Throw away the stopwatch and become a better runner

Looking at the time every few moments when running can make it seem much longer

Mr O’Riordan


We regret to inform you that you were not successful in your Irish Life Dublin Marathon 2024 lottery application. Please note your lottery entry is non-refundable.

Imagine waking up to this message on a cold November morning, after all the initial hope and shared excitement, as if there weren’t enough warnings already about it being Black Friday. A dream dashed just like that.


The reaction was one of bitter disappointment and then utter frustration – not for me, obviously, but for my younger brother, who had spoken about this lottery entry being his “now or never” chance to run his first marathon. (And more than likely his last.)

By way of some consolation, my advice was there might still be some entry possibilities in the new year, knowing he was genuinely serious about taking on his first marathon, after many years of talking about it. At least that’s how it sounded in the Blue Light Pub in the Dublin Mountains a few weeks back, the city spread out below us in perfect miniature, making any long-distance run appear shorter than it is.

His marathon hopes were a reminder too of the enduring obsession to measure and define almost every run by distance and time: in this case the 26.2 miles and of course the ever-important finishing time. Distance/time or time/distance, it still amazes me how some people simply cannot run without one or the other.

It used to be that even some of the world’s best distance runners were content to glance at the clock on their kitchen wall, head out for whatever training run they had planned, then come back and roughly estimate the time and distance in their head. That’s assuming they even wanted to. They never cared for precision and they know who they are.

John Treacy sometimes trained this way. On a few of our shared runs back in the old days, we would run for about an hour, figure we were going about six-minute mile pace, and he’d say, “sure we’ll put it down as a nine-mile”. (It was always a 10-mile in my diary, hand-written, naturally).

These days it’s more likely the training run counts for nothing unless the precise time and distance are tracked on a GPS stopwatch, including heart-rate, cadence and calories burned, etc, before uploading the data for public inspection on Strava, and recording it on an Excel spreadsheet. And then not forget to post the route on Instagram (emojis optional).

This increasingly irresistible lure of running data became all the rage during the Covid lockdowns, when many running events, including the Dublin Marathon, were transmogrified into anonymous encounters of the virtual space.

Because there was no one else there running alongside you, sharing in the existential qualities of it all, did that run even exist if not shared via the Garmin Forerunner? If a runner falls in the forest and no one is around to hear them, do they even make a sound?

Last weekend The New York Times ran a feature under the headline: Walking vs running: We know they are both good for you, but is there much of a difference?

“If you can nudge even part of your walk into a run, it offers many of the same physical and mental benefits in far less time” – which was surely stating the obvious, even without any defined distance.

“For many people first starting out, running at any pace – even a slow jog – will make your heart and lungs work harder… That might suggest that running is twice as good as walking.”

These aren’t the kind of runners who would be too bothered with any running data to begin with and the New York Times also carried a feature recently explaining why some elite runners are throwing away their stopwatch too, at least the GPS models, and believe they are better runners because of it.

It quotes Notre Dame/University of Tennessee runner Dylan Jacobs, who dabbled with all such devices that many of his teammates considered indispensable.

“The runs just felt so much longer,” said Jacobs, a three-time NCAA champion who recently turned pro. “That was one of my main problems with it. I wasn’t enjoying myself or looking around. Instead, I was kind of looking at the watch every quarter mile to see how much longer I had left.”

On those rare occasions when Jacobs succumbed to peer pressure and slapped a GPS watch around his wrist, he almost immediately remembered why he had resisted the temptation in the first place: “I like to focus more on the feel of everything and not worry too much about the time,” Jacobs said.

Other elite runners have found this smorgasbord of data is becoming more of a hindrance than any help, to the point some don’t wear a stopwatch at all anymore. For Heather MacLean, an Olympic 1,500m runner, part of the problem was just remembering to charge her GPS stopwatch.

“I hated that every run I went on, I felt like I had to check my pace and my distance and whatever else. So I just decided that I was going to lay off it for a while and switch to a regular watch.”

It helps that her coach Mark Coogan an old-school New Englander in his way of thinking too, has long prioritised effort over pace, and MacLean records her training in minutes rather than in miles.

Another elite runner, Sam Prakel, the reigning US indoor champion in the 1,500m and 3,000m, has gone down the old way of thinking too: “I just started running too fast on all my runs,” Prakel said of his GPS days, “and it became harder to recover from them because I was so focused on my pace. I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t good for me.”

Some runners of my vintage will prefer to not know how fast or how far they are running anymore, for perhaps different reasons entirely, when all they really need to know is how they feel at that given time (a vintage Casio sufficing here incidentally).

Still, running a first marathon is an understandably daunting prospect for my brother, given the natural obsession with the distance and the time and the pace. Maybe the best way to ensure he gets the right measure of all that is to run it alongside him myself.