Running By Effort – and Why It’s Working For Me

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I shared in my race recap that I ran Sunday mostly by feel – and not by pace. But how do I do this and what does it really mean?

So, I still race with my Garmin and GPS on – mostly because I want the data post-race but also because it does keep me honest about going out too fast. My Garmin will provide me my mile splits – if I want to see them, I just need to glance down when I feel the vibration. As I’m racing, I can only see the total time I’ve run. (On Sunday, I forgot to do this before the race, but was able to change the view so I only saw the current time.)

I did this for the first time two years ago for the NJ Marathon. After a series of sub-par marathons, I did some serious self evaluation and came to the conclusion that I was letting the pace dictate the race. Race goals and paces were controlling me during the race. I would spend almost the entire race staring at my watch, obsessing over the pace. I was forcing the pace rather than letting it come naturally. And if/when I started to see the paces slow down, it would psych me out.

Several years ago, I set a lofty (and unrealistic) goal of sub-3:10. I knew that I needed to average 7:15 per mile and so I ran the first 15 miles of the race staring at my Garmin to ensure that each mile beeped between 7:10 and 7:15. Anything over 7:15 and I started to panic.

Take it from me – this is not a fun way to race. Nor is it a smart way.

So I tried the new pace-free approach for the 2014 NJ Marathon, both Boston and Wineglass Marathons (this past fall) and then this past Sunday for the NYC Half. And each one was a success.

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I’m not going to lie – it is a bit terrifying to line up at the start and know that you are just going to run without knowing the pace. There is always some self doubt – what if I end up starting way too slow? What if I go out too fast? The first time I tried this was immensely terrifying – but what was the worst that would happen? Blow up during a race? Already have done that. Not reach my time goal? Already done that too.

Running by effort is how I train. This is not something new on race day. I often hide my watch under my jacket or change the display on my long runs during marathon training. I need to run 18, 20, 23 miles, so what does it matter what pace I’m running? As long as I feel that the effort is mostly easy, it’s a successful run. Pace is secondary.

I’ve also taught myself to not obsess during tempo runs (doing these runs in the total darkness also helps prevent me from obsessing since it’s hard for me to see paces). I’ve learned to take cues from my body and learn what different efforts (and consequently, paces) feel like.

I speed up when my body wants to.
I slow down when it feels like it needs to.
Blissful ignorance from mile to mile.
And check-ins when I get the mile splits to reign it in if I start to get carried away.

It also eliminates the need to hit specific paces each mile. I still have a goal range for finish time, and thus overall paces for the race. But, it’s not a black or white number now.

Take Sunday, for example. My goal range was 1:29-1:30, which is about 6:47-6:52. But I never felt that I “needed” to be in that range when I was racing. I didn’t start calculating potential finish times until mile 10. There was zero obsessing over paces. Most miles ended up being under this range. Mile 4 was well over. And that not only is okay, but makes sense. Because I was racing by effort, mile 4 should have been slow since it was Harlem Hill. It was likely 7:30 or slower going up Harlem Hill – which is ~30 sec/off the slower range of the goal times my coach gave me. If I had been seeing my pace, I can almost guarantee I would have freaked out seeing those paces and/or would have pushed too hard going up the hill so that I was within the window from my coach. Short term, this would have been fine and I would have had a faster split for that mile. But I likely would have exerted too much energy on that one mile and paid for it later in the race.

Excluding the last segment (Garmin shows 8:16, but I didn’t stop my garmin immediately), my three slowest miles were in the first 4 miles of the race: Miles 1, 3 and 4. My fastest four miles were all in the second half of the race: Miles 7, 8, 9 and 12.

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If you are struggling with pacing on race day, worrying about paces rather than truly enjoying yourself or constantly feel like you are coming up short despite having a good training cycle, I’d recommend to try going watchless to see what happens. Running by effort is certainly not for everyone, but it’s worth a shot, right?  What’s the worst that can happen? But definitely try it during training first – get comfortable with what effort and paces feel like and then try it during a race.

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    5 thoughts on “Running By Effort – and Why It’s Working For Me

    1. Great post. I recently started racing solely on feel and it’s made a huge difference. At this point I am running without a watch, but I may add it back in when I am sure I won’t look at it too much during the race. It’s great to see what I can do with my training when my brain doesn’t have the chance to overthink it.
      EB @ Running on E recently posted..Publix Georgia Half Marathon Recap 2016My Profile

    2. I love this. I’m fairly new to distance running and while I had success my first year the last year and a half have been scary to say the least…. As I head into Boston I may try this on my last few long runs and just listen to my body… which I have never really been a fan of, but as I get up there in age, I know it’s a must… I def needed this today!

    3. Great post! I try to do this more myself, but I need to do it on more training runs. Glad to see it’s working really well for you!

    4. Whenever I feel like my runs are in the toilet I stop looking at my watch. I try and find my rhythm naturally. It always helps. I think effort is such a big cue to learn because sometimes 11 min paces feel so hard and sometimes 10 minute paces feel so easy. My body lets me know it is in a happy pace and that is the place I want to stay. :)
      Sally @ sweat out the small stuff recently posted..A good runMy Profile

    5. I am planning on doing this in Boston this year! 1) because I don’t want my first experience to be a watch obsessed run and 2) I’m not going for a PR but have time goal and don’t want it to dictate how I run. I am looking forward to it because being Garmin obsessed has ruined some races for me!
      Sara @ RunningWife recently posted..The Truth About Peak WeekMy Profile