A few weeks ago, I went for a naked run.
I didn’t mean to go naked. New mothers can probably relate to this. It’s taken you about an hour to get out of the door after feeding the baby, changing the baby, getting the baby ready to be left with someone else, getting yourself ready to get out the door and finally after all of that, you’re in the car, drive 15 minutes west to go running – outside – IN DAYLIGHT! – when you realize….
You’ve forgotten your watch.
But at least you are fully clothed and wearing both (matching!) running shoes!
(I’m waiting for the day I leave the house with one running shoe and one racing flat)
Going back home – not an option. And so it was decided: I would be running naked.
It’s been nearly two years since I’ve done a winter run at Herrick Lake. It was cold, about 16 degrees with a biting west wind. The path was covered in snow, some sections so icy that the run felt like a long exercise in high knees drill. Lucky for me it was simply an easy run. One of those, go out and run 75 minutes, do a few cadence checks. With no watch, I created a simple plan: go out and run what feels like 15 minutes, turnaround and check the clock in the car.
Simple as that.
I never know how fast (or slow) I run. I don’t wear a Garmin and I prefer to keep it that way. I have years worth of data in Training Peaks that I’ve just guessed. Distance estimated. Could have been 4 miles. Or 5. Felt fast today. Tired, hung back. All of this guesswork means I never know my running pace. But I know what it feels like to warm up, I know my tempo pace, I know how my breathing should sound during a 5K. I know these things because I listen. I seek and accept feedback from my body and then I respond to it.
Maybe that approach is too zen for most but…isn’t that the point of working out? I get paid to overthink workouts for others and pay someone to overthink my workouts. When I go out there, finally, to workout I don’t want to think about anything. I want to be in the moment and doing the work necessary. If you want me to run hard, I’ll run hard. If you want me to run easy, I’ll run easy. There is no magical pace that is easy or hard. If I’ve learned anything after nearly 20 years of running it’s that day to day pace changes. Some days, your typical hard pace feels easy. Those are the great days. Other days, the easy pace feels hard. Those are the good days, because the bottom line is that you’re out there, running. You have the ability. Embrace it.
The day is perfect. The winter air is thin and crisp but the sky is blue. I’m bundled up like an Inuit alone on the path. I run what feels like 15 minutes and turnaround heading back to the car. Along the way, I see no one. Today, I own this path. Back at the car, I put the key in the ignition to check the clock. Thirty minutes have elapsed. As far as my sense of time, I nailed it. I set out again, this time deciding to run 20 minutes out and back.
When I first started running after pregnancy – after not running for 5 months – sometimes Chris would ride alongside me. With a Garmin. I would run a pace, guess the pace in my head then ask Chris what was my pace. More often than not, I was dead on accurate. Why not just wear the Garmin myself? Because I wanted to learn how to feel again. I wanted to find the ability to feel different paces. Not follow the lead of the Garmin. I wanted to relearn this is how my feet sound at that pace, how my breathing sounds, how to turnover to achieve and x-minute mile. Valuable feedback that we cannot hear if we are not listening.
Learn to be a better listener.
Recently, I attended a lecture from Bobby McGee. He’s a phenomenal running coach and heck of a speaker. I could listen to him all day. On that day, he said we’ve become too dependent on technology. We’ve lost the ability to feel our pace. It’s a lost art – the ability to pace. Athletes try to break it down to a science but what if science fails you – the battery goes dead, you forget the Garmin, the satellites don’t pick up. What then? What if all the science doesn’t matter because it’s too hot, the course is hilly or you’re just having an off day. How do you know how to run?
It has to come from within – from listening, from learning, from sometimes taking a risk and pushing the limits just to find out where your limit really is. Forget pace prediction charts, you don’t know what you can do until you go out there, take the risk and find out. On days when you’re not supposed to take a risk, trust that what truly feels easy – with no labored breathing – is easy. And even it’s really slow, it will help you go to get to your goal.
McGee has written more on running than any of us will ever have time to read. But should you have extra time, within his writing you will find gems. One of my favorites comes from 2006 where he writes about intuitive training and racing.
From the Olympic hopefuls that I coach to athletes just trying to break through some personal barrier, I always get the same question – “How hard or how fast should I do this repetition, or this run, or this race?” Invariably I either ask for or have access to enough data to be able to calculate some reasonably accurate answer for them. But somehow I feel that I am cheating them of the wonderful opportunity of being able to take a risk, an opportunity to trust their intuition, which is present in each & every one of us. Truly great training sessions come from this place of risk and vulnerability. Our moments of true athletic brilliance occur when we least expect them. These times are characterized by a lack of effort and concerted thought. They come from being quiet and allowing our bodies to feel the rhythm, effort and pace.
My mind is quiet on today’s run. It helps that everything around me is covered in a layer of snowy silence. The snow absorbs the sounds of the world until all you hear is the light sound of your feet on the path. There is no quiet more impressive than the winter.
The mind is not quiet when it’s obsessing over numbers or interpreting too much information. Technology can be frustrating. There is a delay in what we do and what it says. It only measures accurately in a straight line. It doesn’t always work on cloudy days. And on the track – you have to ask yourself…why are you bringing a measuring device to a course that’s already measured?
(And yes the track will always measure long on the Garmin but every runner knows – the track never lies. Ever.)
