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“I broke up with my fitness tracker – and this is what happened”

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Jenny Stallard
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Running tracker breakup

What happens when you break-up with your fitness tracker? Writer Jenny Stallard explains why she ditched the GPS, and shares her advice on why you should consider doing the same. 

I’ve been running for over a decade and used to happily pound the pavement with no idea of the distance I covered. I ran because I enjoyed the freedom of it. Three miles (ish) was my usual go-to, and that worked well for me.

Every time I hit the pavement, I’d plan an estimated length for the run ahead. Initially, I would monitor this with a hand-held digital map measurer.

But, as technology developed, I ditched the measurer for Google Maps, which helped me plan runs from the comfort of the sofa. Win-win.

And then I discovered fitness trackers. My tracker app of choice is – well, was– Strava. It records runs, walks, rides – whatever you fancy really, using GPS.

So far, so helpful. I ran to my heart’s content. I used it during my training for a 10k race, and would clock up anything from epic 15-mile running stints to a casual but wonderful 3km jog.

I felt no pressure, no reason to worry and could easily see how far I was going each time I went out. 

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The break-up

It wasn’t a dramatic break-up. We didn’t scream at each other or find out one of us was cheating. But small issues started to build up. Initially, I didn’t mind friends linking to my fitness tracking account. It meant we could see each other’s runs with the intention of supporting one another. Wonderful!

But the trouble started when I began to find it competitive rather than up-lifting.

For me, the comparison when I saw their achievements was self-inflicted or imposed. I didn’t feel like they were showing off, but I did feel like their efforts and achievements were better than mine. But in the ‘happy going up to 5k’ bubble I was in, seeing other people achieve up to 10k on a morning run made me feel deflated and a little like I just wasn’t doing enough. 

I would chastise my 3km efforts after friends posted long runs on the same day. While I was out running, I felt good. But other people’s 7km sprints and 10k strolls sat heavy on my heart long after the endorphins wore off. 

A 2016 study by Marco Wittmann from the University of Oxford highlighted how people’s judgments of themselves are inextricably linked to their perceptions of others. He warned people who are prone to comparing themselves to others should “take the specific social context” into account.

Maybe that was my downfall? I couldn’t separate my run from someone else’s in my mind. It felt like the competition was on – and I was falling behind.

Then came the email that really broke down my relationship with the app: my monthly stats. As well as tracking runs using GPS, the app records your progress and sends a detailed breakdown showing how many days you’ve been ‘active’ for that month.

For me in May, that was a grand total of… two.

And right there, in my inbox, it might as well have said FAIL.

I knew full-well I’d been active for more than two days in May. If I’m not running, I’m walking dogs with friends, doing yoga or going to fitness classes at the gym. But you can’t track these things easily on an app. Sure, I could get a wearable, but I know I’d spend half the spin class staring at it.

So, I began to think perhaps life might be better without my fitness app life partner? I was going to break up with it.

Fitness tracker breakups
Breaking up with fitness trackers can be tricky.

Deleting your fitness app

Deleting the app is not easy. I found myself staring at it on my phone, wondering if I’d regret it. As I committed to finding out exactly howyou delete an app, it taunts me - the option is so hard to find.

Do they do this on purpose? I jumped through so many hoops it was like a workout in itself, and I ended up delaying my first technology-free run in years by ten minutes.

But the more the app thwarts me – a painful password reset, and I was asked no less than three times if I’m sure I want to go – the more I become determined to get rid of it.

A bubble hits my stomach as I realise I’m going to go for a run ‘just because’ – no tracker, no GPS, no way of knowing how far I’m going.

I also wonder if I’ll go further when I’m not being told every time how far I’ve been?

My first run after the break-up

Running with no tracker feels like a form of liberating nudity. As if I’m out in just my sports bra and knickers. I wonder, as I get into the rhythm of the run, why it matters so much to me?

After a few minutes, I realise I’m waiting for a voice to boom out of my running belt to say robotically: “Distance: One kilometre. Split pace.”

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At that moment, the penny dropped. I’ve never cared about my split pace. I’ve never tried to break down faster or slower miles - even when I was marathon or 10k training.

It’s never been about that for me, and, suddenly, a wave of freedom washed over me. I’m running because I like running and that’s that. Nothing more, nothing less.

Two thirds of the way through my technology-free run, I’ve zoned out completely. My mind is blank in the most wonderful way. I feel the physical liberation of leaving the phone at home and am gleeful to run without my belt. I’ve not even brought my keys because my boyfriend is home. It’s just me, pounding the pavement.

I feel the rush of air, the evening sunshine. And I wonder for a second how far I’ve gone – and then I realise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve enjoyed doing some exercise and I shouldn’t worry about how it compares to what anyone else has done.

Another thing that dawns on me is that I would sometimes stop to check the app, then end up checking my messages. Running is supposed to be an escape, but I’ve been allowing the phone to intervene.

And when I finish a run I am so quick to track the run that I even upload it before I have some water or I stretch. But not any more.

When I deleted my favourite fitness tracking app, it said I was welcome back any time. But for now, I’m going to see how things go without it telling me how far I have – or haven’t – gone, and rely on my gut feeling instead.

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Jenny Stallard

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