To Garmin or Not to Garmin: My Marathon Dillemma

Something happened to me this winter when I ran my first snowshoe race. It changed with way I think about racing and subsequently running and my running goals in general. It taught me that I can run by effort and perform infinitely better than when I run based on pace. It’s safe to say that prior to this year I’ve been a slave to pace. I’ve lived and died (I’ve felt pretty close to death at the end of some of my marathons) by pace. And it really hasn’t gotten me any closer to my goals.

Garmin or TImex?

Garmin or TImex?

What I realized, careening through knee-deep drifts, in the dark woods on a snowy night was that pace can mean nothing and in that moment it literally meant nothing: I was running a 10:40 pace but it felt like 10K effort, 5K effort at the end. I was working hard and I couldn’t rely on my pace to determine my expectations for the race, I had to rely on what my body felt. I turns out trusting my body was exactly what I needed to do: I finished third female overall.

I took that lesson into my training and haven’t really stressed about pace during this training cycle. I run hard efforts when it is schedule, but probably 60% of my runs (I have no idea if that percentage is accurate) have been around the 9:00/mile pace. Yet, I just ran a 19:45 5K this Saturday.

Running and racing based on effort has unleashed the strength and potential I always knew I had but never seemed to be able to surface. Three out of the four races I’ve run so far this season have been without my Garmin. For the Holy Grail 5K, Red’s 5 Miler and Peeper 5K I wore my Timex Ironman. I’ve used the stopwatch setting and simply took splits at the mile markers. I wore my Garmin for the Eastern States 20 miler but really only took note of splits and didn’t pay that much attention to my pace. I’ve mostly been racing based on effort and feel. And it’s been great.

So with the Sugarloaf Marathon just over a week away I’m facing a dilemma: do I wear my Garmin or just my Timex? There’s part of me that wants to be the purist, to wear the Timex and just run based on effort–to not be a slave to pace. If I eliminate the Garmin then I would be forced to run based on feel, especially when doubt creeps in and I start to eyeball that instantaneous pace.  The other part of me wants to wear the Garmin so that I can race smart, not go out too fast and at least have a record of the run in case there aren’t markers at every mile.

I haven’t decided yet. Some days I lean towards the Timex, others the Garmin. I know I can set my Garmin so that I can’t see instantaneous pace and that’s what I would do if I chose to wear it. But then that purist in me nags that I might just surprise myself if I run completely based on effort and feel–like when I ran my first marathon and my most recent PR (2003 and 2011 both my fastest marathon times). Both were run before I even knew what a Garmin was.

What would you do? Do you wear a Garmin for races? Are there certain races where you don’t wear it?



  1. says

    I always wear it for my full marathons and I was REALLY glad I did for one of them… they “couldn’t find my time” so the only proof I had was my garmin at the finish line. There are times I don’t wear a watch but it’s usually for races that aren’t goal races and more for fun.

    • scanney says

      Oh man! Good thought. That’s never happened to me but I think I’d be relieved if I at least had my time on my watch. Yikes.

    • says

      My goodness, I would be probably in tears if they didn’t find my time after doing a marathon – it’s not like you do those every day right?

  2. Bekah says

    I think all the data on my garmin killed my confidence this weekend and I ‘gave up’ earlier than I should have. I still don’t think I would have been able to run as fast as I wanted to but trying to hold myself back by watching pace at first and then slowly watching the lead on my goal pace tick away was not a great mental addition to the physical game. I think I still want some of the basic data in the future but …
    I also heard a lot of people last week asking runners around them what pace we were running as a group — so If you don’t wear yours I still think you could do that to get check-ins because it can be pretty easy to identify who on the course has a big hulking watch on their wrist.
    Good luck!

    • scanney says

      Haha! The wrist lap-top. I agree with you on the confidence thing. In the past I’ve given up (at the CHAD Half) because suddenly I wasn’t “on pace” for my goal. And I don’t want to do that this time.

    • scanney says

      THanks Karen! I think that I’ve been performing better just trusting my body and ignoring (for the most part) the paces so I may just go with that.

  3. Eric Oberg says

    Sounds like you have adopted heart rate based training! I wear my Garmin on pretty much all my runs- but I pretty much only look at my heart rate. Running based upon heart rate (or effort- perceived or otherwise) has done wonders for my running in just the last 4 months.

    • scanney says

      I don’t have the HR strap for my Garmin, but yes it is basically the same thing and I think that when we rely on that info we perform better just because we are within our training and what our body is capable of, rather than reaching for a potential unrealistic goal OR underperforming because we don’t think we can maintain a certain pace. So glad to hear your running has improved!

      • esveno says

        I would highly recommend a HR strap! It’s proven invaluable in my training. I’ve even got my wife wearing her HR monitor with her Polar watch. But you are right- when you know your body and how it feels you can tell what ‘zone’ you are in without a HR monitor. Congrats on the speedy 5k!

      • esveno says

        Garmin or no Garmin have a great run and be sure to take in the beautiful scenery. I went to school up at Sugarloaf and spent a lot of time running on 27 along the Carrabassett – you are going to have a great race!

  4. Carol says

    Hey Sarah,
    I have run my fastest marathons without looking at my garmin. The marathon I ran a few weeks ago was my first in 2 years after pregnancy and the birth of my son. My training was middle of the road and I didn’t do any of my long runs at marathon goal pace because I ran them with my neighbor who runs the same marathon pace, but never runs 20+ any faster than 30 seconds slower than MGP. Anyway, I was terrified of feeling like death for the last 10k so I used my garmin to make sure I didn’t go out too fast. Your training has been fantastic. I hope you plan on breaking at least 3:20. I know you have that in you, even with New England hills.

