Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers - 2 of the greatest 'feel runners"
Can you run effectively by feel? If you were to show up at a race, your watch died on the start line and the mile markers didn't have clocks, so you were forced to run entirely by feel, how would you do?
Like most coaches, I love getting pace data and assigning pace ranges to my runners. It is hard data that can be analyzed and equated to various performance levels. We can analyze, like I have often done here on this blog, and tell you the fastest races seem to be run on even to slight negative splits; that in most cases we need to adjust x% for certain weather conditions; and that a tempo run at x:xx pace indicates a race fitness of xx:xx for a 15k. This is all good and useful information if used appropriately.
But we need to be careful (runners and coaches) that we are focused on effort and feel on the input side and save our pace analysis for afterwards for feedback so we can adjust that input.
In an ideal world, I would assign a runner a 30 minute tempo run, they would go out and run a hard 30 minutes at whatever pace had the proper feel, without looking at their watch, and then they would come back and download the data from the run and we could see what the pace and spits where and learn from and give feedback based on that. Feedback may be things like: “we need to start out a little more conservative” which is a feel that the runner can take into account the next time the workout is performed. Or “you had too much left for the last repeat or late in the tempo, you can be a little more aggressive earlier in the workout”.
By mastering the feel of workouts and races, we bullet proof ourselves to a certain extent. We avoid over training, we avoid big mistakes in race pace adjustments, bad races are less likely to happen, and we take away some of the pressure and preoccupation of having to try and hit an absolute pace range regardless of feel.
But running by feel takes practice and experience, as you have to learn the proper feel of the workouts and races and how to judge how much you have left in the tank. Staying in the moment becomes about pushing appropriately for the stage of the race or workout you are in, rather than nail a certain split. This doesn't mean we can’t look at our watch at certain points for some intermediate feedback, but it should be used as a tool and sanity check, not a slave master.
I try and talk to my runners about the feel I am looking for in workouts, and plan to move more in this direction for races as well; encouraging them more and more to learn and focus on the right effort and feel.
In workouts, that appropriate effort level is one in which we are working hard but sustainable, pushing ourselves while staying in control. In continuous run stress workouts (such as a tempo runs or steady state runs) we should seek to find a groove or rhythm that we can sustain for the whole run, finishing feeling like we worked very hard but could continue on a little bit if we had to. Similarly in repeat workouts, we gauge our effort so that we work hard but finish without dying/fading, feeling like another repeat or at least part of another repeat at that pace would be possible. Easy and recovery runs then, become focused on keeping the feel of the run easy and not pushing the pace. Then by looking at our paces and splits afterwards, we can use this data in comparison to the charts, that I and other coaches have developed based on the physiology of the sport, to help us adjust our efforts accordingly and learn the right feel for executing the workouts in the most beneficial ways.
In races, we gauge our efforts based on feel given the conditions and race distance, but in the case of races, we can push to the limits, so that at the finish line we have given it our all. Through experience, in our workouts and other races, we learn how hard we can push at what point and still make it to the end without dying/fading/bonking. Splits and paces that we can take and analyze afterwards, show any areas for improvements we may be able to make next time.
A runner that can master running by feel is a very scary runner indeed, as they rarely have a bad race, they rarely over train, and they are adept at adjusting to any course, distance or conditions, and they are less stressed on the starting line.
Challenge yourself to start doing some or all of your workouts and races in this fashion and don’t be a slave to your watch, but rather use the splits and paces you take (or your Garmin records) along the way as feedback afterwards not edicts during the workout or race.