In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford outlines why this might be the case. He uses a reoccurring example in the world of modern pop psychology, the motorcycle, to illustrate this difference.

When riding a motorcycle, there are two different ways of knowing how fast the motorcycle is traveling. The first is experiential. We simply “know” how fast we are going based on a feeling. That feeling comes from years of practice in maneuvering the motorcycle. How it handles, the pressure applied, the speed the world flies by us- these are all details that give us an innate feel for how fast we’re going. On the flip side, we could simply check the speedometer, and this would give us objective knowledge.

The same thing is true when we drive a car. I had a friend in high school that drove an old bug with a broken speedometer. There was no way to actually check his speed, so he had to rely entirely on feel to make sure he didn’t break the speed limit. This individual didn’t receive buckets of speeding tickets, instead he managed to stay under control simply by the feeling of driving. If he had any question, instead of checking his speedometer, he used the traffic going by as a secondary check. When most of us drive, we aren’t constantly checking our speedometer and comparing it to the speed limit signs. Instead, we naturally fall into a rhythm of how far we have to press the gas pedal based on our environmental surroundings and the traffic that is going by us. It’s not as if we consciously decide “Now I need to speed up as I reached a larger road with cars moving faster and to do this I need to push down on the pedal by X amount.”  It occurs. The environment we are in, invites the action. If the traffic speeds or slows, we have a tendency to speed and slow right along with it.

In the world of Ecological Psychology, our surroundings invite actions.

So when we subconsciously see the traffic open up or several cars fly by, there’s a natural pull on us to intuitively step on the gas pedal just a touch more. Our environmental surroundings aren’t simply objects to look at and analyze, they help bias us toward actions. The reason this occurs is the quickness needed to make such decisions. If the route from perception to action was mechanical, we’d have to perceive the object, process it, decide what it was and meant, then decide consciously on what to do about it. That’s a long process. Especially for split second decisions. Instead, we have built in short-cuts where objects invite actions and almost act as signals to automatically choose a certain action.

In his book, Crawford, using his motorcycle example, suggests that relying solely on objective feedback takes drivers outside of their ingrained skilled way of driving. By utilizing the speedometer, this interference effect occurs. Using Ecological psychology, we take ourselves out of this intuitive world where the environment invites action. Instead of simply automatically speeding up or slowing down based on what our environmental surroundings and internal feedback tell us to do, we have to rely on slower objective feedback to do so.

In the driving example, it’s only when we are in danger of speeding, whether it’s seeing a cop in the distance, venturing through a “speed trap” in a small town, or when that anxiety of the entire traffic flow speeding along, that we get taken out of this automatic processing and do a conscious double check on our speedometer.  In other words, only when we sense “danger” or have a touch of stress do we feel the need to double check our intuitive sense.

In essence, as Crawford proclaims, overreliance on a speedometer ‘slackens the bond between perception and action.”
A disconnect is created.

In the land of Running:

Let’s step out of the world of driving and into the world of running.

When we race, we’re relying on split second decisions to pass, cover gaps, find position in a pack, and all around figure our way through a race. When things are clicking, we feel the subtlety of the race. We instantly know when the pace slows by a half second per 200m, a minuscule amount of time in the grand scheme of things. We feel when the runner ahead of us is about to fall part, whether from the pace change or from a smaller clue like his arm swing opening up just a tad. Now we don’t consciously process and sit there and analyze of all of these changes, our body simply picks them out.

And each of these changes that occurs in our environment invites an action.   Research has shown using a variety of sports, that expert or elites in that sport tend to pick up these action possibilities quicker and have a wider range of possibilities. What’s this mean? Rock climbers, for example, notice what cracks or holds in the wall they can fit their hands into quicker, and notice more possibilities. The experts tend to pick out the better path quicker, while novices only see a very generic path to the top of the climb.

So when we are running a race, we want that race to be ingrained. The less decisions that a person has to focus on and make during a race the less amount of mental energy we are expanding on needless choices. Instead, in a perfect world, runners have an innate ability to respond to surges, getting trapped in the back and float their way to a good spot.

When runners shift their focus to splits, you often see them taken out of this intuitive mode. The focus becomes the external. We’ve all seen the athlete who at the 400m mark checks his watch, then instantly slows or speeds up based on that external feedback. Instead of listening to his body and flowing along, he feels the need to take him out of this zone and disconnect.

Along the same lines, a subtler thing you see is the athlete who checks his watch and you see a slight hitch in his stride during that moment. It’s almost as if you can see him processing what that split means and whether to speed or slow. It might be a small thing, but doing this over and over again results in a slight disruption of the athlete’s rhythm throughout the race.

So what’s the point? In a world of GPS watches and gadgets that provide us feedback on everything from miles run to steps taken, remember the point of it. It’s a secondary check, it’s not the governor. Just like the speedometer on your car doesn’t dictate how you drive your car, the gadgetry shouldn’t dictate how you run a workout or race.

When we create an overreliance on this connection or even a reliance on the coach to yell and dictate the race, we introduce disruption.

They take you out of a space that leads to performance; as Crawford elaborated on in his book, disconnect the direct link from perception to action, making it a slower meandering route to get to potentially the same place.



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    1. Kyle Kranz on February 8, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      I like it 🙂 I've been primarily racing without my GPS for the last few years, and I've not tracked a run with a GPS in months. I'll probably start using it or the track when I start doing more specific workouts closer to my next A race, but for now I love going GPS-less 🙂
      My thoughts:

    2. danny on February 9, 2016 at 2:19 am

      reminds me of a flotrack video. cderrick razzin kmerber. the merb responds back, 'i tell the garmin what the split is. it doesn't tell me the split.'

      a fun video.

    3. Robert van Leeuwen on February 12, 2016 at 5:48 pm

      That sounds an awful lot like lydiard.;)

    4. Bennie on February 15, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Thank you Steve. So true and better to take as adventure sometimes. I usually are tooo much into splits and pace in the marathon, but the 3rd attempt after 4 years I intentionally did not follow my watch after the 30km marker. The new program and no "governer" watch approach helped to break my PB from 2:59 to 2:52.

    5. steve_c on February 18, 2016 at 7:52 am

      I am a psychologist so I understand to what this refers. Even so, reliance on feel, affordance and situated actions is good for the here and now, not the future. My body's feel knows nothing about my goal for me to be able to run faster or longer over a twelve-week training program. It doesn't know I plan to run at this speed in two hours' time. It doesn't know I plan to keep running into my sixties.

    6. […] also think running coach Steve Magness had a point when he wrote that running with GPS “slackens the bond between perception and action.” […]

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