Monday, November 23, 2009

Effortless Training

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.


  1. I share your Garmin-wearing love and firmly believe that if I had a coach watching me it wouldn't be such a important addition to my training, but since there's no one paying attention but me and the geese, I'm not ashamed of my reliance on it. (well, I am sometimes, but I know I wouldn't be running as well without it)

    Funny about the 3K/effort comment - again, I totally relate since I never have and imagine I never will race a 3K. My way of dealing with it is to see what McMillan says I should do in that instance and go for it. Lame but it works, I guess.

    Your coach sounds excellent and is obviously working wonderfully for you but I wonder if, at your level, you sometimes wish you had a local coach for hands-on things like form critique?

  2. Hey Flo, Thanks for your comments. And, thanks for publicly proclaiming your love for your Garmin. I have been chided for my public displays of affection for my gadgets and you make me feel more normal:)

    I too use my coach's pace suggestions for my effort-based workouts when they're on flat ground. However, a lot of the effort-based stuff I do is up a hill (like the Saturday workout on the schedule above), so pace is really irrelevant. You really have to know what LT or whatever effort feels like to hit it. What I typically end up doing is duplicating what I did for a past, similar workout where my pace and effort seemed about right. This is easier on a treadmill where I can set the speed and incline. I always record these details in my log so I can look back on it for reference. I guess I just don't trust that I'll be able to hit the right effort cold.

    It's a little strange for me to read your comment 'at my level', since I feel like I'm this new runner that doesn't know what the hell she's doing most of the time. The memory of my first marathon is still pretty fresh in my mind, and I feel like I'm still morphing into a runner mentally and physically.

    My current coaching situation works very well for me because I'm pretty self motivated, I have decent biomechanics and seem to be able to push myself without overdoing it. I don't worry much about my form because, again, I think my body is still adjusting to running. Most importantly, the strength work, drills and hill work that my coach prescribes, I believe, are really improving my running economy and still helping me make big gains in speed. I think once I start slowing significantly, become injured or have reason to believe that my form is limiting my progress in some way, I could work with a local specialist on that specific element of my running. I really love the coaching and training set up I have right now, and it is definitely working well for me. So, I can't really see changing anything.

    Sometimes, I wish I had someone else doing the exact workout I am doing at the same paces so I wouldn't always have to do my quality work alone. I think it's much easier to have someone pushing you during a tough workout. I do have a fabulous group that I run with daily (well, mostly when I am able to haul my butt out of bed) that I do some of my runs with. They are my major support network and help keep me motivated to do the hard work. Many of them are now being coached by Nicole too, and we often have similar workouts though we don't run them together. It's nice to know that there are others enduring the same torture in the early morning darkness.

  3. I love this post and your reply. I am fairly new to running too and struggle with gaging my paces/effort. Finding a balance between pushing myself to become faster and more economical without beating myself into a bloody stump is really tough and the worst part it that my needs change every year! Damn-why! I am really enjoying your insights as you navigate this journey. Best wishes-Jessie

  4. I'm also a Garminatrix and wear it for every run. Since all of my training this cycle is by HR, it's obviously been indispensible for helping me adhere to the assignments. But where I find it most useful is in two areas:

    1. Confirming that I'm having an off day so I can mentally accept that I won't be running up to expectations. If I'm warming up at an easy pace but getting highish heart rate readings, then it means the whole run is going to be on the slower slide. I don't even look at splits on days like that, since they'll just make me despondent.

    2. Gathering data during races. The other thing I've been doing lately is wearing the Garmin and HR monitor during races, but not even looking at the watch until later in the race (when I have an idea of how things are going anyway), or even at the very end (then it's like Christmas morning!). What has most shocked me has been at just how high an effort I can run in the second half of even a long race. Having this information has been very useful, as you can imagine.

  5. Julie..."Garmanitrix", love it!

    EffinJ, great stuff here. You can raise your eyebrows all you want at "at your level" but you're on your own plane, babe, so get used to it. ;-) And how many marathons? 15, is that what I read? Wowza. I love how you consider yourself still a newbie, since I'm approaching my 3rd year running, it gives me big hope for continued improvement.

    Kudos for all the hillwork you do, makes me want to increase mine from "hardly any" to "some" for this next cycle.

    Coolo on running with others as well. I have a pretty great running club in my area but have never run with them (so used to being solo I'm all shy about it) but I'm contemplating joining them soon, I keep hearing the benefits of running with others; camaraderie and a little pace pushing, seems good.

    Anyway, I'm truly enjoying your speedy adventures so here's to more great blogging from you. Cheers.

  6. Julie, Garminatrix? Perfect. You have a lot of self control being able to wear an HR monitor in a race and not look at the data until later in the race. I will have to do wear my HRM in tomorrow's 10k in order to do the workout my coach has prescribed. It's a little different, since I'll be running it as a workout. We'll see how it goes. I agree that the data from the Garmin is invaluable for tracking progress, telling you when to take it easy and the charts are just so damned fun to look at!

