GPS and Trail Racing = Cheating?

Trail Goat, here. Until last week I never would have considered whether wearing a Garmin Forerunner or other GPS device during a trail race to be cheating. While I still don’t think wearing such a device in a race is cheating unless the race director prohibits such devices, I’m no longer sure that it’s sporting.

So what happened that got me thinking about this? Well, I was walking back from picking up some yummy veggie Indian food for lunch when I caught up with two partners from the office. Not surprising for big city attorneys, they were talking golf. More specifically, they were talking about whether they should purchase range finding devices so they would always know precisely how far their ball was from the hole. Butting into their conversation, I immediately said, “That’s cheating!” They argued that such devices speed up play (less time spent considering distance) and that there weren’t enough distance markers on the courses. I countered that part of the challenge of golf was gauging the distance of the next shot and determining how to play the ball accordingly. I felt that to use such a device removed a judgment call that was vital to the challenge of the sport. Is it any different when one removes some of the vagaries inherent to trail racing?

  • Aren’t there times when you would fuel, drink, or run differently if you knew you were a different distance from an aid station or the finish?
  • Doesn’t seeing pace data make it easier to know if you are on target late in a race when your math starts to get fuzzy?
  • Heck, while we’re at it, is wearing a heart rate monitor any more sporting? Doesn’t it remove, at least in part, the need to determine the nebulous perception that is “effort.”

Let the iRunFar community know what you think about wearing GPS and heart rate devices during trail races.

Special thanks go out to Meissner, DeWitt, Grae, and Loomdog for sharing their great ideas in response to last week’s post on problems with the Montrail Ultra Cup. (check out their ideas)

There are 13 comments

  1. MN Ultra Runner

    I would think that if somebody considered GPS or HRM as cheating, they would have to lump pacers or crews into the same category. I use GPS/HRM frequently, including in races, but don't feel like they've ever given me a competitive advantage. However, as I type this I realize that in Wynn's race this spring there were extreme conditions that none of us had ever raced in before (deep snow). I knew my effort level was correct based on avg HR and nobody else did, so that may have been a competitive advantage. Great topic!

  2. Brian Feldman

    During many races aid stations post their mile marker. Add a watch to the miles posted you can determine your pace.

  3. Blaine Moore

    I don't think that GPS is necessarily cheating for trail races, but I'm still undecided about whether it is cheating for racing at all. In fact, GPS devices are less likely to be cheating on trail races just because fewer of them are sanctioned USATF events.According to USATF Rule 144(2) note 2, wrist chronometers and heart rate monitors are explicitly allowed. However, according to Rule 144(3b), an athlete is not allowed to be rendered assistence by any sort of technological trinket including but not limited to radio transmitters or receivers (or TVs or CD players etc etc) – a GPS device is a sort of receiver and is certainly a miniature computer. Many wrist watches qualify as miniature computers these days.These rules were drafted decades before GPS was even a possibility and the idea behind the rules is to prevent somebody from influencing a race remotely (a coach using a radio to talk to their athlete, for example) – and the only reason that iPods have become such a big thing lately is for safety and insurance reasons.So, since there hasn't been any sort of indication from the sport's governing body, I am going to assume at this point that GPS watches are allowed. Especially on trail races, they can be an important safety device in case you get lost (I've used the find way back to start feature multiple times) and realistically, having a GPS watch isn't really that helpful from an elite competition standpoint. An elite athlete is going to be able to feel a change in pace of 1 second per mile and will be able to tell if the grade changes even as little as 1° – and there are no current GPS technologies that can tell you information that accurately. As Hal Higdon points out, if an athlete is running 5:00/mile but the watch tells him that he's running 4:55 or 5:05 then that's going to affect his race and most likely not in a positive way. Too much information can be as bad as too little.That's one of the main reasons that I prefer to just use my GPS watch as a stop watch while I'm racing and then download the numbers after the fact to analyze.

  4. dogrunner

    I don't bother with a HRM in a race because (a) my race HR is not at all comparable with my training HR, (b) if I have to pay attention to it I'm not paying as much attention as I should to PE (perceived effort) which I find a lot more useful for pacing. I do wear a Garmin 305 GPS thing, but mostly so I have a record of what I did. I don't modify my pace based on it cuz I prefer to go as fast as I think I can sustain, and the dang thing won't tell me that. I have a hard time seeing how it would provide much of an advantage if you know the course well enough already to know how much farther in distance or time you have to go. OTOH, if you don't know the course, it can be handy to know that info (how much longer, pant pant pant… do I have to keep this up :) ) Is that cheating or unsportsmanlike ? I don't think so. What about all those radios to team cars with realtime race info in the Tour de France ? Not THAT seems over the top.

