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Ask a trail runner why we prefer trails to pavement and we’ll say it’s because there’s something special about being out on the dirt and rocks. We’ll say that it puts us closer to nature; that it’s somehow both more primal and more pure than other running environments.

Are You a “Soul Runner?

So anything that distracts a runner from the purity of the trail running experience has got to be a bad thing, right? For some folks, high tech gadgets like GPS watches and heart rate monitors are an inevitable distraction from the enlightenment and freedom of the trails, and there’s simply no place for them on the run.

Does that mean that those of us who sometimes use technology on the trail are hindering the soulfulness of our running experience?

We All Like Numbers.

The truth is, most of us enjoy having some amount of data about our runs when they’re over. You might not track your run data with the precision of a GPS watch, but there’s a good chance you still track the time you spent running. Or perhaps you already know about how long your normal running routes are, that’s the number you keep track of. (Many runners who don’t keep a formal training log still know approximately how much they run each week.) Or maybe you just keep track of the number of days you run each week. But almost all of us track something about our running.

The most popular high tech running devices simply make more data available to those who want to track more. I’d like to think that the biggest reason we track the numbers is to help keep us healthy and injury-free, so that we’re ready to get out and run again tomorrow. For some people this might mean using their heart rate data to keep from training too hard for too many days in a row. Others might might use their elevation gain data from a GPS watch for extra motivation, to help them run more and get stronger. Having more data makes some people better able to make the right decisions for their own running plans and goals.

Remember Who’s in Charge.

Of course, this all assumes that we’re using our gadgets properly. For example, it’s great if you run with your GPS watch to help you learn more about your pacing, and you use the data afterwards to see how your body performs on certain types of terrain, and adjust your training plans for the coming month. But if you’re if you’re staring at your GPS unit while you run, watching your pace fluctuate with every other step, then you’re probably using it wrong.

Likewise with your heart rate monitor. If having the data will serve your goals, then there’s no reason to feel like using that tool is in any way contrary to the spiritual nature of trail running. But focusing too much on a number on your watch screen, and ignoring how you FEEL while you’re running, isn’t going to benefit you.

It’s even the same with taking your cellphone on a run. If having it with you gives you peace of mind that your spouse or children can reach you in case of an emergency (or vice versa), then that’ll be good because you’ll run more relaxed. But if you’re always glancing at the screen to check your work email or (God forbid!) you actually take calls on the trail, then that’s a bad thing.

In each of these cases, though, the device is neutral. Use it properly and it helps. Use it improperly and it’s a hindrance.

We’re Not So “Tech Free” Anyway.

If we really objected to “high tech” on the trails, the gadgets would only be the start. After all, most of us wear spectacularly high tech shoes when we run, and we sometimes use hydration packs and bottles that have a lot of design work behind them. The gels and fuel we often take on long runs are highly engineered. And the fabrics that make up our running shirts and socks are pretty advanced when you think about it. Heck, isn’t a basic little Timex watch a high tech device, too?

I consider high tech gadgets to be akin to a good pair of running shoes. In my mind, the best shoes are those that I forget I have on — shoes that “disappear” on my feet once I’m running. I might be conscious of them the first few times I have them on, but after the “new gear” excitement and honeymoon period is over, they just become a tool I use to help me get out on the trail safely and comfortably.

The same goes for the times when I run with my GPS watch. I focused on it too much the first few times I used it, but now it just melts into the background.

Simply put, I don’t pay much attention to my shoes or clothes when I run, nor do I pay too much attention to my GPS or heart rate data while I’m running (any data analysis comes only when the run is over).

Be skeptical of anyone who tries to tell you there’s a “right” way to run that applies to every single one of us, or that certain types of technology are inherently inconsistent with the spirit of trail running. As long as you’re in control of whatever technology or gadgets you use, and not the other way around, you’re doing the right thing.