How to Let Go of Pace and Run by Effort

Effort-based pacing ensures you’ll perform your best on the given day.


Meghan asks: I understand the concept of training and racing by feel, and I’ve even attempted to do it for a full marathon training cycle, but it’s really, really hard for me to let go of pace. If I don’t know how fast I’m going in training, how can I know what I can expect to do on race day? What, if anything, can I do to feel more comfortable letting go of pace and trusting effort alone?

If you look at an image of Joan Benoit Samuelson winning the first women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, you will gain a sense of how legendary runners of that era performed their best. Look closely and you’ll see that Joan ran without watch. She finished in 2:24:52, more than a minute ahead of Grete Waitz.

“I decided to break away because I felt hemmed in,” Joan wrote in her 1988 book, Running Tide. “[When] the first water station came up, I was darned if I was going to get into a crowd again just for a drink, so I skipped it.” The key word in this explanation of how she broke from the field to win the race is “felt.”

When we tune into our watch and pace, we tune out from how we feel. Everything becomes about whether we are on or off pace. Then starts the emotional ping-pong game of, “Oh, that was too fast”, or, “Darn, that was too slow”. The entire race becomes about hitting a number, which in most cases, can lead to underperforming or overdoing it too early.

Joan didn’t set out to run a certain pace. She set out to win. And that is the sole motivation for running and racing by feel: to “win” your race and run your best on the given day. And therein lies the true motivation for learning to run by feel.

It’s only a challenge to run by feel now because we have devices and apps that track our every step. It’s like taking a smartphone away from a child (or an adult). But here is the good news, Meghan: You don’t have to let go of your pace (or your device) 100 per cent of the time, but just enough to let your body run the show.

Here’s how you can do just that:

Practice before you race. Like most activities, it takes time and practice to learn how to run by feel. Dedicate at least two runs per week to running without looking at your pace for reference. If you have a hard time doing this, wear a simple digital watch so you can just track your time, or leave watches at home entirely. Learn how to use your breath as a guide for running easy, moderate or hard, depending on the goal for the workout. This is easier than you might think, because when you remove the battle in your head about pace, you gain a sense of what is going on in the moment and can better adjust your speed based on how you feel. For instance, if your workout goal is to run easy, and you head out into the wind, your pace will be slower. But when you run truly easy because you’re running by feel, you will win this workout, recover more easily and set yourself up for the next run (which may be longer or harder). In this instance, you have to let go of your ego’s desire to run at a certain pace on this day. Some days will be faster and some will be slower, but the key to racing stronger and better is to train in the optimal effort zone, as the body knows effort, not pace.

Use pace as a tool. After your runs is when you can spend more time with your friend Miss Pace. An app like Strava allows you to evaluate your performance data, including your pace, heart rate, cadence and more. You can compare how you ran in a headwind versus a tailwind, in the cold versus the heat, on trails versus roads, on hills versus flats or after a poor night’s sleep. Pace is an outcome measurement that can tell you how you’re trending. Seeing is believing, and it is a great way to begin to understand the relationship of pace with our running performance and how it varies greatly based on the day.

Race short before you race long. Before you go all-in with racing by feel for your target race, race a series of 10K events throughout your marathon season, including one about four to five weeks out from your race date. The 10K is long enough to evaluate your race fitness but not so long that it impedes your recovery and training. Practice pacing using effort, learning how to hold back in the early kilometress so you can push and surge throughout the later kilometres.

Run races that simulate the terrain features of your target race. For instance, if you’re running a hilly marathon, race hilly 10Ks. If you’re aiming for a flat marathon like the Gold Coast Marathon, run pancake-flat 10Ks. This will allow you to gain a better sense of your effort on a specific terrain as well as where your race fitness is you progress through the season.

You can also use your 10K finish times to estimate a range of marathon finish times. As you train and race 10Ks through the season, you should begin to see a trend toward faster finish times and gain a sense of a range of possible marathon finish times.  Please keep in mind that this too can vary based on the variables (weather, health, sleep, et cetera). You may run a faster target race after a series of slower 10Ks because the weather is cooler.

A runner once shared her racing by effort story with me. As she was leaving to race a half marathon, she dropped and broke her GPS watch and was forced to run without knowing her pace. She shed seven minutes from her time and said, “I couldn’t imagine being able to run that fast in a half marathon”. Therein lies the greatest reason to run and race by feel: Pace can hold you back from achieving your best performance, and effort will teach you how to get there.


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