The Lost Art of Running By Feel (and Why I Dislike GPS Watches)

by Jason Fitzgerald

Last Christmas, I treated myself to a Garmin 610. After wearing it for less than 3 weeks, I haven’t worn it since.

I like it, though. It has a ton of cool features. The display is attractive. It looks a helluva lot better than my $30 Timex.

But after 15+ years of competitive running with no GPS watch, my reliance on my new Garmin was making me a worse runner. So I stopped using it and am back to running by feel.

Running by feel and relying on internal data is a far more effective way to train. Ignorance is often bliss and effort matters far more than specific splits. So I’m back with my trusty Timex and I couldn’t be happier.

How I Learned to Run

I started running as a 14 year old high school freshman in 1998. Back then, GPS watches weren’t popular and my parents sure as hell weren’t going to buy one for their teenage son who joined the cross country team so he could high jump. Seriously, I thought XC had field events…Middlesex League Championships 2001

During high school, we ran distance runs for time rather than distance and the effort was supposed to be easy. After most of our runs we ran strides.

We relied on our internal data to tell us what an easy run should feel like. That’s why our large team of 30 runners broke up into 3-4 groups as the run continued – some of us could run faster at an easy effort than others.

There were no pace calculators. There were no GPS watches. There was no bemoaning our easy 4 mile loop because we ran it in 32 minutes instead of 30 minutes. After all, who cares?

Only when we ran workouts did we care about our specific pace per mile. The team got on the track and ran intervals at varying paces – and it’s here that I learned what different paces felt like.

Even in college, not a single person on either the cross country or track teams had a GPS watch. We relied on “Badger Miles” to estimate our mileage (distance runs were based on a 7:00 mile pace average).

The real magic happens on the track where I can run almost any pace strictly by feel. That’s a learned skill mastered over years of running various workouts on the track. And like I always say:

The track never lies!

The truth is that it doesn’t matter much what pace you run during a normal run. What’s more important than whether you ran 8:30 pace instead of 8:45 pace is how it felt. Was it easy? Did you feel comfortable? Did you follow the 3 C’s of easy running?

GPS Watches Aren’t Accurate Anyway

Most runners worry that they won’t track their mileage accurately if they don’t use their Garmin. But what makes you think a Garmin is any more accurate?

One day I strapped on my Garmin and ran to the track to run a mile to see how accurate it was.

The result?

I ran 1,511 meters when the Garmin alerted me I had covered a mile – or 1,609.344 meters. The Garmin was off by over 6%, an unacceptable margin of error for me, particularly when I was on level terrain with no buildings or overhead obstructions nearby.

According to my Garmin 610, the “mile” I covered was in 6:53. During this mile, I was trying to run about a 7:00 mile and throughout the entire distance I constantly had to slow myself down. I felt like I was crawling.

Compare that to a loop I regularly run in 69 – 72 minutes that I’m comfortable calling about 10 miles. The Garmin measured this loop as 8.9 miles. The day I measured it I ran it in 68:15 – or 7:40 per mile.

But here’s the interesting part: I ran that loop at a steady-state effort. I was moving. The difference in effort level between 6:53 pace on the track and 7:40 pace on this loop was night and day: recovery run vs. steady-state.

And here is when I refuse to believe my watch. I’ve been running for over 15 years. I’ve raced everything from the 200m sprint to the marathon, with triathlons, the steeplechase, cross country, and a duathlon thrown in for good measure.

I know my body and I’m damn good at pacing. Here we get to the most important reason why you shouldn’t trust your Garmin.

Garmins Shake Your Confidence

During the weeks I tested my Garmin, I lost confidence in my ability as a runner. I thought I was running about 7:00 pace, only to have to push really hard to average 7:30 pace.

That’s a significant difference, especially since my resume of personal bests indicate that my distance run pace should be in the range of 6:20 – 7:15 per mile.

Had I all of a sudden lost my fitness? Even when I was running more than ever before, having set an annual mileage PR by over 200 miles in 2013?

I don’t think so. And when a training tool shakes your confidence, it’s no longer a valuable training tool. Like that quote? Click here to tweet it!