    Flo, While I have learned a lot in the last 5 years, I still feel like a newbie in so many ways. Every marathon is an adventure, and I walk away with tons of lessons.

    After I wrote the comment about wanting others to run my quality workouts with, I realized that this was a change from where I was even a year ago. I really didn't want to run hard with others because I wanted to endure the sufferfest on my own. Somehow, I thought it would be too painful to have someone else there to watch me limp through a tough workout if it came to that. I'm not sure what has changed, but I don't have that fear anymore.

    I highly recommend running with a posse. It's wonderful! Rest up and then on to Boston!

  7. Re: hill work: the training plan I posted above is the 2nd week of general strength/speed phase of my training cycle. The true "hill phase" of the cycle starts a couple of weeks later! Then, it's all hills, all the time.

    I would never ever have incorporated hill work into my training without the nudge from my coach. She is a big believer in hill training. I am a convert given the results I've seen from incorporating hills into my program.

  8. We're each unique in this. As for me, while I frequently wear my Garmin (very rarely with the HRM), I don't pay much attention to it beyond noting what it is recording. In other words, I don't change my pace based upon what it says. If I'm going too fast, I surrender to it and accept that I'm simply along for the ride. And if I'm blowing up in a run, I don't need the Garmin to tell me.

    I don't use it for most of my speedwork because it doesn't work on a track. For track work, I use the RunWorks calculator to which you link (based on Daniels) and just a standard watch. I need more direction/feed-back than "run by feel" for the fast stuff.

    Hills, of course, must be done by effort, and the Garmin is great for on-the-road/trails tempo runs.

    I envy those who can do their workouts by feel alone. But we're not all wired that way.

  9. Wait, I thought everybody had Alberto Salazar on speed dial!

  10. Joe, I thought someone with your experience would have this wired. I guess I just assumed it was mostly a function of time on your feet and not necessarily something you are hard-wired to be able to do or not.

    Sam, I wish!

  11. "...and the charts are just so damned fun to look at!"

    Some might call our love of analysis obsessive, I consider it genuinely educational (and way fun!).

  12. Jaymee,

    Much of this is comfort-factor. I first ran in high school doing the 440 and 880 and training primarily on the track, so I've always felt comfortable there, and I've called the track an oasis. Others hate it. If I had to concentrate on "effort" I might be a better runner as having the paces handed to me may be a crutch.

    Also, I encourage working out with others. You can't sacrifice the proper pace for you to the group, but if you find people at that pace, it makes it much easier. I've done it all 3 ways, being too fast for the group, being too slow for the group, and being in the group and the last is the best. But with the others, there's much to be said for being with fellow travelers before and after each segment.

    Hill work has 3 benefits. Great for strength, great for form, and great for race confidence.

    I admit it. I do enjoy playing with the Garmin data on SportTracks. 1/4 mile splits anyone? I mean, how cool is it to look at where you ran in London or Paris?

  13. I prefer 400m splits Joe ;)

    Jaymee, I think you're doing a pretty good job of "knowing yourself" and the run-by-feel thing. Your coaching set-up seems to be working well too. Coaching by email is not the easiest thing, so "well done" to your coach.

    Kara Goucher is lucky to have her coach/es observing her workouts so they can tell her to change a workout on the spot (or postpone it). She's also lucky to be a full-time runner!

    On the subject of running with others... I'd say yes for easy runs/recovery runs (if your friends run at the right pace for that purpose). For tempo runs, maybe - like that 'cute girl' in your 10k. For track sessions or intervals - maybe - if they don't turn into races.

  14. Jaymee, isn't Midori Sperandeo near you? Do you two ever run together? I don't know her personally but I know her running... and I bet you two would make excellent training partners. And she's a masters runner!

    I can't stand running alone anymore... too many years alone. Too many 0-dark-thirty hours alone. I need the group dynamic! I'm just having a hard time finding a group. :(

    Anyway, I also like the idea of learning tempo effort on the TM where you can control it. And after you get the feel down, then it's easy to transfer it to the roads. Smart!

  15. Ewen, I very much like what you've posted here regarding running with others. You're right that you'll never have a group that you can run the entire suite of workouts with, nor would you probably want to. And, some workouts are probably best kept between you and your Garmin.

    Glorybelle, you're right that Midori is also in the area, but she's on a different training program, so there's no real opportunity to train together.

    After all of this back and forth, I realize that what I have is actually pretty ideal for company--runners that I enjoy being around, that give me a good reason to get up at 4:45 in the morning to get the hard stuff done. Knowing that they're out there busting ass too is good motivation alone.

    Thanks, everyone for such a great discussion!