A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog about how fitness trackers, in general, don’t do a whole lot for us in our big-picture workout pursuits. They can give someone a good ballpark on total calories burned, heart rate,VO2 max, and steps, but they are not always super reliable. That being said, I want to reiterate how I closed then; if you like it, use it. One of the biggest pros of a fitness tracker is its usefulness as an external source of motivation and accountability; I can’t argue with that. However, if you’re reading this, you may be interested in how your tracker can help you run better, faster, or longer. Let’s dive in.

Out of the gate, I should point out that the trackers I wrote about in Part 1 of this tracker talk, namely the Apple Watch, won’t really be our focus here; it fits more of an everyday fitness crowd. That’s well and good, but I want to get a little more run-specific. I want to focus on watches and wearables that are specifically designed for runners, and how they work to improve your run.

Garmin and Fitbit have great watches (Garmin’s Forerunner series and the Fenix 5 Plus, the Fitbit Iconic) that link to Strava or Runkeeper or whatever app you like. These watches have the best GPS capability as well so that your run tracking actually reflects your location and speed accurately. Additionally these trackers have the HR tracking capabilities that you would find on any other fitness tracker. They’re not great, but a good estimate for tracking rate over time as you run.

So why does a GPS watch (or even an Apple Watch or Fitbit matter)? Why would you want one? There are a number of pros and cons, and while I could go on all day both ways, I’ll list the heavy-hitters here.

  • One of the biggest reasons runners invest in high quality running watches (or in this case, even an Apple Watch) is because it allows you to ditch your phone; whether you’re bluetoothing through a watch to wireless headphones or rolling music-less, the GPS equipped watches allow you to track your run, keep up with important notifications if needed, and give you a sense of security keeping you connected as you’re out on a run.

  • One of the biggest reasons you may want to skip the watch: it’s not necessary. While it’s nice to be able to view your running metrics (the depth of which will more than likely correspond with how much you pay for your watch in the first place), you can train effectively without a watch based on your perceived effort. While more information is nice, it’s not necessary, and you certainly don’t want to become reliant on some kind of expensive tool to get a good workout in. Sometimes it’s OK to keep it simple.

  • Finally, one of the reasons you may want to go all in on a running watch is that wearables have been shown to be effective motivators. According to research out of the University of Pennsylvania, fitness trackers and running watches do a really good job of motivating people to get their miles in. Specifically, through these wearables integration with fitness-specific social networks, like Strava, allowing for the formation of a community and competitions (both digitally and out in the real world). They also are a good way to track a “me vs. me” competition, making tracking progress super simple.

So, once again, here’s the bottom line: if you like it, use it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting down and dirty with data and tracking your runs using a cool watch; they really can give you a lot. That said, just take your data from your wrist computer with a grain of salt. It’s just one small tool in your arsenal. Don’t forget the basics and don’t let the numbers run your life. The most important thing is to consistently get your miles in and keep enjoying your training. If a running watch or tracker makes that easier, then go for it.