A funny thing happens to most of us when we run by numbers. That is, when we run by pace, speed and time. For many (not all) runners, the number ignites a stress response that can trigger a host of emotions including fear, anger, frustration, and even happiness. For instance, you go out to run that half marathon you’ve been training for all summer and toe the line with a pace strategy – to run 10:00 for the first three miles, then 9:30’s then 9:00s to the finish line. This worked well for you in training so you know it’s a great strategy come race day. You wake up, roll through your race rituals and walk out the door to realize it’s already 75 degrees outside. You’ve been training in the 60’s during the nice cool fall weather and this feels hot. You toe the line, run by the numbers and end up walking in the final three miles. What happened? When we run by pace, we suffer the consequences. When we run by our body, we race at the optimal speed on the given day.
When we run by numbers, we avoid utilizing the most powerful racing resource we have (our inner GPS). Each of us has the ability to sense effort (how we feel, breathing and heart rate) and translate that effort to pace in a variety of conditions. Sometimes your performance is faster and you earn a personal record, and sometimes it’s slower due to weather, training and other variables. The secret is in fine tuning your inner GPS and letting the other numbers be the outcome of your training or race day performance.
If you look at the legendary runners like Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson, their Olympic medals were won on their incredible inner GPS systems. They trained with a basic Timex watch and had to learn how their body felt at various paces on a variety of terrains and in a host of elements. Effort based running is a skill once learned can change your race day game.
Running by your body and how it feels also avoids the mental barriers we put on ourselves when reaching for goals outside our comfort zones. If you’re running a tempo run on a good weather day at a calculated pace based on a race you did four weeks ago nine times out of ten you’ll be off the mark. When you’re training out of zone or at a different effort level, you defeat the purpose of the workout and either over or under train. In essence, you’re guessing based on a pace rather than tuning into your body and running at what feels like the threshold effort. Once you get good at learning what various effort levels feel like, you’ll hit the bulls eye in every training session and in every race. When you start to run in the optimal zone, your training becomes functional and your race times improve.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE technology and everything GPS and speed distance monitor. But what I’ve noticed in the past decade of coaching runners is there has been an unhealthy shift from running by your body to running by the numbers and the watch. When we let the numbers lead, we rarely reach out optimal performance. When we lead by our body and know our effort, we reach our peak in any given situation because we run wisely and based on how our body is responding. I’m now teaching this with the Pear Sports coaching system and find runners when they learn how to tune back into their bodies perform better than when they tune out and let the GPS lead. It’s just that simple.
Every year I challenge my athletes to take the Timeless Challenge and let go of the numbers and run by color and by their body. Dedicate one race and let your body be your guide. It can be a lead up race like a 5K or 10K or even your target race. Some find they can’t do this if they wear their speed distance monitors while others simply don’t look to the device for guidance. The key is to avoid the numbers completely and tune 100% into your body, your breath and pace yourself from within. Here’s the strategy should you wish to take on the Timeless Challenge..
- Break the race distance into three equal parts and think yellow, orange and red. (Ex. a 10K = 2 miles = yellow, 2 miles = orange, 2 miles = red).
- Run by color and tune into your body. Yellow is conversational – you should not hear your breath. Orange is moderate where you start to hear your breath but it is a controlled running effort. And red is what you’ve paid for folks – it’s hard, you can hear your breathing and you’re racing hard to the finish line.
- If you’re a newbie to a distance add more distance in the yellow zone and less in the red zone.
- Run the first third of the race in the yellow zone (easy). This is the most challenging because everyone else will be flying by you but think of the Tortoise and the Hare.
- Run the second third of the race in the orange zone (moderate). It’s a step up from easy but still not hard.
- Run the third part of the race in the red zone (hard). This is where it counts and you’ll have the energy to push harder than you can imagine.
The number race day mistake made by newbies and seasoned runners involves pacing. Specifically going out way to fast. When you tune into your body, pay attention to your effort you will conserve energy and keep you mind (and thoughts) strong and positive so you can hammer the final miles.
When you’re strong at the last quarter of the race you get to go fishing. That is, casting out your invisible fishing line and hooking that runner ahead wearing the way to tight lycra shorts and reel them in. Then cast it out again and pass (nicely) the girl in the cute pink top. There is nothing more empowering than to have the energy and strength to pass people and run strong in the final miles of the race. When this happens, you will run stronger and faster than you can ever imagine.
And that my friends is why you don’t want to run by pace. Every time you look down at that watch you’re looking for validation. If you run too fast early in the race you feel stressed. If you run too slow, you get worried you won’t make your goal time. Even if you run at your target pace, it is most likely too fast or slow on the day and won’t lead you to success.
I was speaking at the Cleveland Marathon last spring and a runner came up to me and told me about her Timeless Challenge. She had been training with a GPS and by pace and challenged herself to train more by body and effort and heart rate. When she was leaving to go to her target race (half marathon) she dropped the GPS and it broke. She ran the race without any device and earned a 7-minute personal record. That’s huge for a half marathon! She couldn’t believe she was able to run at the pace she did for that long.
We are often held back by what we can’t imagine. Let your body guide you to faster times and stronger runs. Take the Timeless Challenge and let me know what happens below.
Good advice to remember come race day! Run For The Rocks #2013.1 #hutchrecraceseries
Thanks for this, Coach Jenny! Great to read after running feels so slooow postpartum, I needed a reality check. 🙂
good article. thanks jenny. i think i'll try this on my 10K coming up.
Take your time and evolve into your new normal. It will come back one run at a time. Run by your body 🙂
Great! Let me know how it goes!
I didn't look at my watch at all my last Half, just listened for the warning for my walk/run. I had a PB by 4 minute and that PB had been my first half 5 years ago! I was thrilled!
