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Shelly Binsfield, a track and field coach based in New York, had a test for her training group. After running on treadmills throughout one winter, she had her athletes cover up the screens to hide their speed. Then she instructed them to adjust the speed by feel until they reached what they thought was their goal pace.
The result? Many of her runners hit their goal pace without seeing the treadmill’s metrics.
Runners constantly question how fast they should be running on a given day. Their answer usually comes from their watch. However running based on what your timing device says might not be the best indicator for training. Instead, more coaches are pointing runners to another strategy: running by feel.
“Running by feel can help you understand what certain paces feel like,” says Jason Fitzgerald, running coach and author of Running for Health and Happiness. “You’re going to understand what these paces intuitively feel like and you’re going to be better equipped for how that feels in a race situation.”
Intuitive pacing means knowing what an easy effort or a hard effort feels like without glancing at a watch or having an app bark into your ear. Unlike most runners, who push through their runs too fast or too hard, runners who pace by feel automatically adjust their efforts
“Running by feel versus a set pace can optimize performance and experience for many runners,” said Laura Norris, a certified running coach in Seattle. “You are adjusting for external factors, such as hills, temperature, wind and humidity.”
For example, a run in hot weather may need to be 30 to 90 seconds slower than a run in cooler temperatures. However runners don’t always adjust their pace for changing conditions.
“Depending upon what you’ve done during the week, your easy pace can wildly differ day to day,” Fitzgerald said. “Your recovery pace might be a lot slower, depending on weather conditions, how well you slept and whether you’re fully caffeinated.”
The oft-prescribed suggestion is to ditch the watch and use other ways to pace a run. However learning to intuitively pace is a skill.
“I use a few metrics for running by feel: breathing, ability to talk and how I physically feel,” Norris said. “I aim to run at an effort light enough that I could carry on a conversation, where my breathing is not labored at all.
“It takes practice to run by feel,” she added.
Experts say that running-by-feel workouts should be incorporated into training early, when you’re building your aerobic base.
“This creates the habit of running based on effort and allows you to see exactly where your fitness is,” Norris said. “As the training cycle progresses and you see what paces you are hitting on different workouts. Then you can get an idea of a goal pace and start training at that pace.”
Fitzgerald suggests that runners also do their recovery runs by feel.
“Maybe you get a watch that isn’t a smartwatch, so instead you’re just timing your run. Go run for 40 to 45 minutes and be done for the day,” says Fitzgerald. “Some runners tend to race the watch and obsess about pace too much. There’s a time and place for knowing how fast you’re running and a recovery run isn’t that time.”
While runners love metrics and data, such as cadence or foot strike, those metrics don’t always tell the full story.
“Graphs and charts often highlight the outcome metrics, not the progress,” Binsfield said. She adds that the notes section of a running app or log is the best way “to think through their process” and “gain new insight on what worked and what didn’t.”
With intuitive pacing, runners can keep themselves from charging out of the starting line and be better primed for race day.
“Start at a controlled effort to avoid running too fast, run what feels like your goal pace in the middle and then dig deep and run hard at the end,” Norris said. “You might surprise yourself.”