‘I like to run to feel’: Embodiment and wearable mobile tracking devices in distance running

Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 15 (2023)
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Abstract

Many experienced runners consider the use of wearable devices an important element of the training process. A key techno-utopic promise of wearables lies in the use of proprietary algorithms to identify training load errors in real-time and alert users to risks of running-related injuries. Such real-time ‘knowing’ is claimed to obviate the need for athletes’ subjective judgements by telling runners how they have deviated from a desired or optimal training load or intensity. This realist-contoured perspective is, however, at odds with sociological research indicating that users of wearables engage in active ‘data sense-making’ that is highly contextualised. To investigate how athletes use (or not) algorithmic analysis to understand, make sense of, and improve their performance in real-time, we undertook qualitative interviews with distance runners to explore lived experiences of running with wearables. The runners described how they actively interpreted data from wearables, drawing on their own experience, ‘somatic knowledge’, and embodied ways of knowing. This allowed them to assess the relevance and usefulness of data in relation to their own goals, intentions, and feelings. Our findings challenge the techno-utopic promises of real-time and predictive analytics.

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