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?

There are 12 comments

  1. Ryan

    I always try to run by feel and ignore my watch. I made sure to turn off all of my watch notifications so its less of a distraction midrun. Helps the run feel more comfortable and easy.

  2. Brandon

    I second Ryan. I used to run without a watch (even in races), then went to just a regular watch, and only maybe six months ago broke down and bought a GPS watch. I quickly turned off all notifications and just let it track time, distance, pace, etc, but try not to be a slave to it. I feel it keeps me honest in my weekly training and finally let’s me know how far my local runs actually are. So, there are definite benefits but I agree that listening to your body first is much better than forcing yourself based on what your device is dictating.

  3. Andy M

    I also wear a GPS watch (without heart rate) and really only use if for knowing distance and elevation after the fact and just run by effort and feel. As we all know, during races monitoring time and pace can be an exercise in frustration anyway, as a host of variables can cause planned splits to be out the window in no time. Even with workouts, a coach once advised me to run such-and-such a workout at a pace that feels like a 1-mile, 5k, 10k, half-marathon, or whatever effort fits the goal of the workout. Works for me!

  4. John Vanderpot

    Wait — you’re supposed to keep track of all that stuff? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I knew I was doing something wrong!

  5. Andrew

    Running without the GPS watch is crazy talk!!

    Good article. I’ll often just switch my Suunto over to the map and ignore the pace info. Also, I own a Stryd running pod, so I could theoretically run based on power (true effort based running).

  6. Dean Johnson

    Glad you are back writing, Ian. Listening to Olympian Molly Huddle, she does her training runs by feel and then analyzes the data after. If she was slower than normal she will take a rest day or easy day. I now use my watch to “check the gauges” and not dictate the workout. I am more worried about over-cooking than under-cooking.

  7. andy mcbreen

    Great thoughts Ian, Yes, I agree with Your run by feel philosophy. I’ve run 37 Ultras and counting and know that When I run by effort level, My overall pacing is perfect for the duration of the run. Also, I am much happier enjoying the beautiful scenery that God presented to Me on My run.

  8. Dion

    My coach is an effort based coach. I struggle to run to effort at times, so I tend to use HR as a guide to set the effort. I’ll give it a go switching off my GPS screens and see how I go…

  9. Steve

    Great points in this article.

    I’ve found great freedom in my running by setting the default screen on my Suunto to just display the time of day. Even if I get the urge to look at it, I’m not going to see anything particularly useful. It takes conscious effort to press a couple buttons to actually see any pace or time data.

    I still love to have the data, the history, and to look at things after I get back from a run, but have removed it completely from my thoughts while I’m out there.

    I also recently stopped training with a HR monitor. Looking at those numbers after a run would lead to frustration at times, when a run felt like an easy effort and then seeing the HR being much higher than I’d anticipated. I doubt the accuracy of even the chest-strap HR monitors anyway. The optical ones that are showing up on the higher-end watches these days are even worse.

  10. Kauaigirl808

    Being a single mother, I cant afford any fancy running, gps etc, I am a competitive cyclist as well, I have never trained with a power meter, I have came away with miraculous results not even knowing what the heck pace I’m running, or cycling. I always had to do my workouts fast to be back to take care of kids. So essentially became fast just by knowing what time I needed to return home. I just like to run fast and challenge myself whenever, and the same with cycling. And like Steve mentions, I do not even think about data while I am out training. Its all FUN!..

  11. Patrick

    I’m fairly new to strava, and just realized that I can put in runs manually without the gps data. I now do this for most of my runs on familiar close to home routes when I’m not pushing the pace. It gives me a running log with less stress and all I miss out on is fine grained data on runs that aren’t interesting anyway.

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