Why You Should Unplug on Your Next Trail Run

Want to up your training? Leave your headphones and gadgets at home.

I was about 12 miles into the Stagecoach Line Ultra in Flagstaff, Arizona, when a fellow runner trotted past me with big, poofy headphones over his noggin. They seemed so out of place on a run up the side of Humphrey’s Peak, which was in primo fall-foliage season, complete with aspens lining the Arizona trail. Only a few minutes went by before I watched the same set of headphones bounce right by a turn marker.

I stopped and yelled a few times, but the runner was out of earshot and distracted from the trail, the changing leaves, and most importantly, the voice screaming at him to turn around. So I geared up to a sprinter’s pace and chased him down the wrong trail. It wasn’t until I could almost touch him that he finally heard me and realized how off-course both of us were. Those headphones added nearly a mile to our run.

When it comes to running tech, you can find anything you want in the $5 billion industry. From everyday GPS watches and heart rate monitors to heads-up-display sunglasses and smart pants, there’s a tech-savvy version of every piece of gear. These tools and gadgets are all designed to help you run faster with better form, pace, and stride—but sometimes it’s best to get back to running’s roots. If you find yourself tuning out nature or obsessing over a bunch of numbers and data, it’s time to hit the trails to the rhythm of your feet, lungs, and natural surroundings.

I spoke with Miles to Go Endurance head coach Ryan Knapp and ultrarunner and coach Tommy “Rivs” Puzey to get their advice on the perks of ditching technology.

Photo: Billy Hafferty

Removing Distractions Lets You Focus on Your Goals

You’d be hard-pressed to find a successful runner or coach who doesn’t train with a specific purpose. But distractions make it tough to focus on your goal. One study, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2004, suggests working out with music may help your mental game at the beginning of a run, but it won’t actually improve your performance throughout it. “If you’re in the middle of a hard workout, you need to focus on what it feels like to push yourself,” Knapp tells Trail Run Project. “Focus on breathing, relaxing the shoulders, keeping good form, and checking in with how you feel.”

Knapp also emphasizes the importance of knowing, not only what to do on each training day, but also why you’re doing it. Are you sprinting for speed? Logging distance? Or keeping your muscles loose on a recovery run? “Training without a purpose is just exercising,” he says.

Less Tech Means Fewer Pauses—and a Higher Heart Rate

For the most part, the jury is still out on the effects of stopping in the middle of a long run. And don’t get me wrong, it won’t stop me from dropping hearts all over your gorgeously-timed, mid-stride Instagram post. But let’s remember that, at its core, the purpose of a long run is to increase your cardiac capacity. Once you stop running, your heart rate starts to drop, giving your heart a rest while you’re training to keep it pumping. A quick stop for a loose shoelace or red light may not be avoidable (please do not run out into traffic with your shoes untied), but stopping to set up for a photoshoot could kill the benefits of your long-run training.

Ditching the Numbers Lets You Listen to Your Body

It’s always nice to go back at the end of the run and see some stats and distances. But your body can actually benefit from training without the distraction of a clock telling you you’re running too fast or too slow. As counterintuitive as it may sound, focusing on how you feel instead of time may help you push your limits. And on race day, toeing that starting line naked of tech could be the invigorating revelation you need to bust through to the next level. Writer Jen Miller sums it up well in an article for Runner’s World: “Checking your pace, distance, and heart rate every few minutes means you’re focusing more on numbers than on your body’s cues.”

The feedback loop of metrics should start in your mind and body; don’t let numbers on the screen tell you how you’re feeling. Both Coach Knapp and Puzey agree that runners stuck in a rut, plateauing, or recovering from an injury can often benefit from runs assigned according to feel. So take the time to go out and enjoy a workout based strictly on however long and at whatever pace it feels good to run.


1 Comment