As Mario Fraioli recently tweeted:

Even though I might run 7:30 pace some days, I know when I’m running a lot faster. After 15+ years of structured training and thousands of sessions on the track, I trust my internal GPS much more than a Garmin.

Bad Data –> Bad Decisions

I only ran for a few weeks with a Garmin – and they were more stressful than racing. I glanced at the watch every minute. I stressed when the pace didn’t correspond with how I felt. I constantly tried to run faster to match what I thought my pace “should” read on my watch.

And after all that stress, it didn’t even matter. They were just easy distance runs, anyway.

Faulty pace data can encourage you to run faster than you should. This is exactly what happened during my runs when my watch claimed I was going 8:00 pace so I sped up so it read about 7:10 (but it felt like a goddamn tempo).

In hindsight, this was a very bad decision. It’s more important to listen to your body, not an inaccurate machine. Internal data is much more critical.

Legendary University of Colorado cross country coach Mark Wetmore is known for not liking heart rate monitors. He tells his runners to pay attention to their internal data instead: respiration, muscle fatigue, how a particular cadence felt, and how fast you intuitively felt you were going relative to your surroundings.

Running by feel and paying attention to this internal data is ultimately much more important than focusing on external data for most of your runs. Since the majority of a distance runners training should be at a comfortable effort level, a particular pace isn’t that important. The effort is what’s important.

Recovery runs should be very easy.

Distance or base runs should be comfortable, controlled, and conversational.

Steady-state running is easier than a tempo run. It’s “comfortably moderate.”

Tempo runs are borderline hard. They’re “comfortably hard.”

Some runners might be annoyed by all these vague definitions. But the runners who get intimately involved with their internal data and know the difference between your tempo pace – and 10 seconds faster or slower – by how it feels will ultimately be more successful.

The Garmin was making me ignore my internal data and run faster than I should. And that’s not a helpful training tool.

As long as you use your Garmin appropriately (take the data with a grain of salt and refer to it later not mid-run), then it can be helpful. Here’s the model I wear: Garmin Forerunner 610 Touch Screen.

Do you run by feel? Why or why not?

 

Join 10,000+ Runners and Get Faster!

Get the Strength Running PR Guide ebook and tips to run faster (without the injuries).

Share
Cabe

I use my Forerunner 10 all of the time. I have checked it against our Trimble Juno mapping grade units that have been calibrated against known benchmarks to be accurate to within a meter over long distances. The Forerunner consistently shows accuracy to within 1%. Having said that, it does lose signal in heavy tree cover, especially at night. But it straightens itself out when I run through more open terrain. I mostly run on flat ground, but sometimes am in the mountains on business, so it is nice to have the GPS to see how far I have gone when my internal pace may be way off due to not being used to the terrain. Also, don’t trust tracks out of hand. I used to teach surveying at a junior college, and we used a very accurate, survey grade laser to measure the 1/4 mile track there. It was actually about 1% off.

Kat @ Eating The Week

With the caveat that I’m a fairly slow recreational runner, generally, I don’t rely on tracking devices that dictate precise speeds/times mid-run. When I’m doing workouts that call for specific paces (HMP, etc) or effort levels, I’ll use RunKeeper to time the intervals but only using commands like easy, steady, fast. Then it’s up to me to figure out what “fast” means in that interval; I almost never check RK to see my pace quantified.

I do, however, review the splits afterward to see if I judged the “feel” correctly. I’ve definitely had runs where I blew well past a target pace without realizing it, and others where I could have *sworn* I was flying but actually lagged behind target. I’ve used those to learn how the conditions of my body (tired? fresh? still clearing out last night’s red wine?) and environment (cold/hot, road/trail, boring/fun) affect my self-assessment of pace & effort.

Don’t get me wrong – I couldn’t just bang out a precise 8:12/mile pace if you asked me to. But I’m confident enough in my run-by-feel experience that I could get within 5-10 secs/mile of my goal HMP without technological assistance.

Ian Simon

Interesting – I stopped enjoying my long runs when I started wearing a Garmin. It didn’t seem to do anything other than distract me and fool me into trying to run a consistent pace, rather than consistent effort. Typically now, I’ll glance at the clock before I leave the house and check it when I get in – that’s enough data for me.