Of course, I’ve run with a Garmin. I’ve had coaches require me to upload data containing everything from easy runs, track splits, run tests and tempo descends. What they did with all that data I had no idea. It never made me a better runner. It just made me that person. That person who is out there on the path running and looking at the Garmin every – freakin – minute. It’s hard not to. It’s instant feedback, the I’ve-always-wanted-to-know-and-finally-I-can feeling of I can’t help but look. For awhile it was fun, wow that’s my pace, but then it became more about holding a certain average pace than listening to my body. That wasn’t good for my running. But I had data. Loads of it. That should make me good, right?
It’s not for everyone. Some people love it and need it – for validation, for the numbers, the trends. As a coach, I see its value with an athlete but don’t think it’s the ultimate answer. The successful athlete still needs to learn to feel. You need to be able to put yourself on a track and by your breathing, turnover and form alone, if someone tells you to run x:xx pace you should be able to hit the 400 split for every lap. If not, you need to learn better pacing. Simply spend some time listening to yourself.
After what feels like 20 minutes, I turn to run back towards the car. A few others have joined me on the path. Three men riding mountain bikes, no winter gear, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the windchill is a bitter negative four degrees. One other man running. And even another man in the middle of the lake ice fishing, complete with drill, lawn chair and Smokey Joe. Once I reach the car, the clock tells me that 40 minutes have gone by.
The run has passed by fast. There is a point in every run where you think to yourself – what am I thinking about. The run usually starts with a head overfilled with the day’s dramas, dilemmas and other life static. But as the miles progress, the head empties. Focus begins to narrow to a particular topic or conversation. Finally, it turns to something else entirely – the way the clouds scatter in the sky, how the grasses are blowing in the wind. You realize that you’re zoning out. If you’ve ever been to the zone, you know it’s a state of nothingness, of doing but not thinking. Everything is automatic in a rhythm that feels entirely right. I run to get to this point. Once I’m there, I feel like I can run all day.
Right now, I’m there. It’s terribly cold but I’m so engaged in running that I don’t notice it. I’m sad to only have 5 minutes left. Once around the lake should be good enough for 5 minutes. I’m running a slow pace, I know that, but it doesn’t matter. It’s an easy run. It’s supposed to be slow.
I’m often surprised at how much athletes fight running slow. If my slow pace takes me 10 minutes, 9 minutes or 8 minutes I don’t care. It’s not supposed to matter. It’s an easy run. The truth is I spend more time running slow than running fast. 90 percent of you won’t believe that. That’s because most people train too hard. The secret with running is that consistency is what really counts. The more time you spend running overall, the faster you’ll get. And what you do with that time matters. It doesn’t mean running miles upon miles – it means running miles that matter, running them as economically as possible and through that economy developing speed. When you run hard more than you should, you get injured. When you are injured, your training gets interrupted and you have inconsistency. The more inconsistencies, the harder it is to make progress. It’s the easy miles that make you more durable so you can get to the faster miles. Remember that.
I’ve never raced with a Garmin until two years ago. I was doing a 5K and going to collect the data for heart rate and pace. I went into the race telling myself I would not look at the data display. The race started like any other 5K – a bunch of people bolt and you start at what feels like a controlled pace though you know that in another mile you will feel like you are wheezing only inches from death. I felt entirely on top of my pace when I couldn’t help it. The Garmin felt heavy on my wrist and all I wanted to do was take a peek and see the pace when I couldn’t resist any more and saw….
A pace that looked way too fast.
The irony is that it felt great. Effortless, light, snappy, all those things you want to feel in a 5K. I had been running exclusively for 6 weeks. I had not been training by pace. I went entirely by feel – hard was hard, easy was easy. And for all I knew, that was an appropriate pace. But when I saw that number I knew it fell in my sub x:xx warning danger impending system shutdown in 5-4-3-2-1 mode.
I slowed down.
Studies have shown that when you see a pace that you think you can’t sustain, your muscles start to shut down. The central governor: read about it. When you think the pace is possible, you begin to recruit more muscles to actually do it. Next time you run, try to sustain a pace that seems like a stretch. You can only do this when you don’t have all of the information. Because when you see a fast pace, the brain gets in the way, reacting with a series of messages shouting stop, too fast, pain, hurt, slow down! And that is the drawback of always watching and knowing your pace. Of course it can help you go out at an appropriate pace because the first 5 minute of anything feels easy but beyond that what if it’s holding you back?
What if you are what is holding you back? The way you think about running, what you think about your pace. Face it: running is uncomfortable, it’s hard and the slowest of all three sports to show progress. When we swim poorly, we know that we are just a few more drills away from success. When we bike poorly, we know that we can buy a faster set of wheels or aero helmet to save ourselves. When we run poorly – it’s just ourselves. We tend to beat ourselves up, creating a negative place of frustration and fear that we can’t help but go to during every run. I’m slow, this feels hard, this hurts, maybe I’m too fat.
For the next run, leave the Garmin at home, stay away from the measured course and let your mind run quiet. Learn to connect better with how you feel and your form. Listen to yourself. Quiet your head. Take the pressures and evaluation away. With all of that freedom, let yourself learn to love running – reconnecting to what we did so often in childhood just for fun and play. We ran circles when we were excited. We played chase with our friends. We didn’t evaluate how fast or how far. We just ran.
I say, run naked. The run still counts even if you don’t know how far you went. I’ve got over 7 years of data from runs with no verification. Nothing told me I actually ran those miles. Except myself. Today, I finished my 75-minute run having no idea how far I went. All I know is that it felt good and sustainable. And I carried that feeling around with me the rest of the day. In a word, that feeling was awesome.
Miles don’t matter, I run for that feeling of awesome. The run was awesome. I feel awesome. And I’ve learned with that feeling, you find those faster miles.