Racing by Feel: Combining Data and Perceived Effort

Arm warmers, breathe-right nasal strips, sunglasses, gloves — when you watch the elites race, they wear their share of accessories.

But have you ever noticed what a lot of them aren’t wearing?

A GPS watch.

There’s a few reasons for this, one being they are often racing for place more than time (dolla dolla bills y’all) and can also utilize the on-course clocks/pace car better than I can (if I just ran, say, 6 or 5 minutes/miles flat, the math would be so easy).

It’s also because they are used to running by feel. Angelica wrote about running the Hartford Half Marathon with less reliance on her GPS recently; Rosemary and Ginko took the “watchless challenge,” and they made me reflect on my own journey to racing by feel.

Racing by feel allows you to find your true potential. Sometimes, with the watch, you’ll look down and scare yourself. “I feel fine, but my pace is too fast! My heart rate is too high!” But — is it? Maybe you are that fast. Maybe you do feel fine.

If you feel fine, you probably are fine, and there’s no reason to slow down just because your watch says so.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “How do I race by feel if I want to PR/BQ/hit XX time?”

Easy. The same as most things: practice.

Many of us race to hit a time goal, and that means we usually train with those goals in mind. Unfortunately, we also sometimes pick those time goals arbitrarily, without good data to back them up. Combining training with all your data plus training by feel allows you to find the sweet spot of picking a realistic goal and then nailing it.

Run fast. Don’t think so hard.

My coach, Matt Ebersole, introduced me to this method, although he never said so directly. Matt will assign workouts that just say run “hard” for anywhere between 20 seconds to 5 minutes. There’s no direction on what “hard” means. My initial reaction was confusion — but how fast is hard??? — but after a few workouts I found these to be completely freeing. How fast is hard? Let’s find out. And today’s hard might be faster than the last time’s, or it might be slower. Just like on race days, variations in the weather, in terrain, in life, all impact your capabilities. And that’s okay!

By recording those hard sessions, I can go back and see what “hard” was. Recently I surprised myself by averaging around my 5k PR pace for 18 minutes of “hard” intervals in bleh weather while trying not to slip on wet leaves. I can see my pace and HR max at different paces.

You can build a similar workout — aiming for no more minutes of hard effort than your 5k time, preferably starting with less. (Say you run a 30 minute 5k — start with 15-20 minutes of hard intervals and add on.) You can do all one length — like 5x 3 minutes — or mix it up, like 4x 1 minute, 4x 2 minutes, 4x 1 minute. Equal- to double-time recovery, knowing that longer recovery will mean more anaerobic effort whereas shorter recovery will result in a slightly different but equally good workout.

Those shorter, “hard” intervals prepare me for the pain that is 5k racing.

What about longer distances?


Instead of doing longer sessions at “goal marathon pace,” I do a few each season by “marathon effort.” Typically that’s 70-75% or so of max HR, depending on the person and the distance. (Faster runners tend to be on the higher side, pushing harder for all 26.2 — but they can, because they’re running for a shorter amount of time. The longer you’re running for, the lower your average HR should be.)

I can use that percentage, along with data from past races, to give myself an HR range for those marathon effort workouts. Here’s the key: if your HR says you’re hitting the target, you don’t get to go faster because the pace is slower than you want to run in your race. First, that defeats the physiological purpose of the workout. Second, there are many factors to consider — weather, training fatigue, race day adrenaline, taper, etc. — that will probably change between now and race day.

However, if your marathon effort runs are way off your goal pace, it may be a sign that you need to rethink your plan. “Way off” will also vary depending on your pace.

For this workout, make sure you allow adequate time to warm up/cool down. You could do 4-12 miles at marathon effort as part of a long run. Again, start shorter and build up.

Depending on your watch, you can either cover it up with a sticker/tape (if you need a Salty Running sticker to cover your watch face, let me know!) or change the screen data for your workouts. You might also program the watch to execute the workout for you, so you just run hard when it beeps and then easy when it beeps. (I am too lazy for this; I just use a screen that says lap time.)

By practicing running by feel and marrying that with some Type-A data collection, you can hone in on what different effort levels feel like. When you run, ask yourself, “how do I feel?” and start to connect that feeling with the data. When race day rolls around, you’ll be tuned in to your effort levels and ready to race without your watch holding you back!


Do you run or race by feel? Any tips for readers trying to break free of their GPS? 

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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1 comment

  1. I’m half-and-half with running by feel. As in, most of my weekday running is on a treadmill so I know exactly what my paces are there. When I go outside to run I wear a GPS watch but definitely go by perceived effort and just glance at the watch when it buzzes at the mile markers. I don’t really trust what the GPS tells me my pace is at any given moment but I like to see afterward what the general trend was. It’s a good mix for me.