Jeff

I wear a Garmin all the time.I really like the HR data and knowing how far Ihave gone, especially as I try toneverrunthe same loops and routes . I have turned off the pace screen though, that was really depressing as you said,just seems to always be telling you how slow you are.
I have been running for 40years, track, trail, hills roads, but Ihave found that running by feelisnotthebest for me. Maybe I lie to myself too much, but Ifound that on days when I feel great,well, I am going a bit slower. The days when Iam feeling tired, well, those days I am running faster and harder
Keeps me honest.

jared

Absolutely, running by feel is better than trying to gauge effort level using the Garmin data. Which is why I rarely look at it during the run. But the Garmin is great tool for logging purposes post-workout. And it’s accurate. It’s has never been off by 6%. My standard 3.35 mile loop is always within .01/.02 miles. If Jason were right, it should be randomly giving me 3.15 miles one day and 3.55 miles the next. Never happens. If I repeat a long run, the mileage is always close to the previous one. 19.10 miles and 19.06 miles doesn’t really matter to me at that point. Now if you’re running quarter mile repeats and it’s extremely important to you that you run exactly .25 each time then I agree that the GPS watch will not be perfect. But my experience is that it will still be between .24-.26.

Trail Running Dad

Agreed, regarding accuracy of distance data. Sounds like some error within your Garmin, perhaps it just needs a firmware update. I’ve got an old forerunner 305, and it’s been quite accurate on certified courses, so I can’t imagine the 610 isn’t at least as accurate.
I find it must useful in race situations – if my body wants to back off just a touch, but I see that I’m behind goal pace, it’s normally enough motivation to override the central governor a little.

robb

the most relevant data for me while running is HR. i like to run with HRM so i don’t even have to rely on feel (are my muscles sore from a previous run? am i tired? did i time my eating that day badly?). if i run consistently to an HR my pace over the course of training speeds up as i get in better shape. any time i try a new course i double check it before or after on google earth. i’ve found my garmin 405 to be reasonably accurate, but the data is best used for post-processing macro themes like total distance, average pace, and whether i generally ran a negative split, and, of course, HR data.

Phil

A watch, like any other piece of running gear, is a tool, helpful for some, not so helpful for others, helpful for some situations, not for others. Case in point, I personally have had three different gps units and an FR60 foot pod watch. Because I am most definitely NOT an elite athlete with years and years of experience running with folks of similar abilities and don’t have easy access to a track, I have found having data available helpful for getting me “in the ballpark” for the workout I am doing. In my case, this aids in making sure I put in a hard but controlled effort and keeps me from going out too hard. But you are correct, GPS devices aren’t perfect. Some devices are more accurate than others, and gps watches don’t really provide accurate, steady live pacing (hence the need for the “lap pace” feature) As such,integrating data received from both the watch and the body (e.g.- by feel) may be a good way to go as long as you don’t get too invested in maintaining an exact pace readout on the watch. Incidentally, my favorite watch for pacing is a foot pod, not my gps. The foot pod’s pace readout is instant and much steadier.

iain

Like any other tool it’s a matter of how you use it. I love my GPS watch, but I never look at the distance data during a run. Very rarely will I look at pace.

The only things I generally use while actually running are the Chronometer, and the clock. Occasionally I will use it to check heart rate or cadence too, but prefer to go by feel when it comes to pace. The compass and altimeter can come in handy for navigation, and at least once trackback has allowed me to get un-lost when running in an unfamiliar city.

It’s great to be able to look at the data later, and while it’s not necessarily 100% accurate it’s certainly good enough to allow me to track progress over time, and judge effort. Combined with attaching information on how a run felt, GPS watches can be excellent “black boxes” allowing you to discover what went wrong (or right) if your training goes in an unexpected direction and make keeping an extensive running log far easier.

Using one has made me far more aware of long term changes in my running performance.

Ania

thank you for that post! I’m now feeling validated in relying mostly on effort in my training rather than the dictate of the Garmin; the results speak for themselves – I got a 13 minute PB in my recent marathon and fulfilled my dream of going sub 3:30.

