Run by effort instead of pace

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One of the most effective coaching tools I’ve used is teaching athletes how to tune into their bodies and run by effort instead of pace. I began emphasising this more when GPS gadgets became mainstream and runners were looking to the devices rather than their bodies for feedback. By focusing on your body’s cues you are instantly connected to your greatest asset: your inner GPS.

The body knows effort, not pace, and when we only follow numbers, we can undertrain or overtrain. GPS watches and apps provide useful information, but it’s most useful for evaluating your performance after you finish your run.

The problem with training by pace is that so many variables affect it. Your easy pace can quickly turn moderate to hard in the wind, heat, snow or ice; after a sleepless night; or when you’re sick or menstruating. This is also true on race day. If you preselect a pace to follow, it may be too slow or too fast based on the conditions, the course and other variables.

When you let go of running by numbers and begin to follow your body, you are better positioned to perform your best.

I use a three-colour zone system that helps athletes learn how to pace themselves by their breathing rate and how they feel.

We run aerobically or in what I call the Yellow Zone for our easy runs, recovery runs and long runs. Running at this effort allows us to run for a long time, improves our fat-burning enzymes and isn’t very stressful on the body.

The Orange Zone is a step up from Yellow and hovers around the lactate threshold (redline), the point at which we shift from using more fat for energy to using more glycogen. We run in this zone during workouts like tempo runs and long intervals to raise the redline, which helps us run faster at easier efforts.

When you cross over the redline, you run into the Red Zone, or the effort level that is flat-out hard, well outside your comfort zone. This is the effort where we run intervals, hill repeats and any high-intensity workout. Training in this zone will improve fitness and speed and boost your metabolism for hours post-workout.

When you follow your body’s response on any given day, you will always train at the optimal effort level, which helps you work out harder, recover more efficiently and make faster progress.

It takes time to learn how to pace by feel, but the benefits are plentiful. I’ve had runners take minutes off personal records, get back to running after nagging injuries and rekindle their joy for running again. It all starts with tuning out the numbers and tuning into your body.