I learned this the hardest way possible. I was at the World Student Games in Sheffield, England, and I was a young, enthusiastic runner, excited to be alongside my idols and role models. I was so wrapped up in the experience of the event, my first really big multisport games, that I tagged along for a training run with some of the more experienced members of the Canadian Team. So happy to be just running with the elite, I did my best to keep up during a 10 mile run at slightly faster than 6 min/mile pace. This run ended up being a strong tempo run, (probably a 4 out of 5 on the effort scale at the end of the run) and, 2 days out of my 10 000m track event, left me with nothing on race day. I will never forget the disappointment of running that race on tired legs; after only 6 laps, it was a struggle, and suffering through each of the remaining interminable 19 laps taught me 25 times over to never again throw away a race during training.
The ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted into ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts.
I believe it is really important for people to develop this skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training.
There is another quality to mindfulness, though, as it pertains to your goals, and priorities. I could argue that during my 10 mile run through the countryside outside Sheffield, in the lead up to the Student Games 10 000, I was entirely mindful. I was so mindful of my effort and my love of running that I totally forgot about my goal of running the track race in 2 evenings hence. If I had been truly mindful about what was needed of myself, as my own best coach to prepare optimally for the event, for which I had travelled across the globe, then I would have been able to run in a relaxed easy manner, for a shorter duration, and been ready.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting to lactate accumulation and you can go comfortably for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not heart rate, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do or that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data. “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what. Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
As Olympic marathoner Lorraine Moller puts it in her wonderful article about self coaching called “Becoming a Body Whisperer, “All champion runners can tune in to their bodies' signals to such a high degree that they have the ability to optimally divvy out their effort over the distance required using precise split-second decisions. They don't have the time or mind-space during a race to check their monitor data, make a cell phone call to their coach and wait for him to call back with instructions on whether to increase or decrease their pace after downloading it into a computer. Nor would they want such a clumsy system when their inner technology is so much more sophisticated, speedy and accurate. Although such a scenario is laughable, many runners proceed as if this were the case and fall apart when the race requires them to be self-reliant. By contrast, every champion athlete, almost without exception, is an expert body whisperer whose trust in their internal abilities of gauging effort, pacing and timing is unwavering”.
Spend some time training by feel alone
Training without a watch, or any technology, will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself.
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. I learned early in my career, that my heart and desire were far greater and stronger than my muscular skeletal system. While some of my peers were running 150 km/week, I rarely could hold greater than 80 before I broke down or got sick. This limited my ability to be a great marathoner and I stuck with half marathon, 10k, and 5k, and eventually added triathlon to my career - using bike mileage to boost my cardiovascular system. Some athletes can work their way up systematically and gradually and logically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume. Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume by listening to your body not blindly following your training log. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t Be a Sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘highest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. In my girls group I play a warm up game on a field called ‘Amoeba Running’, where the whole group pretends they are one amoeba. We run in a tightly packed group, close enough to touch hands and elbows, but can change form as we run so it feels loose and relaxed.
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will be keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
Writing the Running Life
For 30 years I pursued a high performance career and traveled the world. This blog melds this experience with my coaching and passion to support excellence in others.