    • scanney says

      Carol thanks so much for your encouragement! I know that if I pace myself correctly and take it easy the first half I have the potential to race it in for a really strong finish and potentially surprise the socks off myself:) So I want to do everything I can to set that up:)

  5. says

    I think it is totally up to you! I don’t think I could do a full marathon without my pace, and maybe that is because I am still new-ish to running. But I think over a long distance like that I would go too hard to start and then fall off the pace towards the end. I do think it does come down to how comfortable you are running by feel alone

    • scanney says

      I have the same fears about falling off pace! So you’re not alone and you’re not a “newish” runner lady! You’re doing fantastic and you’re an amazing runner!

  6. says

    That’s tough. Sounds like you’re doing so great running just by effort. But since most of the races you’ve been running without a watch were shorter distances I can see the value in having your Garmin for a marathon so you aren’t tempted to go out too fast. I have the same Garmin and have set it to average pace instead of instantaneous. Maybe that could help? I found that instantaneous was way more stressful (I’m not running my goal pace RIGHT NOW, so I assume I’ve been off pace a lot of the race, when really I haven’t) and it fluctuated a lot so it really messed with my head and effort level. Keeping your Garmin off the pace display screen is a good idea as well. Ultimately you just have to do what’s best for you and feels right and comfortable. Good luck!

  7. says

    I’m a slave to the garmin and after doing some reflection on disappointing races I realized I need to race without it. I’m running my upcoming goal half marathon completely device free and hoping that I surprise myself in the end with my time. Either way I have a feeling the entire race will be more enjoyable since ill be out of my head! I usually don’t race triathlon with a watch and when I haven’t I always run faster than I thought I could! So we’ll see how this half goes and then it’ll be a tough decision to run my next BQ attempt with out it.

    That being said – do the Timex!!

    • scanney says

      I really want to “get out of my head” like you said and run by feel and enjoy the race. I think that if I just trust my body and my training I’ll have my best race. Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. says

    I love the sound of running by feel without my Garmin…but I can’t imagine racing without my Garmin. I like having a pre-race plan and goal check points…I really just like seeing where I am at. I am also a big take it out too fast person and the Garmin actually reminds me to slow down in the beginning and not get too caught up in the race excitement. If you do better I say it is worth a shot…if you husband is going to cheer maybe he can be at a spot in the race where if you decide you want it he can give it to you :)

    • scanney says

      I like to see where I am too and I also feel like I need that reminder to slow down in the beginning.

  9. says

    Sarah, I have honestly never run a race or training run without my Garmin until yesterday’s speed work. I did have the Garmin but set it to only tell me when my .25 mile repeats were done and when the recovery time was done. I had no idea of pace and ran it by effort. I definitely felt like I was running hard but was so surprised to see the splits afterwards. I ran them so much faster than I ever expected but I finished and was able to do all 10 with negative splits. If I had looked at my pace throughout I know I would have held back and not done what I did. This running by effort is foreign and new to me but I will definitely be doing more of it. However, I will probably always run with my Garmin and set it so I can’t see everything but at the end of the day I still love all the numbers and stuff that it gives me. Can’t wait to hear about your Marathon! Good Luck!

    • scanney says

      So glad you were able to run such strong speed work! I think running without a Garmin for track and speed work is essential to learn pacing. Thanks for your encouragement!

  10. says

    I wear my Garmin for most of my races now, but I hardly ever look at it during the race because I know I would slow down if the pace showed I was going faster than I was “supposed to”. Mostly, I just wear it so I instantly know what my finishing time is. For long races though I do check my pace in the very beginning because I think it’s a great tool for that.

    • scanney says

      I agree. I kind of want it to double check my instantaneous pace in the beginning. I don’t want to go out too fast.

  11. says

    Hard to decide! I love seeing the numbers and love how easy it is now that I have a Garmin to tell me the splits at the end of the run. When I just wore a Timex I’d often forget to hit the split button! Sometimes I set the Garmin back to the time of day screen so I’m not looking at it all the time while running or I become obsessed. And there are mile markers at every mile at Sugarloaf. I’ll be up there supporting a few friends and hope to see you there! You will crush it no matter what watch you choose!

    • scanney says

      I kind of leaning towards the garmin at this point because the display is so much bigger than my timex. I do use my timex for splits and it can be hard to see sometimes at a glance. Thanks for the encouragement!

  12. Amanda N says

    I don’t have a gps watch and am glad I don’t because I’m sure I’d be a slave to my goal pace if I did. I think running by feel is one of the best things you can do because it teaches you to listen to your body. You’ve put in some great training, so trust it. Maybe someone cheering for you can hold your garmin in case you want it? Good luck either way :)

    • scanney says

      Thanks so much. I’m working on that trust my training thing. This time I actually feel like I can because I know my training has been super solid.

  13. says

    Wear the Garmin, but only look at the mile splits (auto laps) when they beep. Don’t look at the pace in between. Sometimes that is off anyway. You want to control everything you can control. Knowing where you are is helpful.

  14. says

    To date, majority of my races, (and runs,) have been by feel. I’ve been considering getting a watch, mainly because I can record all the info about my run, without using apps on my phone. Like you, I have concerns though. If I’m wearing a watch, I’d be more tempted to look at it. I’ve come to realize that I enjoy running by feel. It’s much less stressful!!

    I’ve been fortunate to borrow a Garmin, a couple times and I often do what someone suggested above – check the pace, at the mile beeps. I took said watch to try in Boston, but being that I’m not used to it, forgot I needed to “get location,” so it never started. I wore it on my belt, and it really wasn’t much bother. I had actually considered wearing it there anyway, so I wouldn’t be as tempted to look. I don’t know if that would be of any help, but at least you’d have it, if you decided you needed it 😉

    • scanney says

      These are great tips! I think I may wear it that way if I do want it I’m not wasting energy regretting the decision not to wear it.

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