This is well needed advice for a first time marathoner – stressed out with only a couple weeks left before the big day. I have been training alot so trusting in myself and my body is the best tips anyone could give 🙂
Thanks Jenny as always very motivating and inspiring ..you make me want to get up and run NOW !!! 🙂
Erin you know that you are ready! Trust in your abilities! Love u !
Good article. Will give it a shot on my HM coming up.
You're going to rock it! Good luck, run strong!
I am way too far past my prime to set personal bests! That "running on the edge" stuff was back in my late 20's when I was light, young, supple, and hard as nails. Now, well… my 48 year old mind is strong! 🙂 The only time I use a watch is when I train, and that is really "just" to keep me honest on speed/pace days. The rest of the time, I do what you recommend Jenny, run by feel. It's not a choice for me anymore, I need to respect when my body is telling me "no" or I break down (injury or loss of energy). I also live in some pretty hilly country, and trying set speed records just doesn't work around here. What seems to work best for me at an event is when I get a breathing/foot rhythm going that is metabolically challenging, but not causing me to gasp or stumble, and yeah, that's a fine line and takes lots of practice to figure out, but that's the point, isn't it? To practice so much that you are fit and can tell by the way you are moving along that you will be "okay" later in the run? Thank you Jenny.
[…] no time goals and just want to finish the marathon without falling apart I think I will try the Coach Jenny challenge of running by feel. I don’t have anything to […]
I like the idea of this article. However my next race is the Dublin Marathon in just under 2 weeks and that isn't the time,for,me to try running without a watch, but the idea of breaking the race into 3 sits very well with my mind.
Indeed you're right! Next time…Good luck in Dublin!
When I was training for my first marathon, I didn't know any better, so I copied the veterans I was training with. I got a hand-me-down garmin and watched the pace and distance numbers religiously. By the time the marathon came around, I was pretty confident. After all I had gotten pretty good at maintaining a consistent pace.
Two problems: A long-time marathon veteran took me under her wings early in the training season. On race day, I made the mistake of running with her. Oops. The miles went by fast, but I was gassed by mile 13. To make matters worse, the San Luis Obispo marathon was hillier than we thought. The elevation profile looked like two long, gentle hills. <bzzz> Wrong. It was 26.2 miles of rolling hills–not the course I was training for. That was the most miserable experience of my life. I smacked hard into the wall at mile 20, walked the last two miles, and finished at 6:20:06.
By contrast, I ran the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco last weekend. I just trusted what my body was telling me the whole way. I wore a $40 Ironman. Besides telling me the time of day, it had just one feature: setting interval alerts. Since running intervals is pretty much impossible when facing the hills of SF, the only reason I had the watch with me was to remind me to get another 30 or 40 calories in me every 15 minutes.
The result? I sprinted the last mile, beat my PR by a full 42 minutes, and missed my stretch goal by only 8 minutes.
I stopped wearing my watch this past year in races and have set a PR in 5k, 10k, and 1/2 as well as came within 11 min of a BQ in my first full marathon. I truly believe in running how your body feels.
I am going to have to look more closely at this in a few days. (I did a half yesterday.) Interestingly, it was my 7th half and my second in about 45 days. I have steadily done better since the 1st 2 years ago except for the 6th — which I was within 2 seconds of my 5th time. I am very tied to my Nike+ watch. I love the feedback. But yesterday, I somehow messed up the settings. As i was running, I thought I was going too slowly and it looked (and even when I finished) I thought I would be 4-5 minutes over my previous time. It made me push myself. i was very surprised to find out that I actually set a personal record — taking 4 minutes off my time (28 seconds per mile). While I was motivated to push myself, i also now wonder if I psych myself out in training thinking that I can't go that fast or sustain that pace. thanks for the thoughts.
Don't psych yourself out. I'm in my 40's as well and have gotten faster the last two years! Of course, I was never fast, so I don't have much to compare it to. But in 2 years I've dropped 2:01 off my half marathon time. I'm still not brave enough to do a full!
Jenny Hadfield Thanks. With apologies to Paul Harvey, this is the rest of the story: The only big change between the two marathons is that I went vegan just six months before NWM. I obviously had to completely rethink my nutrition strategy. All of my inspiration and advice was from Matt Frazier (aka, No Meat Athlete). I used his recipes/guidance for all of my pre-race, in-race, and recovery fuel. The result is that I had almost no muscle soreness. This shortened recovery time is the main advantage of a plant-based diet. Just ask Scott Jurek. 🙂
The Meatless Marathoner Love it! Congratulations and thank you for sharing your story!
[…] Stéfanie’s link to the good running article about listening to your body to train […]
[…] Have you ever heard of the “timeless challenge”? […]
Hi Coach Jenny,
What a sage advice on “timeless running.” I read the article in its entirety and have shared it with my runner friends. I would like to know what you would recommend on dividing the half marathon into the three color zones. How many miles each for the yellow, orange, and red?
Thank you so much,
Thank you Andrea. It depends on your experience level and fitness. For instance, for first timers, I recommend the following:
Start to 7 miles = Yellow Zone
Miles 8-12 = Orange Zone
The final 1.1 miles = Red Zone
As you develop fitness and race experiences you can begin to shift to the Orange Zone around 4-5 miles, and include 2-3 miles in the Red Zone at the end.
Good advice. Thank you.
[…] opted for Jenny Hadfield’s Timeless Challenge and run by “feel”. I didn’t bring my watch to obsess about pace. My time, […]
Listen4d to your podcast today on this and even though I didn’t train this way I think I’m gonna try it for the Philly Marathon on Sunday. This will be my 7th marathon. My last was 2 years ago but I know I’m not at same fitness level so thinking what do I have to lose except maybe some race day stress?