Discipline and the GPS

Have you gone out for a run and spent time thinking about what you might title the activity on Strava when you’re done? Have you run up a hill a little harder than usual to see if you can get a Strava segment record or personal-best time? Or what about checking in after uploading a run to see how many kudos you’ve earned? It’s okay, we’re all friends here and can be honest with each other.

GPS watches and social media applications have given us great opportunities to track training and connect with each other in new ways, but these tools come with their own set of drawbacks for users. In order to understand the potential negative impact of social media-based training systems, I will outline a few aspects of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on discipline, power, and the body.

In 1977, Foucault argued that a society of discipline had developed in the last two centuries, and disciplinary processes have been created to promote docility and a lack of human individuality in our society (1). These disciplinary methods aim to turn people into machines. In this way, people are standardized, individual complexity is stifled, and freedom is lost in favor of conformity.

Foucault used the concept of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon as the ultimate example of discipline and docility. The panopticon is a theoretical prison concept that leverages constant visibility as a method of disciplining prisoners and controlling power dynamics. As Foucault explains, “The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately…. [The prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. (1)” At any given moment, the prisoner held within the panopticon knows they are visible to the guards, but at the same time they are unable to verify the surveillance because they cannot see the guards from their position. This feeling of constant surveillance creates docile prisoners who will all act uniformly and conform to the prison system.

Now think back to all of those times you have considered your online audience while out on a run. Think about how you may have changed your training plan a little bit in order to garner more likes or views. The concept of the panopticon and its surveillance has striking similarities to social media. Users are aware that others may be viewing their data, and that feeling of surveillance can influence the way they act. The changes may be subtle, like making an easy run a little faster than normal because you don’t want to look “slow” online, but those changes can add up. Little by little, a user’s behavior is modified to be more accepted and more “normal” within this online society. Eventually, the freedom to run and make judgments based on how your body really feels can be stifled.

As I have tried to reinforce in previous articles (such as on when to change the plan and the seven-day training paradigm, among others), our bodies are not machines! We are all unique individuals, and our bodies react to running and life in different ways. You know those days when you feel terrible and your run isn’t impressive enough to get a bunch of kudos? Those days are important too. Improvement is not linear. So what can we do to take back our bodies from the panopticon of social media and develop our own training freedom?

Start Small: Avoid Checking Your Pace Mid-Run

I have a habit of checking my pace during runs. It is easy to take a quick glance down and see how fast or slow I might be going. A lot of times I will put in a little more effort when I feel like I should be running faster. In that moment, I am letting the computer on my wrist dictate my training. To combat that influence, I like to switch my watch to the time-of-day screen while I’m out running. This stops me from checking in so frequently and allows me to run more by feel.

Go Further: Occasionally Leave the Watch at Home 

I have a few different 30- to 60-minute runs that I can basically do with my eyes closed. These are my less glamorous runs. They might not be as impressive as a high-altitude long run or a speed workout, but they are important nonetheless. These runs are a great opportunity to leave the GPS watch at home entirely. The freedom of zero accountability to pace or exact time can be a great addition to the weekly schedule.

Bigger Change: Start an Offline Running Log

Strava can be a great tool to track your running progress and keep a log of your activities, but it doesn’t mean that you have to log everything you do on the platform. Consider starting up an old-school training log. You can still keep a detailed log if you want, but the simple notebook and pen are really all you need. Obviously this method will take the social aspects out of training, but for many people, this can be a much better option. It can take away the pressure you feel to perform each day for the audience that follows you online.

There is no getting around the fact that we now live in society that encourages us to share what we do. Many of our actions are broadcast for the world to see by way of social media and the computer in our pockets. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, but realizing the impact this constant sharing has on our lives is an important step toward embracing our individuality. Just because you see your friends or professional runners training in a certain way does not always mean that is the best option for you. Each of us is unique, and that uniqueness deserves more kudos than any run posted online.

Call for Comments 

  • Do you catch yourself modifying the way you run so that it will look a certain way on social media later on?
  • How do you balance posting on social media and making sure you run in a way that’s healthy and sustainable for you?

Reference

  1. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Random House.
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He's a graduate student pursuing his master's in Sport Coaching at the University of Denver. On the trails, Alex has won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile; he holds the supported Nolan’s 14 record; and he's fallen on his face roughly a million times. He's supported by SCOTT Running and Honey Stinger.

