Train By Feel for a Lifetime of Running

Run Strong, Stay Hungry reveals the 9 keys to running strong and staying fast. Jonathan Beverly taps 50 lifetime runners—from America’s elite to consistent local competitors—to reveal the 9 keys to run strong and stay fast. Run Strong, Stay Hungry features priceless guidance from Bill Rodgers, Deena Kastor, Pete Magill, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Roger Robinson, Colleen De Reuck, Dave Dunham, Kathrine Switzer, and dozens more.

Enjoy this selection from the book!

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly

Training by Feel: Letting Go of the Watch and Schedule

As runners, we crave details on how to maximize our time and efforts: How many miles should we run, how many repeats, what pace on which runs on which days? Charts and numbers fill training books and magazine articles. We download training apps that tell us exactly what we should be doing each day. The market is saturated with devices that allow us to track every number, every step.

But what if a key to both achieving your best and staying in the race is to stop planning and tracking? What if instead, you just listened to your body and ran how you felt?

Finger on the Pulse

Most lifetime runners have a story about getting injured in their 40s as a result of trying to match their training from earlier years in distance, pace, or both. Training by effort addresses these difficulties in one swoop. If you’re tuned in to what a tempo run feels like, or a long run, or a workout at 5K effort, your pace will naturally follow as your ability changes. In contrast, if you try to match arbitrary paces, either what you have always done or in order to follow a generalized age-based formula that doesn’t account for your unique experience, you’ll have to increase your effort when perhaps you shouldn’t.

If you listen to your body, running hard when you feel good and backing off when you don’t, you’ll also automatically add the increased recovery time your body needs as you age without having to modify your schedule and lament that you can’t do what you used to. If you throw out the plan entirely and run as far as your body lets you, being careful to listen when it tells you to rest, you’ll land on the right level of volume that you need, avoiding either extreme of cutting back too little and getting hurt or cutting back too much and losing fitness.

Some will hear all this and still prefer to follow a schedule. That is perfectly fine, but tuning in to effort is still part of the process. Even with a schedule, you must be willing to adapt to what you are capable of doing and how you are responding. To do that, you need to pay attention to how you feel; you’ll need to know yourself.

Walter Bortz, professor of medicine and a masters marathoner, wrote in his book The Roadmap to 100, “If there were a first rule of longevity, it would be the command ‘Know Thyself,’ handed down to us from the Delphic Oracle some 3,000 years ago. Our bodies constantly give us feedback on our internal workings.” The ability to run by feel is the result of knowing yourself.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly

What Should I Do Today?

Effort-based training isn’t a tool only to employ as you age. Many of the most successful lifetime competitors approached running this way from the beginning. Training by effort frees you from the tyranny of the training schedule and the watch; protects you from overtraining; helps you discover your strengths, your limits, and the type of training that works best for you; and removes much of the stress—at whatever your age.

To learn how to train by effort requires changes in habits and tools. You have to leave your GPS watch behind (or learn to ignore it). If you do look at a watch, discipline yourself to treat it simply as information—this is what pace this effort level feels like today—not as a judgment or a guide to how hard you should run.

Many runners who train by effort find the GPS can be helpful in that it keeps track without you having to. But consider checking it after the run to find out what pace that effort level was on this day or on a specific repeat or hill. Looking at it every mile and speeding up or slowing down based on the numbers you see is counterproductive. You must instead tune in to what feels right for the workout and trust yourself.

Admittedly, that trust gets tested as you age and slow down. If a tempo run has always been in, say, the 5:50 to 6:10 range, as it was for me during my 20s and 30s, it’s hard to accept when that same level of perceived effort only gets you 6:40 to 7:00 miles. But those who age best find ways to do so, having learned to trust their knowledge of the effort, not the watch. That trust comes from paying attention at every age.

You can also benefit by moving your speed work off the track, away from the too accurate, controlled distance that begs to be constantly measured, quantified, and judged. Rest assured you can get as good or better a workout away from the oval.

In his training book Little Black Book, Redux, elite coach Brad Hudson wrote, “A fartlek can be used to accomplish just about anything you can do on the track . . . Sometimes it is just as beneficial to do a hard workout by placing the emphasis on the feel and effort rather than being tied to pace and distance.”