Rich

Jason, Interesting. I’m going to disagree with you — well sorta — on this one. I was really reluctant to get a GPS. I started running at age 13, 37 years ago, also way before GPS watches. My internal clock is pretty darn good. I agree that running by effort and paying attention to internal data are critical, but the GPS gives me another set of data to complement what I’m feeling/sensing. I’ve actually slowed down recovery efforts b/c although it felt easy enough, if I was being honest it was just a bit faster than it should have been. The GPS gave me the info to make that decision. Similarly, the GPS has helped me distribute the workload on a tempo run much move evenly. Consequently I now better understand how the early part of a longer race will feel different from the middle stages. I think there are ways to use the tool and hold true to the art.

johnf

Really like your run by feel post but I also like my Garmin to help me map runs and keep a training diary. I turned off pace in the display settings and now I don’t look at my watch every 30 seconds or worry about how fast or slow I’m going.

Brad Patterson

Unlike many people, I train mainly by heartrate as opposed to trying to hit exact paces. HR level equates directly to effort level, so I find the GPS watch to be a very valuable tool to display my HR and time. If you need to do a tempo (or intervals or whatever), you can target a HR level, like X% of max HR or whatever for a specified period of time and then run to that level. When you are done, you can look at your paces and distances to see where you ended up, but ultimately even if the GPS is off; you still were able to achieve the “training effect” that you were shooting for. And I have been doing it long enough now that I can just about do it by feel and very rarely need to even look at my GPS to know where my HR/effort level is at.

Trent

Training with a heart rate monitor changes the subjectivity of running by feel. It’s made a huge positive difference in my running.

Julia

HR training is fine as long as you know the limitations and your TRUE HR max! The formulas can easily be off by +/- 20 bpm to estimate maximal HR. Also, things like cardiovascular drift (HR drifting upward naturally) can really lead runner’s astray if they don’t understand the limitations. Great for tracking fitness and recovery, and if you know your true HR at lactate threshold you can use it to set precise training intensities. Just an opinion from a cardiovascular physiologist who never wears a HR monitor. :-)

Brad Patterson

Julia,

I agree that knowing true max is important. But I don’t understand your comment about cardiovascular drift, though. What do you mean by “can really lead runners astray if they don’t understand the limitations”? I understand cardiovascular drift and also understand that my HR will naturally rise over the course of a long run/race. At that point, it is my choice to either (1) lower my effort level to keep the same HR training zone that I am targeting or (2) ignore the rising HR and keep or increase my effort level to “maintain pace”. Could you elaborate?

Julia

Hi Brad – by this I mean slowing the pace to keep the HR down as the duration of the run continues is definitely not the best strategy for peak performance as you are essentially teaching yourself to positive split! You are much better off ignoring the HR rise and keep on pushing. Now if just health and fitness is your goal, it doesn’t matter much. Hope that clarifies.

Trent

I wear a GPS watch for every run. It’s proven to be accurate when matched up with other known methods of measuring. I don’t look at it during long runs or recovery runs until I’m finished unless I want to know my distance covered. And I only look at the distance. Gonna have to disagree with Jason on this one, although I’m not trying to persuade him not to ditch the GPS. He seems to know what he’s doing.

Laura

I agree with many of these posts. I use RunKeeper mainly so I know my distance even if approximate. My pace seems slower when running with that than in races but I can use it to compare paces as measures by that tool. I also line to see my splits and whether I am making progress over similar runs. I no longer run with music as I try to enjoy the run and focus on posture and relaxation. But I do like to know where I am during runs. I don’t use anything during races and always do better in races.

Marcie

So glad you wrote this article. I was actually surprised when you said you were getting one and shocked you made it to almost 3 weeks. I have come completely full circle on the GPS watch. I started with one when I started running and didn’t know any different, but in the last 6 months I have gotten to the point where even if I wear it, I hardly ever look at the data during my run and sometimes delete it as soon as I am done just so I don’t have to bother with stressing over my pace. Because I travel so much I do keep it running to keep track of my distance in a brand new area, but unless I am running a workout with prescribed paces, I stay away from checking the pace. And even in those situations I am working more towards honing in on running those by feel.

