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 has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.