Running by feel

I’ve read a ton of blogs about running without a watch, just going by feel and letting whatever happens, happen.  I have never been the type to get bogged down by my data or technology but I enjoy having some quick info to get an idea of general pace and distance.  I’ve always had my watch set at average lap pace which was fine because I can get a sense of where I’m at without knowing what I’m running at that precise second.  During speed workouts, I do change my watch to current pace to get a more focused idea of where I’m running at that particular moment but the majority of my runs are set to average pace.

So why all of a sudden am I running without a watch? Some background: when I started running at the end of May after taking 8 weeks off to heal a herniated L4 and L5, I began with run walk intervals per orthopedist recommendations.  And I was SLOW.  I remained as active as I comfortable could during those 8 weeks (walking, hiking and physical therapy exercises) but I absolutely lost endurance in the time.  This was definitely expected and part of my recovery process.  I wore a watch on my first run back in order to track distance.  When I looked at pace, I was more then a little surprised to see just how much I had slowed down.  2 minutes per mile to be exact.  And those running intervals were hard! My heart was pounding, lactic acid was building quickly and I was out of breath within a quarter mile. I was able to get past my pace (or lack thereof) because I was just so damn excited to be back at it again.

The weeks went by and I continued to engage in my return to running (my big comeback, if you will).  My back felt good and I was happy to be back out doing what I love.  Everything was coming together except my pace.  I kept mentioning it to my friends who all reassured me that in time, it would return and just to focus on building mileage.  Then the heat of summer hit and my speed to a deep dive back to the land of double digit minutes per mile.  I was hiding out in the woods on most runs so it wasn’t uncommon to see a pace of 14 minutes as I traversed the Buckeye Trail.  Except I noticed that I running equally slowly on roads (a bit faster then trails but not much) and easy trails.  What the hell?

So after a few weeks of terrible runs; I finally reached the point where running by an arbitrary number was just not working for me anymore.  It was inhibiting my runs and preventing me from seeing how much progress I had actually made in the 10ish weeks since re starting.  The reality was that I had gone from couch-ish to 25k and was getting the distance done.   I started running only by feel and wow, what a difference.  Quite suddenly, my legs didn’t feel like like they were vacillating between jello and bricks. It was such a drastic change that I can only attribute to ditching my watch. Now when I start a run, I don’t have sense of fear that pain is imminent.  A painful or uncomfortable run is mostly a choice now.

I met up with one of my favorite running groups this morning.  I actually have been avoiding this particular group since coming back because they tend to run faster then where I felt comfortable.  But these are my friends, and if you are going to try something uncomfortable, better to do it surrounded by people who have your back.  So I went and I pushed.  I could feel the strain in my lungs and legs but kept a conversational (albeit a bit stilted at times) pace.  I knew that if I was alone, I would most definitely slow down but I tucked in and held on and was able to complete the 5 mile hilly loop that we do every week.  I really pushed myself both physically and mentally on this run and was pleasantly surprised that this pace was more the old pre injury me.  So some lessons from all of this:

  • Pace is really an arbitrary measure for me right now.  I was using the same amount of energy to run an 11:30 minute mile 6 weeks ago as a 9ish minute mile today.  What does that really say about pace? It’s a measure of your fitness at a fixed place in time but not a good tool for me for an overall assessment of myself.
  • Running without a watch really forces me to focus on form, breathing, cadence and heart rate.
  • Looking down at my wrist is a really big distraction.
  • The biggest limited factor is me.  The only thing that stands in my way of success is me.

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