This post was written by Jason Fitzgerald (or Fitz), founder of Strength Running, a 2:44 marathoner, and online running coach. He is obsessed with injury prevention, strong coffee, and helping runners achieve their best. You can follow him on Twitter at JasonFitz1.
One of the first things new runners are taught is to use a treadmill or track to find out what pace they should run every day. This becomes their baseline and workouts are often based on this speed. This strategy can work for beginners and allows them to start understanding what different paces feel like.
As time goes on, I’ve seen beginners (and advanced runners) become obsessed with their daily splits, even during easy runs. They will carefully calibrate their treadmill, put on their heart-rate monitor for a standard distance run, or stop at the track to see how fast they’re going.
I’ve been a victim to this addiction myself. I used to run at least a mile on the track during all of my runs to gauge my speed. I’ve worn my heart-rate monitor to bed to determine my true resting heart rate. I’ve even planned my mile pace progression for my treadmill runs.
Running by Feel
None of that nonsense was sustainable. The mental exertion it took me to keep up that level of detail with all of my training was so high that it didn’t last. I felt stressed out and on high alert constantly. I couldn’t enjoy my training and all I wanted was more simplicity.
When I was running marathon workouts before New York ’08, I was finally able to do my tempo runs on the trails instead of on the track. That was a big adjustment for me but ultimately, the workouts were more enjoyable and I could run then based on how my body felt.
One of the main issues with living by your stopwatch is that your watch is calling the shots. Instead of listening to your body and adapting your run, you feel compelled to stick with the “right” pace on the treadmill or stay in the “proper” heart-rate zone.
My running now is more complete, less stressful, and I’m in a lot better shape. If getting in the best shape of your life without the mental hassle of recording tedious splits is high on your priority list, you’ll want to use these strategies.
I want to encourage you to let go of some of the control you have over your training. It’s not necessary to time every portion of your run, marry the track, or live by your heart-rate monitor. There’s another way.
Running by feel, or listening to your body and responding to what it’s telling you, is a better way to train. You’ll feel more energized (physically and mentally) and reach new heights. Here are 4 powerful strategies:
Don’t do any running on the treadmill. It’s a bold move, but it’s worth it. Running on the treadmill inherently allows your brain to choose the pace, incline, and duration of your run. Go outside and run as fast as your body wants to. Hit the trails. Run some hilly terrain. Speed up or slow down depending upon how you feel. Let your body be the boss instead of the treadmill.
Avoid the track at all costs. The track is a wonderful tool to helping you run fast. But it needs to be used in moderation for those training for specific times. If you do any running on the track that’s considered “maintenance” or “distance” then do that somewhere else (I prefer rolling trails). But if you absolutely love the track, reserve it for speed workouts where you really need to know your splits – like if you were measuring fitness gains over the course of several weeks.
To move your workouts off the track, simply convert the distance into time. So if you were going to run 4x800m and you know that it would have taken you about 3:30, then run 4×3:30 at the same effort on the roads or trails. I love doing this and it’s a mental refresher every time.
If you use a heart-rate monitor, use it strategically. I used to own a HRM and used it all the time. Now I know better. The best time to wear one is during lactate-threshold (LT) workouts – tempo runs. It’s important during these workouts to be at about 85% of your max heart-rate so a monitor can come in handy. But for easy runs, long runs, and other fartlek or interval workouts, leave the HRM at home. It won’t be very useful.
One exception to this rule is if you believe you are over-trained. Paying attention to your heart rate, especially during easy runs, will allow you to judge how your body is responding to training. If you are crawling through a slow run but your heart-rate is high, then you might be over-trained.
Use your watch to time your run. That’s it. I used to split my watch 5-7 times during an hour run so I could see how fast I did certain segments that I knew well. One loop around the park? That usually took me 4:30. The first telephone poll to the blue house? That was a minute. I became a slave to every part of my run.
It’s much easier mentally, and physically if you try to set personal bests every day, to start your watch and then stop looking at it so often. I like finding a route I know is about the distance I want to run and then running it without looking at my watch. If you do this, there’s really no use in wearing a watch at all!
This kind of training is all about effort. If you’re doing a hard workout of 6x400m, then go out on a quiet road and run 6×90 seconds. It will be more fun. You’ll be able to wear your watch less, record less useless heart-rate information, and enjoy the outdoors instead of being a hamster on treadmill.
Running by feel will reduce the stress of executing your workouts and the pressure to perform on days when it’s not necessary. On those days where it is important to run on the track or measure your heart rate, then of course go for it.
Prioritize your goals so you measure the important workouts, but maximize your enjoyment on your easy and maintenance days.
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