Why I Bought The Most Basic Run Tracker I Could Find

The Garmin Forerunner 15, released in 2014, does not connect to your phone, track your sleep, measure your pulse or possess an “intuitive interface”, whatever that means. So why, when all of these features are available for under £100, did a runner in 2021 choose little more than a GPS with some simple calculations built in?

I’m relatively new to running. I started exercising regularly last year when I stopped drinking alcohol. I’ve never been good at relaxing, so there was only so much yoga I could take before madness ensued. My endorphin cravings and restless energy needed an outlet. I’ve always loved to cycle so that got me through the first few months, but I recently moved from a small Scottish island to the big city, where bombing down the back roads and puffing up hills against a bracing Easterly wind are no longer an option.

So one day in November, after a lengthy call with my broadband company’s customer services which achieved exactly nothing, I felt the need to blow off some steam and with no two wheeled vehicles available, I put on my trainers and started running. I switched my Map My Ride app to “Easy Jog” (I didn’t have high expectations) and ran through the park until I felt a bit less like I was going to hijack a boat and sail to Richard Branson’s island and tell him to pull his blooming socks up. I arrived home, bright red and exhilarated, to find I had managed to run 5km (just over 3 miles). It took me about 35 minutes, which at about double my walking speed didn’t sound too bad. And unlike the HIIT, power yoga, Pilates and weights workouts I had taken to in the last few months, it gave me the sense of achievement, adrenaline, fresh air and greenery that I was missing without a bike. It also reminded me how much I love breaking my own records, discovering a new route or going farther or faster than before.

Since then I have started to run about twice a week, weather dependent, and have managed to go a full 5 miles (8km) and lived to tell the tale. I have also shaved a few minutes of my 5k time and am brushing up against the 30 minute 5k mark. I think I could do it, but I’m finding myself slightly hindered by my running companion- my phone. Now, it’s not so much the size or weight of the phone that’s bothering me, although I’d happily lose the awkward pocket to hand to stuffed-up-my-sleeve transitions if I wasn’t so keen to know if I was on pace. It’s the awkwardness of pulling it out of my pocket or bumbag (to any cringing Americans, fannypack sounds WAY worse over here), unlocking it with sweaty fingers and then the added fun of iPhones retreating into their shell and switching off the moment they feel a wee nip in the air. To be honest, I usually need to walk for a few beats to see my distance and pace stats, which is directly at odds with my goal of going further in less time!

Update: Mission accomplished. I glided gazelle-like (read: huffed and puffed) past the 30 minute 5k barrier in a record time of 27:51, a simple glance telling me I was on track, feeling as free as a very red and sweaty bird.

So, after eyeing up the ease with which fellow runners glance at their fitness watch while bounding past me like a neon gazelle, I decided I too should join the ranks who have trotted unencumbered into the 21st century, and venture into the realm of wearable tech. After a quick Google search, I found myself enthralled by slim, LCD touchscreens with multiple activity tracking, bluetooth connectivity and inbuilt Spotify controls. Amazing! Imagine, a watch that can measure your heart rate, change the song and know if you are swimming, running or downward dogging….

…But hold on. The whole point here was that I didn’t really want to take my phone out with me. And my eyes were watering at the price tags… the “budget” options in most best buy lists start at £90. Not what I was hoping to pay for the small convenience of being able to track a run twice a week.

This got me thinking. I recently read the book A Life Less Throwaway by Tara Button (check out my review here if you’re interested). In it the author asks us to question what we can do without while still satisfying our needs. Don’t panic, needs here doesn’t mean limiting ourselves to our basic human requirements for food, water, warmth and shelter, but a more nuanced and personal definition of “what do I need to fulfil my desire for social connection, personal accomplishment and a comfortable and stable lifestyle”. The point being, how many of us possess advanced technology that is surplus to our requirements, accessories for hobbies we aren’t interested in, or information that is actually causing us psychological stress rather than educating us?

