Intuitive Pacing: Who’s in Charge, You or Your Watch?

How often do you look at your watch while you’re out running? How about in a race?



How might pacing without a watch help you in a race?

Watches and all the data they produce can be exceptionally valuable as training resources. Any improving runner who forks out for the first time on a GPS watch will probably quickly see the benefits of having high-quality information about their pacing, training volume, and much more.

But when it comes to judging pace, and particularly in races, is there a chance that over-reliance on your watch could actually become a hindrance?

Intuitive pacing: your amazing brain

The most sophisticated tools at our disposal as runners might just be our own brains.

In his book, “Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel”, best-selling running author Matt Fitzgerald writes:

“In our highly rationalized, science-dominated modern society, intuition is frequently—and wrongly—dismissed as being too primitive to be trusted in decision-making.”

In fact, the brain can calibrate the effort required for a particular exertion with incredible accuracy. Standing on the start of a 10k race, for example, if you allow your brain to do the work it will enable you to judge what pace to set off at in order to complete the race efficiently. And the more you do this, the better you get at it.

In the same way, runners learn to have an understanding of how it feels to run at a particular pace. For example, at a club training session involving running alternately at 5k pace and marathon pace, most club runners will understand how to judge the difference without looking at their watches.

This is intuitive pacing. Not surprisingly, your brain’s ability to pace intuitively improves with training and experience. The more experience you gain, the more accurate your judgment of pace will become. At the most sophisticated end, many elite track athletes can judge the pace of their 400m lap times to within a second.

So perhaps by becoming over-reliant on watches to think about pacing for us, we are dampening the development of the brain’s ability to pace intuitively.

The best runners have long known this. I recently went to a talk by Mara Yamauchi, the UK’s second fastest female over the marathon distance. She warned very wisely of the dangers of “becoming a slave to your watch”, and the need to ask yourself how all the data produced actually help you to improve your running.

Why trusting your brain might bag you a PB

How might pacing without a watch help you in a race? Here are four significant benefits of intuitive pacing…

1. Positive psychology: replacing anxiety with relaxation

You look at your watch during a race. Let’s say it tells you that you’re running slightly slower than your target pace. What happens?

For many runners, this introduces a source of anxiety. They might pick up the pace, but they might also start questioning themselves on whether their goal finish time has become unrealistic (for a range of reasons). Their perceived effort might increase – it might feel harder. This can create negative psychology, even if it is just in the form of a nagging doubt. In the later stages of the race, this can become amplified and problematic.

When you’re tired towards the end of a race, positive psychology makes an immense difference to your ability to run well. Feeling positive is more likely to enable you to stay relaxed, keep good running form, and stay strong. Relaxed running is generally better running. Negative psychology has the opposite effect.

Without that glance at the watch, the anxiety and doubt may not have become an issue.

2. Avoiding artificially slowing down

The opposite problem can also occur, which is that runners use watches to slow themselves down to a particular predetermined pace. This could result in missing out on running faster than expected.

It’s the equivalent of setting a ceiling on what we believe ourselves to be capable of, and then not attempting to push beyond that false ceiling. By not allowing ourselves to run naturally, and dictating pace based on the numbers on a watch rather than how we are actually feeling, we could be needlessly running at a slower pace.

This isn’t to say there’s no place for watches. For example, they can be very useful for avoiding starting a race too fast, which is a trap that many runners fall into (particularly over the marathon distance, as amply demonstrated by the recent ARU research we helped to facilitate). Even so, watches evidently don’t overcome this tendency to start too fast.

3. Tapping the most sophisticated tool available

GPS watches are not infallible. Our science-focused culture might make us feel that gadgets are likely to give us the most accurate information, but of course, that’s not always true.

Your watch isn’t 100% accurate, as you probably know. It takes approximate measurements of your position (the science behind this is phenomenal, but don’t fall into the trap of assuming it’s, therefore, perfect). The distance run, the pace, the altitude and other data are approximations.