There are 24 comments

  1. Wayne

    Great article Alex! I heard the term “flow robber” on a Mario Fraioli podcast in reference to a watch and it really stuck with me. The watch does rob you of the natural flowing feeling of running sometimes. I miss manually entering my time/distances in a log book. I think I will start that back up. I do get wrapped up in posting on social media after I run and have cut way back. Having all the extra data is fun but sometimes you can become obsessed.

  2. SVH

    Great article. I would love to see a study comparing the relative ‘happiness’ of runners who use strava versus those who don’t. I suspect we can guess what the outcome would be.

  3. Mark "Horsecow" Lonac

    Thanks for an interesting article. I have never signed up for Strava or any online training log and probably never will, and I’ve bought the same red running log for 20 or 21 years dating back to my sophomore year of high school. I like the tradition, but I can definitely see some advantages to the online platforms that extend beyond the social aspects…If I repeat a workout 6 or 8 years after a previous time of doing that workout, it can take quite some time to locate it in a previous logbook to see how I did. I imagine the features of Strava and other platforms make it much easier to locate a specific previous workout, e.g. through naming, filters, etc. It also takes me extra time out of my day to calculate weekly, monthly, and yearly mileages, and mileages on certain pairs of shoes…and I imagine Strava does that for you.

    As Alex says in this article, it is strangely liberating to not wear a watch on a run. My wife and I drove up to a lake to paddleboard, and I wanted to get a short run in, realized I had forgotten my GPS and said oh well, I know this trail is roughly 4 miles…who really cares how fast I run it today. And it was really nice.

    On the flip side, to combat that tendency to want to run a little faster on the easy days, I’ve found a GPS watch can be useful because I can set like a target pace range. Currently I’m training for a flat rail trail 100 and I want to dial in around 8:30 pace, so on a training run I might say I need to do this 10 miler at 8:20 – 8:40 pace, and if I see on the watch I’m below 8:20 pace, then I can deliberately Slow Down to stay within that target range.

    Pros & cons…like so many things in life. Happy trail everyone.

  4. Aaron Stewart

    Hey,

    it is appropriate to compare a theoretical system of prison, based on inherent moral wrongness to using a GPS/Strava to run?

    Given the nature of a surveillance panopticon, leading to a society where people are inherently obedient because they think someone is always watching…

    I just don’t see how you can justify this comparison.

    I am all for the use of philosophy with running, but this is close to passing the pale.

    1. Alex Nichols

      Hey Aaron,

      I definitely understand your position. I am fortunate to have a couple of Foucault scholars as professors, and this article was inspired by their work “Discipline and punish in the weight room” which you can read here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271935971_Discipline_and_punish_in_the_weight_room.

      Honestly, their work does a much better job explaining Foucault than I did here. I would recommend giving it a read for a more thorough explanation of discipline, the panopticon metaphor, and how it relates to sport.

    2. Dr. Brian Gearity

      I’m one of said professors…but let me pose to Aaron–what’s wrong with the comparison? And, be specific, please. I wonder if it simply strikes you as novel, but not absurd.

      I would pose that our US criminal justice system has made many errors of the years, such as mass incarceration and for petty, non-violent crimes, and laws, sentencing, and the practices within the prisons have changed over time. I say this as counter evidence to your point about “inherent moral wrongness.”

      More importantly I think, we don’t question the comparison that the body is a machine and often assume this is at least somewhat accurate or useful. So, why not use another comparison such as how training can use practices similar to the prison system?

      For a bit more context on Foucault’s work, although he wrote at length about the prison system, he also showed how the industrial revolution and capitalism’s imperative for productivity resulted in the panopticon (and other disciplinary practices) across numerous institutions such as factories, hospitals, and schools. Like others before us, we’ve simply extended the comparison to sport.

      1. Sam Robinson

        Provocative articles, Brian and Alex. Really enjoyed them. My rudimentary understanding of Foucault is that technologies of surveillance were implemented to assist the burgeoning modern state as it tried to deal with new problems of growing populations and industrialization. But the state isn’t at the center of technologies like Strava (at least in the US, China is another story), rather it’s private tech firms pulling the surveillance strings of social-media data.