Considering the watches again, I thought back to what I was actually looking for and what these so-called “best buy” lists were trying to tell me. If I were to take them at face value, they were saying that as we live in 2021, we should use the newest and most advanced technology available to us. If you can have a watch with an LCD touchscreen display that tracks your sleep and feels as light as a standard wristwatch, why would you choose a clunky old thing that can only connect to stats servers via a USB cable and does little more than what it says on the tin? I have thought a lot about this over the past few years, and am now coming round to the fact that a lot of the time, you can make do with something less advanced and less “intuitive”, and there are a number of ways that this can benefit you as well as the planet.

Why I Bought The Most Basic Run Tracker I Could Find:

Firstly, evidence is mounting to show that round-the-clock pedometers, sleep trackers, calorie counters and heart rate monitors can be a vehicle for compulsive behaviour such as disordered eating, obsessive exercising or anxious, negative thought patterns. I have personally experienced all of these things, and although I have worked hard to distance myself from these isolating, imprisoning experiences, the seed remains in me and will probably always be there. So it is incredibly important that I, and anyone else who is susceptible to such mental health conditions, take a conscious approach not to water the seed and prevent the jagged vine of compulsive behaviour from taking root.

Secondly, I maintain a healthy suspicion of advertising and marketing and its impact on our happiness. In A Life Less Throwaway, the author explains that the function of modern marketing is essentially to make us feel that we are inadequate, and if we just purchase that new diet book, meditation app subscription or high-tech trainers, we will be one step closer to the idealised version of ourselves that the advert has painted in our minds. We already experience this manipulation through social media, online adverts and a near constant onslaught of branding. And through collecting information on us, companies are becoming adept at targeting our own particular insecurities and interests to sell us false hope in the form of products and services we could do without.

How does this tie in with fitness tracking? Imagine waking up from a good 8 hours of sleep feeling rested. You then look at your fitness tracker which says you actually only experienced 4 hours of deep sleep and a significant portion of poor quality restless sleep and suddenly you begin to worry you’re not sleeping as well as you “ought” to be. You begin looking up mattress toppers, supplements and mediation for better sleep quality. Your tracked searches connect with your Instagram feed and start to throw out ads for meditation app subscriptions, blue light blocking glasses and chamomile tea. It sounds sinister and maybe a little paranoid, but the technology is there in terms of capability and it is encouraging us to listen to it rather than our own bodies. Potentially insidious marketing not considered, making healthy people worry about their wellbeing in ways they never considered before is not healthy.

Thirdly, using older tech and keeping it alive means one less item going to landfill or festering in someone’s clutter drawer, it means one less new item bought which lowers demand for new natural resources, and it means you pay a hell of a lot less while knowing that you’re doing your bit for the planet and yourself. My watch cost £16 from second-hand clothing and accessory trading app Vinted- see the picture below for the “budget” trackers recommended by Runner’s World for comparison!

Eeeek! Source: Runnersworld.com

Fourthly, I understand that my requirements for the fitness tracker are very basic. As I mentioned earlier, a big part of running for me is being outside, experiencing the greenery, fresh air and ambience of the outdoors. I may be among the minority when I say I don’t really enjoy listening to music or podcasts as I run. All I want it to do is measure how far I’ve run and how long that takes me. My requirements are not the same as a professional athlete, someone training for a marathon, or someone who is running to achieve an important health goal. However, you can apply the same reasoning I did to determine if you are making the most appropriate purchase for you. Does the item I desire possess features that are surplus to my requirements, might it exacerbate any underlying obsessive tendencies, is there an older model that fulfils my needs that I could perhaps buy second-hand?

Key takeaways:

Lastly, I think it is important to note that having access to a fitness tracker, even the “basic” one I bought, is a privilege and a luxury. What an amazing feat of scientific progress, to create a device smaller than a matchbox that can connect to a constellation of 24 satellites and locate itself to within metres. And then for this to become so commonplace that it is used not just to guide ships on the high seas and inform covert military operations, but for a civilian’s frivolous desire to add achievement and purpose to a healthy hobby. I already have all of the features I need to take advantage of the 21st century’s technological wonders. For me, a novice runner for whom quantitative tracking is a mental health issues, and who can barely sit still for 5 minutes anyway, a tracker that does the bare minimum and does it well is all I need.

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Anna Cuninghame

Anna Cuninghame

Sustainability concepts explained, book reviews and personal experiences that I hope provide a relatable and accessible way to think about our impact on earth.

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