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The Psychology of Endurance-Sport Technology

A data-producing training watch can change your mind.

Key points

  • Endurance-sport technology has a major psychological impact.
  • A good smart training watch produces data that can change the way we think, feel, and perform.
  • Motivation, focus, and confidence are three mental areas that training and race data can bolster.
John Price, used with permission
Source: John Price, used with permission

You might think that a Ph.D. in psychology who works with athletes wouldn’t be interested in technology or hard data. Aren’t we supposed to be into mind stuff like thoughts and emotion? Well, yes, psychology is very much about the psyche. At the same time, you may not realize that the data that come out of modern endurance technologies has a profound impact on how athletes think and feel about their training and competitive efforts. I should know because, in addition to my being a sport psychologist, I’m also a committed triathlete who currently holds a USAT ranking of 22th in my age group in triathlon and 10th in Aquabike. I know professionally and personally how the power of data that comes from a good training watch can fuel endurance athletes psychologically as well as physically.

There are three mental "muscles" in which technology can help you the most as you pursue your sports goals: motivation, focus, and confidence.

1. Motivation: Motivation is the foundation of everything in your athletic life because, without motivation, you won’t devote the necessary effort, energy, and time to achieve your goals. The chances are that, if you’re reading this post, you are, overall, a motivated athlete. But there is a big difference between being generally motivated in your sport and getting and staying motivated moment to moment in your training. For example, you may be motivated, but it’s still tough to get up for those 5:30 a.m. master’s swims or to go for a repeat workout on the track after work. And, getting even more granular, continuing to push hard in the face of 10 x 2-minute intervals on your indoor trainer at VO2 max can be a real challenge.

It is in these tough motivational moments that technology shines. Humans love goals. There is immense satisfaction to be had in setting, striving for, and achieving goals we set for ourselves that hold deep meaning for us. Plus, it’s motivating to know that you’re being supported by others (even a training watch). When I’ve loaded a tough workout from TrainingPeaks, not only do I have my goals for the workout with me every step of the way, but I feel as if I’m not alone in my “place of pain.”

The smartwatch motivates me in several ways during a challenging workout. First, when a new interval starts, I know exactly what my goal is, whether pace, power, or heart rate zone. Second, the “I’m in my zone” or “I need to pick it up a bit” vibrations and tones tell me whether I’m on my pace or I need to go harder. Third, I’m sure you can totally relate to the feeling I get after a workout, download my workout data off of my watch, and see that I hit my numbers; pride, inspiration, and excitement are just a few of the emotions I experience that further fuel my determination to pursue my goals.

I get similar motivational benefits in my triathlon and Aquabike races where technology tells me how I’m doing relative to my race goals. The data I get during a race helps me make adjustments based on those goals as well as how I’m feeling in any given moment.

2. Focus: One of the biggest difficulties all endurance-sport athletes face is staying focused during training (and races) when the “pain monster” comes calling. As the workout progresses, the roar of the pain monster gets increasingly louder until it’s really difficult to ignore. Sadly, when focus shifts from your training efforts to the pain you are experiencing, you will likely slow down or stop. This is another place where technology comes to the rescue. The real-time data it provides me, both visually and with vibrations and tones, constantly draws my mind away from the pain and onto my effort and my goals. In doing so, I engage a different part of my brain that helps me get through painful workouts.

Our limbic system is involved in ensuring our survival. When it perceives that our life is in danger, it sends signals to our brain in the form of pain (and emotions such as fear and anger) to get away from the threat to our life. This reaction worked very well 250,000 years ago on the Serengeti when we first officially became Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, that same primitive reaction prevents us from getting the most out of our training and race efforts in modern-day endurance sports.

What my smart training watch data enables me to do is to disconnect my effort from my limbic system and engage my prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the rational, thinking part of our brain. It enables us to use data we gather and make deliberate decisions on how we want to perceive, interpret, and respond to the messages we get from our body (such as pain messages). Whenever I look at my smartwatch and process the data it is providing me, I feel less pain, the pain I do feel is less intense, and I’m able to experience the pain positively.

How does this work? First, by looking at my watch, I take my mind off my pain. This simple distraction makes us less sensitive to the pain we feel. Second, because my limbic system is no longer going crazy warning me of imminent death, the pain I feel isn’t as severe. Third, with my PFC activated, thus enabling me to respond rationally rather than emotionally, I can use the pain I feel to make adjustments, depending on the event, in my pace, body position, stride, cadence, and more, that reduce my pain. Fourth, with my PFC firing on all cylinders, I feel more in control psychologically and physically, a perception that is absolutely vital to maintain when my body begins to rebel against the demands I place on it. This perceived control then enables me to push through the pain and get the most out of my training efforts more easily. Finally, the benefit of having my smartwatch on my wrist is that I’m able to connect positive emotions, such as pride and inspiration, to my pain because I know I’m getting stronger and faster. And those emotions make the pain more palatable.

3. Confidence: The psychological end game of my use of the data is that I have much more confidence in my training program, my ability to push myself in my workouts, and my belief that I can achieve my competitive goals. I see my efforts quantified every day in training and I see my improvements in my fitness and my times. As a sport psychologist, I will tell you that confidence is the most important mental factor because you may have all the fitness, technique, and gear in the world to achieve your goals, but if you don’t believe you possess those assets, you won’t use them to their fullest capabilities.

Every day, in every aspect of my training (swim, bike, run, conditioning, recovery) and my life (sleep, nutrition), technology enables me to make deposits in my “confidence bank,” the goal of which is to make a big withdrawal on race day. Not surprisingly, my smartwatch has become an integral part of both my physical and mental training that has a powerful impact on my daily training efforts and my race-day preparations and performances.

If you want to be the best endurance-sport athlete you can be, you need to leverage all that technology has to offer. That means using the data to help you get both physically and mentally as strong as you can be.