It has been hugely liberating to realize that for the vast majority of my runs, the pace just does not matter. I govern myself and listen to my body’s feedback. And no doubt some days, my easy pace is a good 15 – 30 seconds faster or slower than my average pace. Ultimately to me it is a tool that you use when you need it–and on a lot of days you just don’t need that tool to get what you need to out of your run.

Good article Jason. Thanks for sharing.

Michael

Sorry I’m going to disagree with Jason on this one. I hate running without my Garmin, but I am (like many others here) using my Garmin for other things than telling me pace. I like it because it provides me with information during and after the run. I use my Garmin to log all of my runs and I put down any helpful information about the run. I find it much easier to do that instead of the old running journals. I agree that running by feel is important and most of the time my Garmin confirms what I feel, but not always. I think the secret is learning to use the tool and not let the tool use you. Now, I’ve got to go download my Garmin.

Andrew Deak

In general I agree with you, Jason. However, I think that the data from a GSP watch can be useful in helping you push yourself. While there are some situations where the data hinders more than helps (like a track workout), over longer distances, that becomes less of an issue. I use mine to display my average speed over entire intervals (shortest being a mile, longest being 5km). I run by perceived effort, and then look down every now and then to check the average pace. That lets me know whether I should be pushing a little more or whether I have room to ease back.

Julia

I think both are useful, but in specific situations. However, being able to tune in and listen to your inner level of perceived effort is VERY important! Garmin helps me on both ends – pushing to hit a pace that’s a little beyond comfortable and also keeping me at a really nice easy slow, recovery effort. Otherwise it’s easy to “regress toward the mean” and run too many runs at a moderate pace. It keeps me from running too fast at the beginning of long races, however I found it absolutely useless for pace for my hilly 50K. I ran the entire thing by effort and ended up with one of my best running performances ever. I would like to run a half marathon completely by feel with no watch or timing whatsoever to see how it would turn out – as an experiment, since sometimes I think over short races it might limit my performances. I have been guilty of seeing a pace that I think feels good, looking down and thinking “oh shoot I better cool it or I will blow up”. Since I almost never “blow up” I think I should just see how far I can push it before I do. Nice post – bottom line, can’t beat tuning IN!

Amanda W

Errr…something seems wrong with your Garmin. I’ve done all city races (tall buildings, downtowns, and plenty of trees) and I’ve never been off more than a couple of hundredths of a mile. I’ve wondered about pace too, but my avg pace is always right per the time/distance. I don’t think the instant pace is accurate for many reasons, not least of which the Garmin doesn’t take enough data points for that kind of feedback. I think lap pace is fine though–every time I run, I hear the beep at the the same point for my first mile, and I look to see my lap pace/time are identical.

I’m loving everyone’s idea/method of turning pacing off the display to run by feel and not get psyched out. I love my maps, my Garmin is accurate and my data is fun to review. But I too get freaked out on both ends by my pace and I think it’s a great idea to kick it to the background.

Larry

Funny that you felt compelled to look at your watch every minute or so. I usually run by feel and ditched the heart rate monitor a long time ago. I typically use my Nike+ GPS watch to track routes I may have run for the approximate milage. I also like that I can determine a route with approx milage when I am running with someone and they need to go a specific milage for the day.
I typically do not look at my watch until I stop it. I like seeing the splits afterwards just to see how my run by feel went. I judge everything afterwards, for example: if I ran what perceived to be a good effort run but then come home, plug in the watch and then see my mile splits were actually a lot slower than how I felt during the run – I take that as maybe I need an easier day, day off or attribute to something else if I may have been a bit under the weather. Other than that I do not over think it.

Alex Lorin

Very funny – I also got a garmin for christmas and I did like it a first, but then felt as though it was hurting my runs. Nice to here some of the same here.

Brandon

I agree that Garmins are actually more of hindrance than a reliable tool. I predominantly run on trails with lots of tree cover and tight switch backs. The Garmin is never close on trail runs. I’ve used three different methods to measure trail distances; garmin, hand drawn track on google earth, and a wheel. Almost every time, the Garmin was about a tenth of a mile off each mile compared to measuring the route with the other two methods, which were very close to each other. A 10 mile trail run would measure 9 miles on the Garmin and for that reason I ditched the thing. At our running groups weekly trail run, which is all on double track, peoples Garmins are always saying the route is 5.8 miles when it has been measured to actually be 6.2.

Ken

I wear my Garmin 910xt and HR monitor for every run, and I have found the accuracy to be within 2%, which is completely acceptable to me. While running, however, I leave the display on time of day, that way I am not distracted by the metrics, but I have them to correlate how I felt with how I performed.

It seems to me that you may have been using real-time pace instead of the lap average pace, which is much more realistic. Error caused by trees, buildings and your arm swing make the real time pace useless. Try wearing it again using lap averages instead of real time data, and you might be pleasantly surprised!

Marty KC

AH, that old task master the GPS watch. I love running with it, I hate running with it. Before I had one, I ran by feel, and I returned to running by feel even though I still wear the GPS. I have to remember NOT to obsess over it, or the tool drives the workout instead of just recording it. It’s not responsive enough to be accurate on a minute by minute basis, but my Garmin at least DOES get the distance right. I’ve checked it with a bike cyclometer (the kind attached to the bike wheel). Running is about discipline, and you can add one more thing around that: the discipline to not look at it. turn it on, and forget it (OK, peek at it every few miles)! Then, the tool does work, although not always perfectly.

Thanks for the great article!

Dorothy Vaughan

I agree with much of your article, Jason. Your experience as a runner is different than mine. I haven’t been running for years and years. However, I believe that runners experience “feeling good” days and “feeling hard” days just the same. …some days ya’ feel good and other days…not so much. That is a natural rhythm or perhaps, the result of a particularly difficult week at work! :) I run with a Garmin 101. I am not “slave” to my garmin, but I reference it to help me learn how to run by feel. And to help me learn the difference (in pace/ speed) when I’m feeling good and when I’m not. I’m not locked into running a 9:00/ pace and freaking when my Garmin says I’m running a 9:30/ pace. Also, if you monitor your pace over a half mile-type distance, it’s clear that it varies. Take it with a pinch of salt.

Brad Patterson

This article has really made me think a lot over the past week. Since I started running 3 years ago, I have been a “religious” heart rate trainer, always relying on my HRM to tell me what zone I am in and whether or not I need to speed up or slow down. Over those 3 years, I actually believe having the data on my wrist while I run has helped me a little bit in that I can equate a certain effort level (i.e. feel) to a certain HR range. I think I am getting better at running by feel from an effort standpoint, and very rarely need to even look at my GPS any more to know “where I’m at”. What I don’t know how to do, though, is to dial in an exact pace by feel.

Given the fact that I am not an elite or a mega competitive marathon runner, I guess I don’t think that I necessarily NEED to be able to dial in exact paces all the time by feel. I also think that since I am currently training for my first ultramarathon, that being in tune with how I feel will be more important than my pace while running on a hilly and difficult trail for 50 kilometers.

All that being said, I “tried out” a run by feel this morning and then peeked at my data afterwards. I did still wear my HRM just so I could review my data, but I did not look at the HRM data at all while I ran. Looking at my data, I think I did a pretty good job of keeping my run in my easy zone and I think I am going to try this some more throughout my training the next few weeks & months. Thanks for the article, Jason, and for making us stop and think hard about how we are training.

Jeff

I bought a measuring wheel and marked off 3 miles and the extra feet needed for a 5K on a straight, flat stretch of country road without tree cover. I marked each half mile with a spot of paint. Then I ran it in both directions with my Garmin 610, The GPS was accurate within one stride of each half-mile marker and the net difference when I averaged both runs was about 16 feet off an exact match between the GPS and the marked course. That’s close enough for me! Now to be fair, running on a curve will affect accuracy somewhat because the GPS takes measurements as a series of straight line segments as you run around the curve. That’s why measurement on a running track will be off significantly. So if you can, set your GPS to take its measurements with as short a time interval as it can, even though that will tend to drain your battery faster.

Carolina

Great post, indeed without a gps it makes me feel so much more natural, like I will get lost and a bit extreme in the same time. I love the old ways of running, in woods, on roads you never know – it’s a bit romantic as well.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 9 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: