As a newish runner, I have found the concepts of running by feel and effort-based training to be pretty straight forward, but the actual practice difficult to employ. The running by feel concept is well described in this interview with Kara Goucher written by Matt Fitzgerald. Kara explains that if you're tired or just having a bad day, it's really useful to switch to run-by-feel mode where you let your body dictate the effort based on how you feel. The alternative is to be a slave to your Garmin and run yourself ragged trying to complete a workout at a given pace, even an easy workout, that your body really can't handle.
Not being able to switch to run-by-feel mode when necessary can lead to injury and overtraining. The trick is knowing when to let the workout go. I know that I have workouts, especially during heavy-mileage weeks, where my legs feel like dog poop at the start and I don't think I'll be able to complete it. As often as not, these workouts work themselves out, and I feel fine by the end. So when do you make the call as to whether or not you should press the run-by-feel button and ditch the workout or go with it and hope for the best?
Kara is lucky that she has an entourage of coaches trained to adjust or even nix her workouts when they notice warning signs like her leg lift not being up to snuff during intervals. She says she benefits from this insight because she has a hard time letting a workout go. I have a hard time letting a workout go too, but I don't have anyone there to tell me to skip it and go take a nap. The answer to my question appears to be: know thyself.
For salty dog runners, knowing what a given pace should feel like and what your body can handle on a given day appears to come naturally. Some may even take this ability for granted. I don't think there's anything natural about it. I believe that this skill is learned over many years if not decades and is honed through a lot of practice and feedback. As a novice runner, I admit that I become inpatient and get frustrated with my lack of experience even though I do understand the concept. Without knowing the "feel", I can't make it work.
I have been the butt of many jokes from more experienced (notice I didn't say older since many are actually younger than me) runners that find it ridiculous to wear a Garmin or even a watch for every workout. And a heart rate monitor is certainly way over the top! As a self-confessed geek, I love my tech toys, but I honestly believe the Garmin is a wonderful tool to help speed up the learning process for new runners. I wear my Garmin every time I run. I race with it. I do speed work with it. I do easy runs with it on. I take the pace feedback I get from this gizmo, and I use it to calibrate my effort in my brain.
While I wear my Garmin on my easy days, I try not to use the data as a tool for self flagellation when I'm dragging ass. I am getting the hang for what easy days should feel like, but I still find it interesting that my easy pace can vary so much. I'm not alone there, apparently, since Kara says her easy pace ranges from 6:30 - 8:00 minute pace depending on the day and how she feels. I have found that monitoring heart rate can be a useful tool for effort-based workouts, though heart rate can vary wildly depending on so many factors (e.g. sleep cycles, stress, heat, hydration).
Effort-based running is slightly different than running by feel, and it perplexes me too. The majority of my workouts in my training cycles, are run at 3k, 5k, 10k, LT, marathon effort and NOT pace. I believe the rationale for making these workouts effort-based is to get the idea through my thick skull that I shouldn't be trying to run at my goal training paces during this phase of my training, assuming that if I run at effort, it will be slower than if I run at goal pace.
You would think that 5 years of running would be enough for me to get to know what these efforts feel like, but I still lack the skill to truly regulate myself during these workouts. When you think about it, how are you really going to know what 3k effort feels like, if, like me, you've never raced a 3k? The obvious answer is to run slightly harder than 5k effort. By now, I think I know what 5k effort feels like, but honestly, at the end of a 5k (or at the beginning on a really bad day), my 5k effort feels the same as my effort at the end of the 10k or half marathon or marathon--like death is imminent. At what point in the race do you choose to develop the feel for that effort?
So many unanswered questions.
I'm hopeful that some day I'll be a "natural" at running by feel and will get my effort-based workouts under control. I do know that I will be using my lovely Garmin to get me there.