        And while Strava is a deep extension into our physical lives, these surveillance technologies are in the service of capital, which suck up vast quantities of biometric data to be leveraged into products that help bring a return on investment. We’re still disciplining ourselves, but it seems like our master is the market. And as we orient our bodies, the agent of that discipline is so defuse, so ubiquitous. Everyone is both prisoner and prison guard.

        So, I wonder if the metaphor of the panopticon begins to breakdown here. Unlike the prisoners subject to the panoptic gaze, we prisoner-runners being surveilled on Strava are able to see everyone else. We’re all monitoring each other as a hive mob, side-eyeing each other’s data in a constant dance of performative discipline.

        It makes me wonder about how this impacts other dynamics like group workouts. And how has it changed sponsorship? It seems athletes need to be willing to make themselves far more visible for sponsorship, and this includes their Strava data.

  5. Jon H

    What a double-edged sword we’ve created with these Strava-like platforms!

    I made the decision to ‘retire’ from Strava a month ago after having used it very regularly for the last four years.

    During those years, it helped me meet some of my now closest friends and discover innumerable routes near wherever I found myself. It gave me an opportunity to share photos of things and places that moved me in an effort to inspire the panopticon onlookers, and has certainly contributed to my being more fit than I’d ever imagined I’d be.

    I came to realize, however, that perhaps the routes that were most precious to me were better shared with people who openly inquired, and perhaps hidden gems deserved to remain hidden for as long as possible until the inevitable expansion of the sport leads to increased exploration.

    Furthermore, I realized that the fulfillment I experienced having sent an epic ridgeline rattled around in my bones far longer when it was just a part of my day versus a part of my Strava timeline.

    You’ll also be surprised by how good it feels to silently snatch a KOM that no one but you ever has to know about…

    The liberation of not feeling compelled to mash the ‘sync’ button or open up your phone to check for or dish out a kudo or two cannot be understated.

    It feels weird and lonely for a minute, but all your friends that ever genuinely cared for you and/or your fitness goals still genuinely care whether they get the daily updates or not.

    This is just my experience. Keep creating yours as it works for you, but don’t ever hesitate to try something new.

  6. Gary

    I would say the first thing is to set the default to your runs being private. Nobody needs to see your mid week easy run at a slow pace and if it isnt uploaded then there is no pressure to run faster or further. You can still set your weekend long run with some photos of nice mountains to public for your friends to see, or that run where you smashed out a KOM. Just be clear what the purpose of your run is and make sure that you are doing it for you, not to impress virtual friends.

  7. Graham

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

    I started in the early 80s and have kept an old school log since 1982 (in old school notebooks, appropriately!). As speed-pace-distance watches, the. GPS, then Strava etc came along I adopted them but they have always been secondary to the True Record in my running log. Like Mark above, Strava etc are is good to find a specific run but I always refer back to the written account which is much more lyrical than numbers on a screen. I’ve never bought in to the social side of Strava and when I have dipped a toe in being “followed” or “following” has made me feel uncomfortable after a short time – and so I can understand the relevance of the panopticon.

    Even as a solitary, non-Strava sharing runner I’ve found recently that GPS and online logs are proving anti-motivational… after my second significant injury in 40 years of running, I’m finding it harder to get back to the speeds and distances I once did, and ever slowing average paces year on year, there in black and white on the screen, feel more and more discouraging. I’m increasingly tempted to dump the tech to save my running – but it exerts a curiously compelling hold over me, even though my main reason for running is just getting out in the woods and enjoying the head space, and not chasing PBs and searching for marginal gains.

    I think I need to start leaving the Garmin behind and go cold turkey!

  8. Matt

    Thank you for your article.

    I ditched the heart rate monitor over 20 years ago because I thought that was, somehow, too “restrictive” for my liking. I still only use a watch and a paper-based training log; anything beyond that doesn’t interest me at all. I do suspect I’d be a faster runner if I paid more attention the metrics, but I pay enough attention to the “metrics” in my everyday work life…running is a relaxing escape from that!

  9. Jeff Rome

    Hi Alex!
    I’m so glad you wrote this. Foregoing the watch is a beautiful thing, but I’ve gotten into a practice of only doing it during races. On race days, my whole day is slated away for running, but generally I always need some time telling device to make sure I’m back in time for work or a social engagement, or just back in time for a nap before I try to rally. Strava is a useful tool, and I post my runs on there, but I haven’t been able to afford a GPS watch and don’t know how to use my phone, so I’m kind of stuck in the camp of not being able to compare my runs to others. I do enjoy logging my runs on Strava and seeing what others have run, but I suppose it’s nice to be in the dark on distance/vert/segment times. $200 or however much a GPS watch costs just doesn’t seem worth the data it provides.

