Running, Triathlon
September 21, 2017

The Pros And Cons Of Training By Feel

Male runner training on the roads

As humans, we have many innate abilities.

One of these is the ability to determine and assess how we are feeling at any point in time.

This is a very useful skill set to have as a runner but it also comes with drawbacks when using “feel” to determine how fast you should be training.

As a runner, knowing how hard to train in each session is crucial, as it’s the intensity of a run that determines the majority of the benefit you get from it.

Run too slow and you won’t build any substantial fitness. Run too fast and you place an unnecessary amount of stress on your body and may find yourself with annoying little niggles or in a constant state of fatigue if done too often.

Neither scenario is ideal.

Heart rate, pace and feel (rate of perceived exertion as it’s commonly referred to) can all be used as a “measure of intensity” to guide a runner through a training session or a race. Each of these methods has pros and cons and over the next few posts, I will outline what I believe to be the pros and cons of each method.

To begin, let’s talk about training by feel.

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The Good: The Pros Of Training By Feel

Instant Feedback.
Because your sense of feel is inbuilt, you are constantly receiving feedback on how you are feeling. With this information  (even if it’s not very accurate, as you’ll read in the cons list) you can easily and quickly make decisions on whether you need to ease off the pace, push a little harder or hold your effort.

No High Tech Tools Required.
Running by feel doesn’t require any gadgets which make this ‘low tech’ approach particularly appealing to some athletes.

Without Knowing Output, You’re Free To Enjoy The Experience.
When you don’t know what your output is (how fast you’re going), you can relax and enjoy the experience because you’re not worrying about hitting your desired numbers. In this state, you’re free to take in the sights and enjoy the surroundings, chat with friends and generally enjoy the process of training.

The Bad: The Cons Of Training By Feel

There’s just one con when it comes to training by feel but it’s a BIG one.

Feel Is Subjective.
Unlike pace and heart rate which are objective measures of intensity, how you feel is subjective. This leaves a lot of room for poor interpretation that can negatively impact your ability to recover and improve.

I am not sure what causes it, but what we have learnt through testing in the Coached Lab, is that many amateur runners have a very poor natural sense of how hard they’re working. I suspect this is a result of not doing enough consistent training – from a volume and frequency point of view – to really hone this ability and ‘dial in’ how you actually feel.

I have also noticed that many runners associate slow with easy. Just because you are going slow, doesn’t mean you are going easy. If you’re unfit you’ll likely be going slow AND working hard.

As your fitness increases, your feeling doesn’t really change. Pushing yourself hard still hurts just as much and feels just as hard, but your output increases.

Without any objective feedback, you can feel really good and think you’re going really fast when in reality, you’re really not. You may just feel great because you’re running at a low pace, even if it feels fast.

In Closing

While there is definitely some upside to running by feel, it is not something that I think has the best return on investment for athletes with goals of improving their performance.

Instead, I encourage athletes to use tools that help you to ‘dial in’ your feel (perceived exertion) while measuring your output and how your body is responding to training.

In time, you’ll learn to become much better at gauging how hard you’re actually working at a given pace and heart rate and over time, even when not using a monitor, you will be more accurate in your execution when training by feel.

Coached RunningBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.