In most races, the distance your watch measures for the course won’t be exactly the race distance (e.g. 10k, 13.1 miles, etc). Your watch will usually tell you that you’ve run further. Most of the time, that’s because you have run further – each time you skirt around runners in front of you or slightly deviate from the shortest possible “blue line”, you are adding distance to your race. It can also be because your watch has measured it with a small degree of inaccuracy.

Furthermore, your watch can’t really help you instantaneously adjust pace for features of the course, such as rough terrain, crowded sections, hills or sharp turns.

It’s easy to forget that our brains are more sophisticated pacing computers than our watches. We can’t train our watches to get better with each race. Trusting the brain to judge pacing, and training it to become more accurate through the experience of racing, could eventually give us a more powerful tool for using our body’s energy and resources to maximum potential.

“Unconscious parts of our brain are able to make sophisticated predictive calculations regarding what is likely to happen without our conscious minds having any sense of the process. Only the results of these calculations reach consciousness, as intuitive feelings. Anticipatory regulation is a great example of this phenomenon. The feeling that you are running too fast and the feeling that you could run faster are intuitions—very smart intuitions, in most experienced runners—that come to consciousness as the fruit of extremely complex, experience-based calculations. No amount of conscious calculation could do a better job of telling you how fast you can run in a given workout or race on a given day.”
Matt Fitzgerald

4. Working with energy ebbs and flows

During a race, you’ve probably noticed there are periods of time when you feel strong, and other periods when you’re struggling. This is often most apparent over longer distances such as the marathon.

In my own running, I notice that if I allow myself just to roll with those peaks and troughs during a race – wherever they occur – then I feel better overall. If I artificially try to level these out by forcing myself to run one steady pace based on the numbers on my watch, I often feel worse for it. Sometimes it’s best to accept the rough patches, even slow down a little, and you can pick yourself up again and feel stronger afterward.

Running to a watch doesn’t allow you to run according to these natural flows.

Intriguing brain pacing studies

The fact that pacing is a learning process is obvious to any parent who takes their child to a fun run or junior parkrun. The little ones shoot off at full pelt, and half of them will have stopped to walk by the first corner. It’s pretty hilarious, and they’re all (or mostly all) having a great time, so who cares. But the whole process of improving pacing requires learning development in the brain and can most likely become stronger with deliberate training. There’s a body of research backing up this idea.

A fascinating study at the University of Exeter back in 2009 showed how participants “felt” their way to optimal pacing in a cycling time trial with experienced and fit cyclists. Participants in the experimental group (EXP) were given four chances to cycle a time trial as fast as possible, but they were not told the distance – only that it was the same in all four time trial attempts. They were given no feedback on time, speed or distance during the time trials. Participants in the control group (CON) were told it was 4km and also given four opportunities. The EXP participants went much more slowly and cautiously than the CON group in the first time trial because they had no idea how long they needed to continue. But this EXP group became faster with each attempt, and in the last time trial both groups had the same averaged time. The EXP group had used their previous experiences in the first three attempts to establish an internal pacing strategy, without any reference data or feedback about their speed, time or distance.[1]

This also relates closely to the well-known exercise science theory of “The Central Governor” by Dr Tim Noakes[2]. The theory holds that the brain acts as a sophisticated monitor to prevent excess damage to the body, ultimately to prevent death by not allowing the body to expend energy reserves beyond physiological limits. Pacing is a mechanism which enables an athlete to push themselves to a level of physical exertion that falls within these limits. Noakes’s research team has also shown that perceived effort is a stronger predictor of fatigue than heart rate, blood lactate level, oxygen consumption levels or muscle fuel depletion. Noakes holds that fatigue is a mechanism that takes place in the brain: he says “The feeling of fatigue is fatigue.”

Using injury comeback to train my brain

OK, so how do these theories translate into reality?

