Allie Burdick

Written by Allie Burdick

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Improve Running Performance By Listening To Your Body, Not Your Watch

Want to improve running performance? Unfortunately, today’s running technology is both a blessing and a curse.  And especially since the evolution of the running watch.

A GPS can give you cadence, speed, distance, pace, intervals, heart rate and more. But it cannot tell you how much sleep you got last night, what is happening in your personal life, what injuries are nagging you or how hard you trained yesterday.

If you live and die by the numbers on your watch, you’re not getting the whole picture of fitness and may never reach your goals.

Please read How Reliable Are GPS Watches to learn more.

Improve Running Performance

When you start looking to your watch to give you information you start ignoring where that information should be coming from. Your body will tell you exactly how hard you should be running. Through cues in your breathing, sweat rate, footfalls and heartbeats.

Jason Fitzgerald, author of RUN – The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel and a 2:39 marathoner, offers this advice:

“I believe that runners should train by feel. The reason is that how a runner feels during runs and about his or her running generally at any given time is the most sensitive and reliable indicator of how well the training process is going. The mind and the body are deeply interconnected. Your mind receives a million times more relevant information about how your body is doing than some silly gadget like a heart rate monitor and is able to interpret it much more clearly and immediately.”

Think about what starts to happen when you see your pace on your watch. If the number is too slow, you speed up and if it’s too fast, you slow down.  That’s not an ideal way to improve running performance.

Instead of running slower or faster naturally because of how you feel. Speeding up and slowing down based on what your watch says, mile after mile, leads to disaster.

In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford draws the analogy of driving and running:

“When most of us drive, we aren’t constantly checking our speedometer and comparing it to the speed limit signs. Instead, we naturally fall into a rhythm of how far we have to press the gas pedal based on our environmental surroundings and the traffic that is going by us. It’s not as if we consciously decide ‘Now I need to speed up as I reached a larger road with cars moving faster and to do this I need to push down on the pedal by X amount.’  It occurs. The environment we are in, invites the action. If the traffic speeds or slows, we have a tendency to speed and slow right along with it.”

When Crawford talks in detail about how this applies to running he focuses on awareness. How runners, after much racing experience, inherently know when a leader is falling off pace.

Or when a pack is about to slow or how arm swings can indicate fatigue. He cautions that if you’re too busy looking at your watch, you will not be in tune with what is happening to your body or to those around you. You need to maintain an inner focus to improve running performance.

To learn more, please read How Running Form Changes During Long Runs and Easy Runs.

“[in a race] you see the athlete who checks his watch and you notice a slight hitch in his stride during that moment. It’s almost as if you can see him processing what that split means and whether to speed or slow. It might be a small thing, but doing this over and over again results in a slight disruption of the athlete’s rhythm throughout the race.”

Crawford’s advice is to use your watch as only a secondary check and not the dictator of your speed. Trust yourself enough to dictate the pace. Build that trust through practicing how to run by feel.

Motivation Should Be Driven By Success, Not Pace

If your goal is to win or set a personal best, your motivation is coming from the right place. If you focus on running successfully, whatever that means to you, you must run by feel. That is truly the only way you can improve running performance.

The unfairness of training for months or even years and having a race come down to one day should be the reason for motivation.  Doing your best for that given day.  Not being a prisoner to pace.

As every runner knows, running can change from one day to the next, one workout to the next. Which is why any good coach will tell you to treat your training program as a guide.

We often read about how runners should “listen to their” body when it comes to training but what does that really mean? In her article on Human Kinetics, Cathy Utzschneider author of the book Mastering Running, describes it this way:

“Although it’s obvious that you should listen to your body, sometimes it’s not easy. It’s difficult to maintain perspective on yourself, and listening to your body requires just that. There’s no one else to confirm how you feel. Feel a discomfort, and you wonder whether you’re imagining something. You focus intently on listening, but you may not want to hear. Hearing can lead to bad news: Yes, there is something wrong!”

And it can be twice as hard to hear that inner voice if it has to scream over the readout on your watch.

Maximize Fitness And Minimize Fatigue

Recovery is key to attaining success in running no matter your goals. And the key to recovery is training by feel.

Most of us start out with a goal time in mind. A number on the clock we want to attain. We cannot start our training at the pace that goal requires, yet so many runners do. For more, please read How To Pace Yourself Like A Pro.

Training by feel and effort instead of exact pace times takes the numbers out of the equation.  It allows you to begin your training without risking injury by doing too much too soon. And it’s the best way to truly improve running performance.

Laura Norris, RRCA and Run-Fit Certified Running Coach, explains how to run by perceived exertion which is how she coaches her clients:

“By using perceived exertion, you learn how to tune into your body’s signals while running. Exertion doesn’t lie: an easy effort is an easy effort. Yes, fatigue can alter your perception of effort, but if you often find yourself at slower paces that you feel you’re running, that may be a sign of too high of a goal, overtraining, or pushing yourself too hard on your easy days.”

Ten Point Scale Of Perceived Exertion

  • 1 – Extremely Easy: Easy run, feels like you could run forever, almost too slow.
  • 2 – Very Easy: Easy run, holding back the pace quite a bit.
  • 3 – Easy: Easy run. Easy pace, holding back just a bit.
  • 4 – Comfortable/Moderate: Moderate / steady state run, not holding back or pushing too hard.VO2max, 3K pace workout.
  • 5 – Fairly Comfortable/Moderate: Steady state, tempo run, pushing ever so slightly and sustainable.
  • 6 – Slightly Hard/Still Moderate: Tempo run, could run this pace for 30-40 minutes only.
  • 7 – Moderately Hard: VO2max, 5K pace workout, could run this pace for 15-20 minutes only.
  • 8 – Hard: VO2max, 3K pace workout, could do only a mile or so at this pace.
  • 9 – Very Hard: VO2max, 3K pace workout, could sustain this pace for only 2-3 minutes.
  • 10 – Hard:  Maximum sprint, could only do for one minute.

Adapted from Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running

To learn more about types of workouts and pace, please read How To Feel Your Pace.

How To Start Running By Feel

  • Plan it: Start with two days of running by feel, no matter what workout you’re doing.
  • Tune into it: Listen to your breathing and footfalls for cues on pace. Maybe leave your music at home.
  • Track it: I know we’re telling you to not look at your watch but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear it and look at the data afterward. Improving with comparisons to when you are looking at your watch, chances are you will turn into a believer.
  • Try it: Try running a non-goal or shorter race by feel and see what happens.

Try This Workout

To start, try a “fast finish” run on your next long run. Start as you normally would and progress to a steady pace.

For the final mile (or two, a function of your current fitness level and goals) run a fast, but not an all out effort.  One that is equivalent to 6-8 on the RPE scale. Guess your pace before looking at the data to see how fast you were actually going.

As you continue to train without looking at your watch, the better you will be at “guessing” your pace on any given run and eventually, during a race. And the more you will improve running performance.

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References

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