A Case for Running by Feel

My fastest half marathon was my first. This was 2010, and I was in grad school in New York City and had no spare money for a gym membership. I need to exercise—I get uneasy without at least three weekly workouts. So I signed up for a half marathon, figuring running would not only give me a new form of exercise, but also allow me to experience unfamiliar parts of the city. 

My training gear included some basic Puma running shoes and cotton gym shorts and shirt; no techy fitness watches to monitor my pace, mileage, or heart rate. My training was simple: I ran suggested weekly mileages that I found online—a "longer" run on the weekend and a couple "shorter" runs during the weekdays—and estimated my run distances using GoogleMaps. I didn't track my pace, although I knew I was getting faster because I'd check the clock on the microwave before and after my long runs. The fact that I'd pass most other runners told me my pace was "good enough." 


Then came race day. I stood casually in the starting corral, the racers around me strategizing with each other about their planned paces while fidgeting with pricey Garmin watches.

My race plan was simpler: Run to the finish line as fast as you can. That's exactly what I did, and the effort placed me in the top two percent of racers. Sure, my final time of just under 1:30 wasn't all that fast in the scheme of competitive running. But it was decent for a first-timer who didn't care about the competition.

The experience left me with a grand question: What if I did care about the competition? If I put effort and science into training, could I land on the podium? I had to know.

I went out and bought a GPS watch and shoes that weren't worn at the bottom, and tackled calculated training plans that involved complicated methods like "fartleks" and "200-meter repeats." The approach was novel at first. But the more I ran by the numbers—exact pace, heart rate, distances—the less I enjoyed running. In focusing on a digit on my wrist, I not only ignored bodily cues telling me to slow down or speed up, I also disregarded the passing natural world. Running felt like a chore, not the fun, meditative diversion it once was; a free-flowing type-B experience transformed into a regimented type-A exercise. The kicker: I wasn't running much faster.

I told you all that to tell you this: I recently wrote about the benefits of running sans-tech for the Women's Health September issue (opening page pictured above). It all started when my editor, the superbly-talented Jen Ator, saw this tweet:

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To report the piece, I talked to Kim Jones, a decorated US marathoner and run coach who ran a 2:48:48 marathon with perfectly even splits—all without the use of tech. I talked to Alec Blenis, a professional racer and exercise scientist who told me running by your breath rather than a watch may be a smarter way to pace yourself. I talked to Sakyong Mipham, a runner and the head of Shambala Buddhism who told me that electronics take you out of the now, reducing the meditative benefits of running. Those are just a few of the people who helped me understand the topic. 

I also waded into the science. One study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, for example, found being hyper-aware of your pace can slow you down, while research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise discovered that runners who adapt their pace based on feel tend to run further, faster, using less energy.

The story's takeaway is surely not, "running with electronics is bad." But there are a wide range of tangible benefits you might experience if you disconnect from the cloud and run free. Click here to read a PDF version of the story.

Michael Easter