  5. tinger

    Related but unrelated: What about women who want to use a GPS to cheat (or not cheat)? I tried on the new Garmin 405 and even though it looks more like a normal watch and is smaller than the 305, it still doesn't fit small wrists. The watch comes in black, gray, and a less masculine light green color, but the base diameter is still too big for small boned individuals such as myself. Booo!

  6. Grae Van Hooser

    All the responses are excellent and, I think it is already well covered. BUT, I'll add my 2 cents cuz I have an opinion on everything. And since I have been running and biking for 30 years, I've seen it all. Basically, the GPS, HRM, iPOD's, etc., are all electronic toys. Just like DVD players LCD T.V.'s, digital camera's, etc. Do we really need them. No. Do they add to the "quality" of life. No. There just toys and something to spend money on if that's what you choose to spend your money on. Do some of these things make us better athletes? Probably not. Do they make our sport more entertaining? Yes. Is it cheating? Endlessly debatable. The bottom line is, We have to get to the finish line under our own power all on the same route. The toy's we carry don't do it for us. Personally, I don't use a HRM for trail running. To hard to consistently hold a target heart rate. Much more valuable when running on the road or riding a road bike. And as far as I'm concerning, I've been doing this for so long, I know when I'm running hard and when I'm not. I know if I should run easy or easier by the way I feel. I only use a GPS to check my mpm pace if I am running a tempo run or if I am curious about the distance I am running that day. Interestingly, when I starting using a Garmin some years ago for measurement, my previous estimates I used, with my brain, were off by a couple of tenths of a mile, at the most. Like one of the commenters stated above, when you are in a race and have a specific time goal or person you want to beat, it doesn't really matter what your HR is. You run as fast as you can, for as long as you can. You either attain your goal or not. The clock doesn't care what HR zone your in. As far as GPS goes, sure it's probably nice to know when the next aid station is or what pace your running out on the trail. It can be fun and entertaining. But is that "cheating"?, don't think so. Are we better athlete's because all this stuff. No. If that was the case, there wouldn't be all these drug cheats. We could just strap on the newest electronic device and the possibilities would be endless. The Skaggs brothers and T. Krupicka seem to be the hot topic in our sport this summer due to the amazing training and racing they do. Why? because they can. That's why.Genetics lets you run 200 mile weeks, or run Hardrock in 23 hours. I'll bet my bottom dollar these guys don't own a HRM or GPS. Why? they probably don't need to be entertained or waste a bunch of money. They love to run and they just go out and do it.

  7. martine

    he byron.To funny, i end up on your blog today because i was looking for something (google)So your blog looked nice and i sytart to read. Next thing i see you gonna run the transrockies!So see you there!martine from the netherlands http://www.runtodream.nl

  8. AnthonyP

    Bryon – What a great post. Way to stir up a little debate/discussion. For me, I suppose I agree and disagree with some of the other comments. I happen to use a GPS when training as I like to see my mileage, elevation gain, etc.. When racing, it all depends. If I'm doing a 100, I don't use my GPS b/c frankly the battery doesn't last more then 12 hours. For shorter distances, yeah, I use my GPS b/c I'm a numbers freak and like to crunch them after the race. I also like to plot the course on a map so I can use it in a race report or a race preview.So, I suppose the techie in me leads me to use it.

  9. Buzz

    As Blaine basically said, if it's not illegal then it's not cheating. Whatever the rules of the race state is the answer.A more open question might be: is a GPS useful in a trail race?Personally, I can't imagine how a GPS would make my forward progress quicker or easier. I can imagine how it would slow me down however.Even on the big multi-day trail record attempts, where very much unlike races, runners must do all their own navigation and be good at it, I know of no one who uses a GPS:http://adventurerunningblog.comLast month, Andy Skurka and I did the Sierra High Route: 200+ miles, mostly above timberline, mostly off-trail. We created a Route using TOPO! software, but then printed out custom maps and navigated with a compass instead of a GPS.Lastly: GPS actually work really well for some purposes! As soon as I figure out how to use them … :-) I probably will for off-trail multi-day trips.

  10. Travis

    there is a fine line between what could be considered cheating and what is just where technology is now compared to years ago. Is taking salt pills cheating over just grabbing some table salt? Is taking specially formulated sports drinks with scientific ratios cheating over just eating some food and drinking water? I don't think so. At the end of the day its still about how you train. I can't run faster because of this stuff, but I can tweak my performance better by using something that is available to everyone. side note.. I dont use GPS, its a sure fire way for me to trip on a root or rock and end up on my face because I am looking at the device too much.

  11. Anonymous

    you can take this argument much further. Wearing shoes is cheating, for that matter wearing anything at all. I jest. You see the top runners and they go pretty minimal; it is usually the mid packers that are tricked out with fancy kits

Post Your Thoughts