Worth The Effort

[Editor’s Note: After more than a year’s hiatus, Ian Torrence has returned to his coaching column, “Your Ultra-Training Back of Tricks.” He’s been writing about trail and ultrarunning for longer than many of us have been running it, so he deserved a break. Welcome back, Ian!]

As a college freshman, I was forced to quickly understand and implement effort-based running or suffer the consequences. Running by feel, rather than pace, became my ultimate survival solution before the advent of today’s fingertip-ready running technology.

George Yuhasz, Allegheny College’s cross-country coach in the late 1980s and ‘90s, seldom revealed the next day’s workout in advance. Nobody had any way of knowing how far or fast we’d be required to run from one day to the next. So, when he threw us an easy day, we always took it easy rather than risk blowing up during the following day’s workout. We did the bulk of our training on unmarked mountainous trails and back roads of northwestern Pennsylvania but Coach never tallied our mileage. The time on our feet and running by feel brought us to race-day fit and ready to compete.

Today, like many of us, I run with a watch that tracks distance, pace, heart rate, and elevation—metrics that enhance my training. However, there are days I revisit Coach Yuhasz’s philosophy and run unplugged as another way to bolster my fitness. Some of the benefits of running ‘naked’ are:

  • Anonymity: In a sport that emphasizes numbers, running by feel provides freedom from judgment by others. Instead of determining the success of a run by overall time or pace, perceived effort reigns supreme.
  • Focus: Running without distraction offers an opportunity to focus on internal conversations. Whether you focus on your body’s movement, like muscle fatigue and breathing, or disassociate, by thinking about work or a favorite song, these are healthy and productive processes that can often be overlooked while fixating on a device.
  • Therapy: Running without the nudging of a GPS can prevent overreaching for overambitious paces when returning from injury or an off-season, recovering from a previous day’s difficult workout, or the first few steps of a run when the body is cold and cranky.
  • Serenity: Often the burden lies in the expectations. Running without a predetermined pace or distance can eliminate pre- and mid-run anxiety.
  • Autonomy: Running without collecting data creates independence. Adhering to pace calculators and heart-rate ranges can be restrictive. Altitude, terrain, recent illness, and life stress can all affect these numbers.
  • Convenience: Effort- and time-based running meshes well with travel. Take the approach on the road and discover that any terrain or surface type can become an arena for a workout, no matter how arbitrary the route.

Here is a step-by-step process to help you seamlessly integrate effort-based runs into your schedule:

  • First, put away the GPS device. Use a chronograph watch.
  • Start by dedicating one to two days per week to effort-based running. Make sure these are easy runs.
  • Select a manageable time limit, like 30 or 45 minutes, and run for the allotted time while consistently monitoring your exertion rate. Never deviate from a comfortable pace, even on uphills. For some, this may require switching to hiking on steeper terrain.
  • Experiment with what running by effort feels like. Instead of using pace or heart rate to drive your run, utilize your breathing, situational awareness, and muscle fatigue as energy-output indicators. High respiration rates, trouble speaking (see the talk test), tunnel vision, or burning quads, glutes, calves, or hamstrings are all indicators that you’ve left your comfort zone.
  • Try this regimen for a few weeks and note how you feel during and after these runs compared to GPS-driven workouts.
  • Once you’ve mastered the art of relaxed running, up the ante by trying a hard-effort workout. Warm up for 15 to 20 minutes at your easy effort and then perform a fartlek (aka ‘speed play’) workout of 12 x 1 minute hard or 6 x 2 minutes hard with the same amount of easy running between each repeat. Cool down with 15 to 20 minutes of easy running. During these workouts, you may find yourself out of breath and struggling to maintain proper running form and/or may not be able complete all the repeats—this is okay. This is what it feels like to run maximally. Try the workout again the following week, but readjust your exertion level slightly so that you can successfully complete the entire session.
  • If you’d like to experiment with the ultimate effort-based experience, enter a race and run without a watch. Experience how awkward that may feel, but note how you perform and what aspects of the event you focused on in lieu of your splits and paces on a timepiece.
  • If you must wear a GPS device, silence it and hide it from view so you won’t be tempted to peek at it. You can review the data after your run.

For the mileage-focused and/or social athlete, running by feel comes with a couple of adjustments:

  • The typical athlete usually completes their easy runs too quickly. Be prepared to cover less ground than you normally do.
  • Effort-based workouts may have to be done solo (or with a very understanding friend) so you aren’t forced into a speedier pace.

Running by feel comes in handy during trail events, where distances and terrain are unknowns. If practiced frequently, you’ll develop the efficiency and discipline necessary to manage your energy during tough and unpredictable events.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How often do you run by feel as opposed to monitoring data on a watch? What physical or mental cues do you rely on to help you maintain the effort you seek?
  • Do you find running by feel difficult given our modern reliance and access to biometrics technology?