Throw Away Your Running Watch – Learn to Run by Feel

By Rick Morris

Technology does a great job of providing us with the tools we need to make training easier and more efficient. Our ever present running watches are a good example. We can accurately time our 400 meter repeats to within fractions of a second. We always know our mile splits and lap times. Our running watches will let us know if we are ahead or behind our planned pace. Today’s high tech GPS watches will tell us our exact distance, elevation, speed, pace and even location. But should you learn to run by feel?

Technology also spoils us. While I got along just fine for most of my life without a cell phone, today I feel a bit lost and out of touch without it. Are running watches the same? Have running watches spoiled us? Not only do I think they have spoiled us, I also think that they have taken some of the joy out of running.

Part of becoming an efficient and holistic runner is training your body and mind to intuitively feel your pace without the aid of a watch or timer. Getting a good “feel” for your pace will allow you to make instant, spontaneous and instinctual adjustments to your pace as variables such as distance remaining, environmental conditions, incline, road or trail conditions, physical condition and the competitive situation changes. Relying on data from a watch rather than signals from your muscles and central nervous system is a much more inefficient and less enjoyable way to run. Constantly relying on or being the slave to your running watch also takes away some of the spontaneity and joy of running.

Would you like to ditch your running watch and become a more efficient, holistic and gratified runner? Learning to run by feel may take some time after years of depending upon your trusty running watch, but with just a bit of practice you will be ready to jettison your running watch.

Find Your Rhythm

The first step to running by feel is finding your rhythm. You running stride is almost like a living thing. Your stride has a unique pulse or cadence that it is most comfortable in. When you are in your rhythm your running is in the groove and it feels almost effortless. For the vast majority of runners that rhythm falls somewhere around 90 to 100 full strides per minute. For this first step you will need to hang on to your watch. Go out to the track or trail and begin running with a light, compact and efficient stride. Count the number of strides you take in one minute. Or, to make things a bit simpler you could count your strides in 30 seconds and multiply by two. If your stride rate is less than 90 per minutes try to take quicker and lighter strides until you are in the 90 to 100 stride per minute range. Keep experimenting within that range. At some point in that range your running should begin to feel very efficient; almost like you are running on auto pilot. That will be your running rhythm. Practice holding that stride rate at all speeds from a very easy jog to all out sprinting.

Track It

Now that you have found your rhythm, it’s time to start feeling your pace. You still need your watch for this step. Go to your local 400 meter track. Run 800 meters at a moderate pace and note your time. After a few minutes rest, run another 800 meters and try to match that time without looking at your watch. Keep doing this until you are able to consistently run the same pace without referring to your watch. Now run 800 meters at a hard pace and repeat that process until you are able to consistently hit your paces without watch cheating. Next, move up to 1600 meters and repeat that process. Once you are able to hit your paces by feel alone you are ready to move to the next step.

Predict It

This step is most easily performed on the track but you can also do it on the road or trail if you have a way to accurately judge the distance. Run 3 x 1 mile repeats. Before running your repeats, choose a goal finishing time or pace. Change the pace of each repeat from an easy pace to a very hard pace. Don’t refer to your watch to check your pace during the repeats, but check as soon as you finish. Did you come within 5 seconds per mile of your predicted pace for each repeat? If you did, nice job , you’re ready to move on. If not, keep practicing.

Hit the Trail

In this step your running will become even more instinctual and holistic as you move to the road or trail. Begin with a 10 minute run on a mostly flat trail or road. Be sure to note your exact starting point. After your 10 minute run note the time on your watch and turn around  and run back to your starting point, trying to maintain the same pace as your first 10 minute segment. When you reach your starting point check your watch again. Did you run at the same pace? If so, great, if not repeat until you can maintain the same pace in both segments.

Now it time to try a varying pace. Do a 40 minute run with 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. Try to run at marathon pace on the first segment and 10K pace and the return trip. You should have covered significantly more distance on the return trip. Your exact distance will, of course, depend upon your pace.

Race It

Now you’re ready to compete without your watch. I think you will be surprised at how much more efficiently you compete and run in an actual race without your watch. You will react to the race distance and race conditions rather than your watch. I would suggest beginning with a 5K or 10K race rather than a longer distance. Run by feel and let your CNS set your pace. Your body is actually very good at automatically calculating the amount of energy to produce in consideration of the race distance, race conditions and your fatigue level. Leave your watch at home and run by feel and react to changing race and competitive conditions. You may just set a new PR.

Let it Go

Now that you have a good feel for your running pace and intensity, let your watch and your preoccupation with time go. Enjoy your running and continue to grow as a holistic runner.