To Track Or Not To Track: How Not Tracking My Runs Made Me A Better Runner

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I’ve been running for almost ten years. I became truly dedicated to it in college, and during that time, I always tracked my runs. I used the Nike+ app, which was suggested to me by an employee at a running store. A sensor was attached to my right running shoe, and the app was integrated with my iPod. I could set running goals by mileage or time, individually or by week or month. Most often, I chose 4-mile runs, and the app would cut into my music every so often to update me on my progress.

One mile complete. Halfway mark. Three miles complete. Half a mile remaining.

It was like having my own J.A.R.V.I.S., without the incredible Stark lifestyle.

If you followed me on social media during this time, you knew all about my running. My miles covered and time spent were automatically shared on my Facebook page, until one too many non-running friends said to me, “Your updates are making me feel super lazy.”

I obsessively tracked my total mileage on my accompanying profile on the Nike+ website. I still have the proud selfie I took on the day I hit 1,000 tracked miles. It was a very big deal. I felt like reaching that milestone solidified my identity as a runner.  And possibly, if I hadn’t had technology tracking my progress in such a consistent way, I wouldn’t have made as much progress. As a relatively new runner, it was incredibly helpful for me to quantify that aspect of my life.

But eventually, tracking my runs started to wear me down. I began placing too much importance on distance and time. If I ran only three miles one day, I genuinely felt bad about it. If I ran a nine-minute mile, I obsessively wondered why I was slower than usual. And if some unexplained malfunction resulted in my run not being tracked and added to my impressive total, I felt like the workout hadn’t even happened. I was counting everything and enjoying nothing.

So one afternoon in early summer, I made the executive decision to leave my iPod behind when I went for my run. It may sound silly, but it was difficult to get out the door. I was deep into my routine, and I’m a creature of habit to begin with. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t confident enough in my running yet. Crazy as it seems, a part of me thought that if I didn’t have the app to keep me constantly updated and measured, I’d suddenly remember I had no business being a runner. Maybe, unencumbered by headphones and sensors, I’d instantly morph back into the middle-school version of myself—the girl who couldn’t make it through even one lap around the track during gym class.

But I forced myself outside and started down the road. The first thing I noticed was the quiet. I had never run without listening to music, and instead of the silence being intimidating, it was beautiful. I could hear my own breath, and that meant I could regulate it. I paced myself according to what my body was telling me, rather than the tempo of whatever song was playing. I heard birds and wind and kids playing and other suburban nonsense. J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn’t there to let me know how far I’d gone, but in the span of just a few minutes, with that uninterrupted quiet in which to think, I realized it didn’t matter how far I’d gone. I’d do a loop around my neighborhood and head home when I felt tired. Nothing bad was going to happen if I only ended up covering three miles, I realized. Three miles was nothing to scoff at. Who did I think I was? Five-years-ago Brittany thought three miles was Mt. Everest! Had I forgotten about her? She wasn’t bogged down by technology. She wasn’t meticulously counting every mile she ran. She was running because it felt good and because she wanted to. I was running because at some point, I’d decided I had to. As though there weren’t enough things in my life I was required to do.

In the quiet, without demanding a certain performance from myself, I remembered what it was like to run because I wanted to, because I liked it. I’d definitely become a better runner over the years of obsessive tracking and pacing, but I’d lost some of the joy and spontaneity I originally loved about running. I had a ton of go-to songs that pushed me through crappy weather or difficult final miles, and I still do, but there’s nothing like the peace I feel when I run without artificial sound—when all I hear is my steady breathing and the world around me.

When my reliable old iPod finally broke, I let my Nike+ sensor die with it. I deleted the app, and with it all my virtual trophies and levels and accomplishments. Now, like the rest of humanity, my music is all on my smartphone, and I do still listen to music or podcasts when I run. My phone tracks mileage for me, but I don’t obsess over it like I used to. And every so often, I run empty-handed, especially when I’m feeling extra anxious or stressed. I need the quiet. I need the reminder of what my body can do, and of how much work I’ve put in. Ten-years-ago Brittany is with me on those runs, marveling at how easily I can do this formerly impossible thing.

To be in the moment, doing something you love, and doing it well, is what running is about for me. Today, I have no idea what my total mileage is. (But it’s definitely a lot—like a very impressive amount.)

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