Pete Magill, a coach, agrees, writing in Running Times: “To avoid the trap of training by pace, we go off-track for our workouts. This eliminates the temptation to check split times during our reps. It also allows us to practice adjusting for race-day variables: weather, terrain, our fatigue level, etc. The ability to adjust for variables is essential to race-day success.”

Feel isn’t only about the hard days, either. New York City masters runner Alan Ruben, 60, pays attention and adjusts his training based on how easy a run feels. He finds he can assess his fitness without having to push. “I test myself by how easily I can run a particular pace, how easy it feels,” he said.

To do this, you need to focus and assess yourself on both easy and hard days. Ruben runs the same loop every morning and times how long he takes. After each run, he, like Benoit Samuelson, can compare how hard it felt to run that known time and distance. If you lack such a benchmark, this is an instance when you do need a watch or GPS—not to see if you’re going fast enough but rather to have an empirical time to measure your level of effort against. Learning to assess levels of easy can save you from the need to always push the limits in order to test yourself, and thus, overdo it.

Learning to Cook

To truly train by effort, you also can’t be too closely tied to a daily training schedule. If you do follow one, you at least must be willing to alter it regularly, without guilt or reserve. This requires a considerable knowledge of training and your own body, however, which takes time and experimentation. While many lifetime competitors follow an effort-based schedule as masters, few, if any, started that way.

In this regard, the charts and information in training books and articles are important and useful. To use Gary Allen’s analogy, you can’t bake bread with no experience by simply dumping random ingredients into a bowl. You have to have a good idea of which ingredients, in which proportion, must be added at which time. Only after following recipes enough to thoroughly understand them and how changing variables alter the results can you relax and start playing with the ingredients and proportions.

Similarly, in order to confidently know what feels appropriate on a given day, you have to learn how to taste the mix and in doing so, know which ingredient is lacking. Those who are very good at this can sense what type of workout or drills their bodies need on any given day, what ingredient or spice will perfect the dish of their race-ready fitness.

In his book Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, Matt Fitzgerald delves into this ability to sense what is right, which he calls intuition, and concurs that this ability is based on experience. Thus, he says, “Beginners must learn and apply the proven, general best practices of training, relying on such authoritative knowledge almost entirely to direct the course of their training until they have gathered enough experience to begin receiving intuitions. The more experienced they become, the more they can rely on intuition.”

Focus on the Effect, Not the Record

Most importantly, training by effort requires a change in mindset about how training works. Training by effort recognizes that what is important is the training’s effect on the body, not the numbers recorded in a log. It requires relaxing and ignoring the voices that question if you’re working hard enough and needle you to accumulate miles and splits to buck up your ego.

If you went out and did the work, and you’re healthy and ready to do it again tomorrow, then you’re ahead of the game. Believe that you are fit because you feel fit, and because you can run fast when you want and long when you want, not because of your impressive Strava feed or that you’ve followed a certain training plan to a T.

Avoid comparing your distances and paces with others. Remember, what works for them is only marginally related to what works for you. Everyone’s reaction to training is different; everyone’s recovery needs are different. Save the comparisons for the racecourse.

Roy Benson, a lifetime competitor and the author of books on heart rate, wrote in aRunning Timesarticle, “You can correctly run any workout you want, if you run it at the right effort for you. Because effort, not your teammates or training buddies, dictates how fast you should run a hard workout or how slowly you should run an easy workout.”

Training successfully by effort also requires that you stop treating every run as a test. Even a race-specific workout is simply a workout designed to stress us so that we rebuild stronger.

Said Magill, “We don’t run repetitions to practice running faster. We run repetitions to improve the physiological systems that will allow us to run faster in the future. To accomplish this goal, we train 5K ‘effort’ rather than 5K ‘pace.’ As our fitness improves, our pace will improve. But our perceived effort will remain the same, allowing us to become well-versed in the effort level we’ll use in the race itself.”

Run Strong, Stay Hungry explores 9 ways any runner can enjoy a lifelong, healthy running career as well as boost enjoyment of running and improve race performance.