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Is your smart watch actually that smart?

One aspect of my Post Graduate Diploma is exercise prescription, as part of this I have to write an exercise program and follow it... Lucky for me I am running a half marathon in October so it only seemed fitting that I write myself a running program.

To track my activity I use my Garmin Fenix watch which is additionally connected to Strava – an app that tracks exercise and incorporates social network features (basically the Facebook of the athletic community). Now Garmin, Strava and I have never been the best of friends; at one-point last year I deleted the apps and didn’t wear my watch for close to a month. Why?

I was over having a computer telling me that I wasn’t working hard enough. Since reinstating our relationship, I have had more than one notification on my Garmin app telling me that I was “detraining” (evidence posted below).

So, what is training status? Garmin’s lead product manager Joe Heike’s states;

“The training status feature pulls information from your VO2 max estimations and your training load data to provide feedback on the effectiveness of your training. Your VO2 max is the maximum rate at which you can deliver oxygen to your exercising muscles and is a measure of aerobic fitness. So, in short the Gamin VO2 max calculation looks at the relationship between your heart rate and pace to determine whether you are getting fitter or not”.

The downside of this is that we can get addicted to these numbers! Last year I found I developed anxiety around these stats, I was focusing on what I wasn’t doing and wondering why my fitness was decreasing. I was training hard and running the fastest I ever had – what was I doing wrong!? In reality I needed to tune into my body – how was I feeling? Quite frankly I was tired lol.

We can’t read too much into the way our watches track our activity, especially heart rate measures. Multiple studies have found error of watch heart rate estimates of up to 8% depending on the intensity of activity. A study in 2017 showed that some watches measured up to only 89% of beats accurately at rest and even less during activity! Another study, which followed the narratives of two elite runners, discussed when their elite athletic identity became threatened by moments of self-perceived failure (such as injury) they turned to disordered eating thoughts and behaviors… This really shows the extreme thought patterns some of us can turn to when we feel, or are told, by a “smart device” that we have failed!

The pressures of social media, and the perception that others could be working harder than ourselves, also has a lot to answer for. A study examining how users of self-tracking technologies and Instagram share representations of optimal health found that gratification was felt when positive feedback is received from the community, which motivated further “healthy” practices and sharing. But, over time, being the object of others’ gaze comes with pressures, which in turn can distract the user from personal goals.

SO, what can you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your watch and socials data? My advice:

  • Take a break – from training, your watch, and social media. DON’T PANIC - you won’t lose your fitness gains. Take two weeks to detox your brain and body, trying some meditation or yoga can help with recovery.

  • Remove the training status widget from your watch – Particularly for Garmin, you can remove it from your watch widget list, so its “not in your face”.

  • If you’re training for an event get help from a professional coach or someone who can tailor a training program from you – remember watch data is an estimate and doesn’t take into account if you’ve had a bad day, if you’re tired/injured or ladies where you are in your menstrual cycle.

  • Remember to have fun – exercise is something we do to feel good and not punish our bodies. Goes without saying but balance is everything, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing…

If in doubt, or you need help with training loads, myself or Rebecca are always up for a chat (it’s what we’re into).


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