    I don’t think having a watch does much for me other than tell time. My efforts on the same races over the years with a watch versus without a watch have been similar, with one being within a second of my watch vs. no watch time. For non race days, I’m all for ditching the watch when I can, but I don’t think that’s gonna be too often these days.

  10. Nick Logan

    This is a really interesting topic. I agree that it’s good not to be too concerned with how your stats will look to others online. You should run by feel and run the way you want to, not for other people. I have definitely modified some of my runs to look more impressive on Strava. I’ve taken shorter breaks, pushed my pace a little, and ran longer than probably would have if I hadn’t had my stats in mind. But there is another side of this which is the motivational side. I think that my awareness of others watching has at times motivated me to complete hard runs and hard training weeks. And in the end, assuming I’m not going to damaging lengths, I am the one who benefits from that. So I think it’s good to use the audience as motivation, but remember that I’m running for myself.

  11. Jacob Cossairt

    If my Strava followers are looking for speedy performances, then they must be in a constant state of disappointment when they see my runs pop up in their activity feed.

  12. Cary Stephens

    Very timely article. Last Thursday morning I set out on a run that included a segment on a popular Strava climb I have run several times. The goal for the day was to time trial up the mountain to beat my record. I was planning a long run on Saturday, so I wanted to have Friday to recover. When I set off on the run I soon noticed my gps watch was not tracking my mileage. A soft reset did not fix the problem, so I completely abandoned the run and jogged back to the house. I knew my watch would not record the time trial so what was the point? Talk about being a slave to the numbers!! That afternoon, I got my watch fixed and did the time trial on Friday morning instead. Great effort. I beat my record by 20 seconds. I felt good about myself. Of course my long run on Saturday felt horrible as I was quite tired, so I ended up cutting it short by a few miles.

    Now, I have never been too concerned about what others think of my runs or getting Kudos. However, the above example demonstrates the other pitfalls of Strava. If you have a competitive personality it is easy to become a slave to the numbers like I did last week. You can let a recovery run turn into an interval session if it is run on a course that has known Segments. Its funny that Alex uses the “prisoner” analogy for being a slave to those who are watching. For me the problem is becoming a slave to my own “ego” and its internal voice to compete against my ghost from last week, last month or last year. In that way, the influence of the data can be just as detrimental to the best of training plans. I guess its time to put the watch in my pack and only pull it out when I finish.

  13. John Vanderpot

    20ish years ago I used to attempt teaching that essay to (not Harvard!) college students, and it rarely went well, although it has been on my mind these last several years, along with Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself and Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death — speaking only for myself, nothing could ruin a run faster than the thought that others are watching and “judging” me, and the last thing I’d ever think of doing is posting something about a run…just sayin’?

  14. Anonymous

    I see what you’re saying here, for sure, but when you are rewarded in races for being fast and not much else besides a few races having maybe a dfl award, nevermind a finisher’s award, then it’s not just pressure from social media driving the competitive, and possibly injurious, desire to go harder and faster.

  15. Markus

    I am using paper logs for 36 years now. For a long time I had a stash of year logs from Nike and Adidas but I ran out of them in 2011. Now I use a notebook which is not even half filled with the last 8.5 years. In addition I have a excel sheet to track my races and my yearly mileage. There is no fee needed to unlock features I don’t need and the data is mine.
    I still don’t understand who would want to see my training runs anyway? It make sense for some elite runners but for us normal runners I think this is just oversharing.

    Comparing training runs with others seem kind of silly too, since you never know what the other person is training for. If I want to know how good I am I do races. Well, not right now of course.

    In a couple of years we will look back at social media and laugh at it. Or not, if new rulers, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have taken over the world.

  16. jordi

    interesting article
    I have long had the feeling that I may suffer from this problem, I am fully aware of the problem, so as not to fall into the slavery of the clock I force myself to stop to contemplate the landscape or to eat some berries, in these stops I automatically lose all options of good record.

  17. Gio

    I’ve considered keeping most activities on Strava private unless they are truly worth sharing. That way the training features can still be used without the rest of the baggage.

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