At some cross country practices around the area, coaches have less use for whistles, and more use for watches or apps on their phones.
It’s a simple, yet useful piece of practice, but the real-time pacing doesn’t stop when runners gather at the starting line anymore.
A PIAA rule change allowing jewelry — including GPS watches — has made pacing during meets easier for cross country runners this season, as technology now benefits runners in the high school ranks, too.
Technology has been mixed with running for several years now.
Look at the start of a local 5K, 10K or other benefit race on any given weekend.
When the horn goes off, runners jolt from their starting position and try to get out fast — after pressing a button or tapping a screen.
Even casual runners have a wide range of technology at their disposal through the use of fitness smartphone apps and wearable technology.
Apps like Run Keeper, Nike+ Run Club, Under Armour’s Map My Run and others allow those exercising with a phone in hand or strapped to an arm to receive real-time updates on their time, distance, pace and even heart rate.
They can share personal progress via linked social media accounts, build a training plan and discover other courses or how friends are doing each week.
A simple GPS watch can do the trick, too, and watches such as those produced by FitBit and Garmin are now free to be worn in PIAA competitions.
Mark Byers, the PIAA’s chief operating officer who’s in charge of by-law interpretation, said the state’s high school athletics governing body accepted a recommendation “to rescind the modification of the rules book that prohibited jewelry” during a July Board of Directors meeting. Watches were included as jewelry.
The National Federation of State High School Associations had already lifted a jewelry prohibition with the publication of its 2014-15 track and field and cross country rules book, but Byers said in an email that the PIAA’s board had modified that rule in order to stay consistent and safe across all sports.
But no injuries were reported due to jewelry in competition since then, so the ban was lifted.
Communication through electronic devices still isn’t permitted by the NFHS, but cracking down on standard watches versus smart watches from runner to runner would be asking for a lot.
Therefore, all models, including GPS watches, are legal in competition this season.
“Using our finals as an example, it would be impossible to enforce such a penalty when there could be 240 runners participating with a device that could receive texts or other communication,” Byers wrote.
“We simply cannot expect an official to differentiate between a smart watch and a traditional watch,” he added.
So, what does that all mean? Runners aren’t simply allowed to wear jewelry as a statement now; they can use it to their benefit.
“It’s not a fashion thing. … It’s not like they’re wearing it to show off,” Dallas coach Matt Samuel said. “It makes things pretty serious, and it’s definitely a useful tool.”
Only about a month of meets have been held under the new rules, so it’s tough to tell how much GPS watches have impacted competitions.
But runners are already taking them along for 5Ks, starting as early as Sept. 2’s Cliff Robbins invitational, the season-opener for many Wyoming Valley Conference teams.
Before that meet, Lake-Lehman coach John Sobocinski said he warned members of his girls team it might not be wise to shake up their routine and run with a device for the first time.
As soon as preseason workouts begin and his Black Knights work on building a base of mileage, he instructs them to listen to their bodies and how they feel rather than the feedback a device spits out.
Still, recent technology has its benefits, especially for a coach in charge of two teams.
“When we go on long runs in the summer and we’re on the Back Mountain trail, and we’re scattered — there’s guys way ahead, there’s girls back — we’re able to at least gauge and see where we’re at,” Sobocinski said.
Sobocinski estimated his team started to use electronic devices about five years ago to aid workouts.
The Black Knights fully embraced them last year, when he said a parent donated GPS watches for every runner. He still directs each workout, but it’s nice to know runners can track their mileage on their own during the summer and better maintain their pace during a each run.
“It would say your mile pace is a 6-something, and I can say I need to pick it up” Valley West senior Jacob Kobusky said of his team’s speed training, which is aided by a watch or app. “It really helped, especially with my pacing.”
The reaction to GPS watches is a bit mixed around the WVC.
Samuel doesn’t want his runners to become too consumed by a watch, or expect it to do the work by itself.
While it’s a helpful way to know paces during runs, the best runners still put in the work and can become aware of their bodies on their own.
Holy Redeemer coach Paul Hoda said his Royals “still do it the old-fashioned way,” as he tracks his runners’ times and results in a notebook. His top girls runner, Lindsey Williams, said Hoda “doesn’t like us to use watches because then we keep looking at it back and forth.”
Maybe this rule change really won’t matter until the spring.
After all, every cross country course is 3.1 miles long but otherwise completely different.
Some are flat, others have steep inclines or declines at different points, and runners might have to trek through a windy trail, muddy fields or hard pavement depending on the course.
If they’re in a pack and take turns a little wide, distances could easily be skewed, too.
Runners might pass physical mile markers at a different point than their watches tell them. With that margin for error, it might not be best to rely on a device.
But in the spring — track and field season — runners circle a standard 400-meter track that’s virtually the same at almost every facility.
Working for a strong, consistent pace over shorter distances like the 200, 400 or even 1600 may be easier then.
“Track is where I think it’s going to be a game-changer,” Dicton, Valley West’s coach, said. “If I’m running a 400...I know if I’m hitting my time by the first 300-meter hurdle mark.”