We’re surrounded by technology indoors, and more and more, we’re taking it with us outdoors.

Global positioning systems, heart rate monitors, training apps, watches, music, smartphones — these days communing with nature is likely to be tech-mediated, but does that defeat the purpose of fresh air and sunshine? Can you recharge your psyche if you’re still plugged in?

“There’s convincing research and growing understanding of how important connectedness to nature is for human well-being,” said Christie Manning, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and psychology at Macalester College. “To the extent that gadgets get people outside who would otherwise be looking at Facebook, yes, those gadgets are a good thing. But there is some evidence — it’s not conclusive — that nature is beneficial because it’s a full sensory experience. When you’re outside, you’re getting a wide array of feedback that’s constantly changing, and the fullness of the experience may be essential to reaping the benefits. When we put something between us and one dimension of our sensory experience — like headphones — are the benefits of being outdoors decreased? We don’t know for sure. It’s an area of active inquiry.”

One area of technology use that has been studied is its ability to distract. Manning likened our ability to focus to a muscle. Every time a message pops up on Facebook or you get a text alert, you have to decide what to do about that distraction. Making those small decisions over and over throughout the day uses up the capacity to pay attention. It exhausts the muscle.

“Technology demands attention whereas the stimulation nature provides offers things in a softer way,” Manning said. “There’s a good case to be made that bringing technologies with us outdoors might decrease or mitigate the benefits of time in nature. If you’re getting texts or your watch is beeping, it’s depleting your attentional capacity. You’re not resting that muscle.”

The counter-argument could be made that listening to music while outdoors may keep you moving longer, and make the experience more enjoyable while still allowing the sights, smells and tactile sensations of nature. Similarly, a Strava app may help motivate a person to get outside more frequently, in all seasons, or for longer periods.

An unscientific poll of three trail runners revealed that tech use on the trail is nuanced and highly individual:

Headphones as security blanket

Colleen MacDonald, 33, Minneapolis, ultrarunner, digital marketing consultant

Q: Background on your tech use?

A: “I was in the Peace Corps from 2007 to 2010. Before that, I’d never used headphones or a watch when I ran. Just before I left, I picked up an iPod thinking I might use it on the flight. I landed in this small, very conservative village in Azerbaijan where women don’t run. I wanted to prove this was something women could do, but received so much harassment I started to hate running. Wearing headphones blocked that out and made me feel safer. I moved to Russia and, again, got a lot of harassment. Headphones helped me focus. At the end of 2012, I moved to China, but I started to feel very lonely. Listening to music made me feel connected to home.”

Q: What do you get out of your time on the trails?

A: “I like the challenge, the unpredictability. On trails, the terrain, the footing, the weather — everything’s constantly changing so I have to engage my mind and my body and really focus on what I’m doing. I feel empty at the end of a long trail run — my body’s tired but my mind is refreshed.”

Q: What devices do you use?

A: “Headphones for music. Listening seems less intrusive than looking at something, like a watch. My Garmin beeps every mile, which annoys me, but I’m planning to run a 100-miler, so I need to track my miles. I never used to bring a phone with me — I actually wanted the break from it — but now I’m sponsored by a phone-maker so I might have to start carrying one.”

Q: How is your outdoor experience enhanced by tech gadgets?

A: “Listening to music calms the part of my brain that allows me to focus on the trail. I can see my surroundings in a new way, and think of things in new ways, but still focus on where I’m putting my feet.”

Q: Is there a dependence piece?

A: “There is almost a dependency aspect with music now. I feel a bit naked without it. Once I was running with a group, took off my headphones and felt legitimately anxious. At the same time, I interacted less with nature because I was talking to people.”

Stopwatch has multi-uses

Robyn Reed, 41, Minneapolis, ultrarunner, pathologist

Q: What do you hope to get out of your time outdoors?

A: “Time to let my brain unwind, decompress. I have a complicated life and a complicated job — running is very simple. I can get out of my head and into my body — it’s totally different from what I do at work. I get in touch with the turning of seasons, the time of day, have random encounters with wildlife.”

Q: What tech devices do you use?

A: “I use a stopwatch. I’m training for an ultra and all my workouts are based on time, not distance. Also, I fit my runs in between obligations, so I’d be uncomfortable not knowing what time it was. I set the stopwatch to beep at intervals, both to do a specific interval, and, if I’m going more than an hour and a half, to remind me to eat every 15 minutes.

A: “I usually jam my phone into my pocket, and yes, I have returned pages from the trail. If I’m running somewhere unfamiliar, the phone is for safety. Sometimes, I take pictures.”

Q: No GPS or music?

A: “I like to pay attention to what’s going on in my body. Music would be an unwanted distraction. And GPS seems like more complication than I need. I’d feel like I had to pay attention to all that data. I like my running to be as simple as possible.”

“Fascination with technology”

Chris Swenke, 45, Hudson, Wis., race director-trail runner, web designer

Q: Do you have a lot of tech in your life in general?

A: “Probably too much if you ask my wife. I’m a web designer, so technology is woven into my career, my day-to-day life, but more than that, I’ve always had a fascination with technology. I’m a Mac fanboy and have every device they’ve ever made. Now that I’m older — call it maturity — I’m not as anxious to have the next new thing.”

Q: What benefits do you get from being out in nature?

A: “Quietness, challenge, friendships. There’s always something new — visually (I’m a visual guy), temperature, terrain, different people.”

Q: What devices do you use outdoors?

A: “GPS watch and iPhone.”

Q: Why?

A: “When I’m training for something, I use the GPS for pace or to keep track of time on my feet. The Suunto Ambit 3 beeps every mile but I hardly hear it. I upload that stuff, not really for competition with others, but more as a training log, so I can look back and see trends and identify where injuries happened. There may be some vanity there, too. If you don’t post your run on Facebook, did it really happen?

A: “As to music, when I’m training for a specific race, I’ll play certain bands or artists in heavy rotation throughout my training. For example, I’ll just listen to Pearl Jam for two or three months. When the race goes off, I put on Pearl Jam, and it puts me in race mode. If I have an eight- hour run, I’ll put on an audio book or podcast. Eighty percent of the time, though, I don’t use headphones because I’m running with a group and talking. But I keep my phone in my pocket for emergencies.”

Q: Are you dependent on your devices?

A: “That’s funny — once I was going to run from work and didn’t have my GPS watch, and I actually thought for a minute, ‘Forget it. I can’t run today.’ But there are also days, when I’m not training for anything, when I don’t bring my watch. I look forward to those times when all I hear is my own footsteps.”


Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.