Let me share a bit of my own story here… I’ve been learning to use my brain rather than my watch more for pacing over the past year, and it’s paid huge dividends. A few months ago I had a long lay-off from running with a serious injury which required surgery. When I came back to running, I had to start slowly. Two miles was a long way at first. I didn’t bother taking my previously-indispensable watch. I spent several weeks running without a watch because I didn’t even want to think about pace – I was delighted to be able to start running again, and knew I needed to be careful and cautious with my comeback.

I got stronger over the weeks and started running with my watch again so that I could keep track of overall mileage. But I still didn’t need to know my pace, so I avoided looking at my watch while I was actually running, and continuing to focus on simply enjoying running. It felt liberating.

I stayed in the habit of wearing a watch but only really looking at it after a run, not during. My pacing splits showed I was running faster than before my operation without any increase in perceived effort. I think there were various reasons for that, not least that I was no longer carrying an underlying injury. Even so, I noticed a change in my own attitudes to running: I was feeling more relaxed. As a consequence, I was running more smoothly.

So I decided to experiment with this approach in races. I tried running 5ks without a watch and broke my PB twice. Then I tried running a 10k, which felt a little riskier (after all a 5k is basically eyeballs out all the way, so less need for a watch anyway). Would the no-watch approach work? Yes, as it happens. I smashed my three-year-old 10k PB.

So could I extend the experiment to a half marathon? Yep, that too. I knocked over three minutes off a PB I’d been struggling to get close to for years.

What was going on? I don’t think this was purely about my new “no-peeking-at-watch” approach, but I do think that it played an important part. The combination of the four factors listed above, with an improved confidence in my own ability to run without my watch, helped me to push through barriers without any fear of the unchartered territory.

How do you do it? Training ideas for improving intuitive pacing

The idea of suddenly jumping into running without a watch might seem daunting. There are gentler ways of gradually developing a more intuitive sense of pacing. Here are some simple ideas:

1.Training session – long intervals at race-specific paces
Try running at specific race paces in a training session. For example:

Run 7 miles with 2 x 2m at 10k pace.
Or run 6 miles with increasing pace: Mile 1 steady, miles 2-3 marathon pace, miles 4-5 half marathon pace, mile 6 at 10k pace.
Or run 4 miles with 2 x 1m at 5k pace.
Wear your watch but don’t look at it during your run. Afterward, review your splits and see how you were actually running compared with your expected pace.

Repeat this session once a week or once a fortnight and monitor what happens to your pacing.

2. Training steady – review your “comfortable” pace
Run a few of your training runs at a steady pace without looking at your watch.

When you look at your splits afterward, are you running at the same speed as you do when you regularly check your watch? How much is your pace fluctuating, and do you notice that while you’re running?

3. Race practice – try intuitive pacing in a race
Perhaps pick a less important or short race to try out intuitive pacing. In fact, parkruns are a superb opportunity to try this out. If it works for you, test it on a 10k, or on a “tune-up” race.

What happens? How do you feel when you’re running? What’s the pacing profile – do you speed up in the middle of your race and slow at the end, or the opposite?

All of this additional information will help you learn more about your own running even if you then return to the safety net of pacing with a watch. It’s interesting and fun, and there’s nothing to lose!

A final thought: The benefits of watches

There is an important place for watches. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that any runner hoping to get quicker or wanting to get serious about their training, would benefit from having a GPS watch that can help them understand their running better.

Using the data from your watch to understand precise pacing over specific distances, you can analyse your own training and performances, see your improvements, spot patterns, and become more focused and specific about training paces.

You might even enjoy analysing your watch’s data as an end in itself. Nothing wrong with that: go for your life!

This article isn’t about ditching your watch, it’s still a valuable tool when used well. But it’s important not to let your watch prevent you from learning to use your own inbuilt pacing ability more effectively. So if your ultimate objective is to improve your running, perhaps it’s time to question who’s in charge – you or your watch?

Originally published by Flying Runner.

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