Technology makes it easier than ever to log a myriad of running metrics: weekly mileage, average pace per mile, mean heart rate, maximum heart rate and more. There’s no shortage of numbers to track and training targets to aim for. Given our unprecedented access to data, it stands to reason that you’d know your body better than ever. But do you really?
The downside to all this data is how it distracts you from the data your body sends you in the form of sensations, perceived effort, motivation and enjoyment. Compared to the hard data delivered by an external device, this type of feedback can seem too subjective to be of use. However, knowing how to accurately perceive your body’s feedback in training is the most effective way to train intelligently and reach your maximum potential.
Mindful running is the process of learning how to listen to your body’s signals and using that information to make better and more effective training decisions. And this is important because a training plan is not meant to be followed to a “T,” rather it’s a suggestion for the overall direction of your training and should be followed in the context of what your body is telling you.
Running by feel teaches you how to adjust your pace and effort level based on what your body is able to do on that day, rather than what the data—or your expectations—dictate.
For example, one day’s “easy” effort may involve 9:30-per-minute miles, but after a super stressful week including a few nights’ bad sleep, that same pace can feel incredibly challenging. In this depleted state, you may need to run 11-minute miles to achieve a training effort that actually feels easy.
To start running more by feel and less by data, ditch the gadget and start to manage your training effort using perceived exertion. By trusting what your body is telling you, you’ll train smarter and get better results.
Perceive Your Exertion
This practice involves paying close attention to your effort level to give it a subjective rating on a scale of 1 (very easy) to 10 (maximum effort). What exactly should you pay attention to?
1. Notice your breathing. Is your breathing regular and rhythmic or labored and erratic? If today’s run is supposed to be easy (say a 2 or 3 on the perceived-exertion scale), and yet your breath is forceful and erratic, this may reflect an effort that is more like a 6 or 7. Focus on steady, rhythmic breath to align your effort level with your desired perceived exertion level for today’s run.
2. Notice your muscular effort. Are your legs moving smoothly and effortlessly (which reflects a low perceived exertion), or are you straining to maintain this turnover rate (suggesting a high perceived exertion)? Remember that a low exertion rate doesn’t equal slow pace. If getting faster and/or running longer are among your goals, then most of your training should be on improving efficiency, which involves training yourself to run progressively faster without a significant increase in perceived effort.
3. Notice your mental effort. Do you find yourself having to stay really focused to maintain this pace? If your mind wanders, do you unconsciously slow down or switch to walking? Generally, a higher level of exertion requires more mental focus to sustain. Mental energy is another helpful indication of your exertion level.
4. Notice your enjoyment. There’s one easy way to know if you’re pacing right: the degree to which you are enjoying your run, whether it’s an easy recovery jog or a tough interval workout. When running stops being fun and joyful, it’s a sign that your system is overloaded with stress. In this state, running feels like a chore and isn’t much fun. It also gets harder to mentally push through periods of low motivation. On the other hand, a body that is benefitting from training is able to make positive adaptations (such as getting stronger and more efficient), and feels good.
In the case your body is overstressed, invest in things that you find mentally and physically restorative and refreshing (the topic of the next article in this series), and you’ll ultimately become a more successful and consistent runner.
All-out sprint over short distances and/or very steep hills at which you reach your maximum heart rate.
This high effort level involves very intense training or racing that leaves you feeling depleted, such as an arduous ultramarathon or a high-intensity hill run or intervals.
This is a moderately high effort that leaves you little breath for speaking while running. This effort can be maintained for moderate periods of time, say 10 to
Moderate effort at which running feels sustainable for longer periods, but requires a focused effort to sustain, such as a 30- to 60-minute tempo run.
Relaxed running that requires little effort and during which talking is easy, such as a recovery run or slow social run on flat terrain.
This pace is very easy and sustainable, such as a brisk walk on easy ground.
Elinor Fish is creator of the Mindful Running Training System and leads mindful-running retreats around the world through her company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness.