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As runners, we crave details on how to maximize our time and efforts: How many miles should we run, how many repeats, what pace on which runs on which days? Charts and numbers fill training books and magazine articles. We download training apps that tell us exactly what we should be doing each day. The market is saturated with devices that allow us to track every number, every step.
But what if a key to both achieving your best and staying in the race for years to come is to stop planning and tracking? What if instead, you just listened to your body and ran how you felt?
Learning to listen to your body is a skill, one perhaps perfect for this time of ambiguity, when we don’t have pressing goals and are free to experiment and see what works. Learning this skill not only leads to great runs and workouts, it also increases your ability to get the most out of yourself over the long term.
When I started interviewing lifetime competitors for my book, Run Strong, Stay Hungry, I expected that most, to achieve their high level of success, would have followed carefully prepared plans, aimed for weekly mileage goals, clicked off specific splits during specific workouts, and could detail exactly how they adjusted those totals and times as they aged. I imagined finding boxes full of training logs where the workouts and totals had accumulated and there discover formulas to guide runners through the decades.
And I did find some of that. But far more often, I discovered that those who keep going at a high level, even those as accomplished as Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, train more by feel than by plan, and consider it an important element in their success and longevity.
Within this shared propensity, however, I discovered lots of variability. At one end of the spectrum were those with almost no structure to their training at all, who ran whatever they felt like running every day. At the other end were the planners who use feel only as a final test of their performance.
Cooking Without a Book
One of the more intriguing, and doable, ways to integrate self-monitoring into you training is to let feel dictate what you do from among a range of options, or, as Gary Allen sees it, ingredients.
Allen, now 60, of Great Cranberry Island, Maine, started running in high school in 1972 at 15 and never stopped. He’s now run 101 marathons, 68 of them under three hours. Allen eschews rigid training plans. He credits his longevity and lack of injuries to what he calls “learning how to be a chef.”
“My training has always been unconventional,” Allen says. When it comes to cooking, he points out that many people follow a cookbook and try to get everything exact. “Exactly 2/3 of a cup of flour. Next, a teaspoon of butter. They have to get it exact, or it won’t work. A lot of runners run like they are following a recipe. Whereas a lot of people who become chefs cook by instinct.”
Allen believes runners should do more than just follow a recipe; they should be chefs. It’s a process that takes some work. He learned to be a chef, he says, by studying numerous training philosophies and distilling the basic ingredients common to all of them. From that point, he is able to combine them according to taste. He thinks others can and should do the same. “Become a chef and stop following the recipe,” Allen said. “Get those basic ingredients in your mix, and the order you put them in there is less important.”
In practice, this means doing whatever feels right to him on any given day, all the while making sure he regularly gets in a variety of types of runs. When training for a marathon, for example, he makes sure he gets in a long run every week to 10 days. But he does not schedule it for a certain day. “A lot of times, it would be a spontaneous thing: In your mind you’re thinking, I’m going to do eight or so, but you’d feel so good at eight, you’d keep going for a 22-miler,” he said.
The same holds true for speed days. “On days when your stride is light and quick, those would turn into fartlek days,” he said. That fartlek could be to repeat half miles or push the hills or do a tempo run; he lets his body guide him to what feels best.
Allen doesn’t time his runs or use a GPS watch. He trusts his internal monitoring to know what is the appropriate effort for each type of run. “A lot of times, I’d design a workout as I went,” Allen said. “I would just go out running with an open, empty mind. Does an artist know what he is going to paint before he paints it?”
Allen isn’t the only lifetime competitor who has adopted an open “how-do-I-feel-today” approach. Steve Kartalia, who followed more structured training when he was young and training to make the Olympic Trials 10,000m, relaxed his approach after turning 40.
“I do hard workouts, but not on a rigid schedule,” Kartalia said. “Most days, I don’t even know what I’m going to do until I’m 2 miles into my run. If I feel great, I’ll get rolling or I’ll go to the track and do some intervals, or go to a hill and do some repeats. The days when I feel so-so or bad, I’ll adjust accordingly, in the run.”
Kartalia lets his body dictate when to back off as well. “If I feel a very low motivation for a week, I’ll take a break,” he said. “I’ll run five to six days, 3 to 4 miles, a big drop. I’ll bounce thinking like, ‘Yeah, I needed that.’”
To be this kind of chef, or artist, requires a keen self-awareness and focus. “The trick is to identify what is going on with your body,” Allen said. “Once you get that clarity, then you can quickly identify what kind of run it is going to be.”