these sensations, you’ll adjust your running accordingly, keeping your cadence in the optimal zone for your speed and getting the real benefits of having an appropriate cadence.

Whereas if you just look at your watch to know if your cadence has dropped, you have none of that information on how to adjust it. Just trying to move your legs faster will be the best you can do.

So getting great at using sensory feedback not only reduces your reliance on your sports watch, it also makes you resilient in a way technology cannot reproduce.

It also makes you a better competitor. Being able to sense your body and internal state—known as interoception—means you’ll be able to make better-informed choices when you’re racing.

I’m not proposing that you drop the tech cold-turkey out of your physical life… though if you were nervous about that, it’s a sign you really need to start working on reducing your dependence.

Instead, I’m going to challenge you bit-by-bit to develop the ability to collect the data your gadgets do using your senses instead.

Take heart rate. That might be an easy one, since we know that people’s assessment of their own effort correlates quite accurately to heart rate. The Borg Scale is a rating of perceived exertion on a scale from 6-20. Add a zero to the number and that’s your heart rate. You can check your watch for feedback—were you right?—so you can fine-tune your ability. Then leave your watch at home.

Or pick anything else that you currently measure with tech. See if you can find a way to start to sense it for yourself. You can use the tech for feedback and then wean off it and let your thinking  turn into feeling, operating on sensation and instinct.

If you’ve ever envied an animal for how beautifully, powerfully and seamlessly it perceives and moves, this is your chance to become such an animal.

Many things concern me deeply about the way technology is taking over our lives, but a key problem is not only does it cause us to lose abilities we once had, but in fact it erases any memory of what we once were able to do.

Right now you might feel tempted to write and tell me about the good things your Fitbit has done for you, your formerly overweight nephew, or your previously frail mother-in-law. That would be missing the point. I’m not trying to argue that you won’t find some of this technology helpful.

But like it or not, how helpful you find it is a pretty good measure of how much you’ve already lost your connection to your body.

As New York Times writer Lindsay Crouse noted in her column about ditching her smartwatch, “Once you outsource your well-being to a device and convert it into a number, it stops being yours. The data stands in for self-awareness. We let a gadget tell us when and how to move, when we’re tired, when we’re hungry.”

It’s time to start addressing that.

To be a runner is to love a challenge and feel a drive to discover what you’re capable of. So de-technologizing your running and reclaiming your birthright of human skill is exactly what you are here to do.

I have some free tools to help you improve your ability to feel what you’re doing. This scan is a great starting place, and this free challenge introduces the key elements of healthy running form by helping you feel them instead of just explaining them.

But also, use your creativity! And take your time. Nothing worth having comes quickly.

4 thoughts on “Use Senses Instead of Sensors”

  1. Yes! I ditched my watch and metronome a few years and have never looked back. Instead of looking at my watch to determine whether I’ve had a “good” run, now I just feel it, and a good-feeling run brings infinitely more joy and satisfaction than a run that my watch tells me was “fast.” Ditching the watch also helped me focus on my true running goals, which in my case having nothing to do with speed and everything to do with how I feel (though I believe Jae when she says a run that feels good is almost certainly going to be accompanied by speed and endurance).

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I’m old enough to remember a world without smartphones, laptops, AI …

    Back then a wristwatch was all you had. But even that could get you into trouble. You cannot beat time and speed is an unfaithful lover. After a period of not running, I’m trying to get into it again. It’s hard, because I’m older. I’m not going to rely on gadgets to get me going again. How and what I feel will determine my running. And some positive thinking, of course, when the old legs are grumpy.

    Thank you for this, Jae.

    • You’re welcome, Johan. Thanks for your comment! I like to think of myself as lucky to be old enough to have experienced the world before smartphones, laptops, etc. I’ve had the good fortune to have experienced an entirely analog way of life. :-).


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