Most runners are obsessed with data.
Heart rate, distance traveled in miles and kilometers (for when talking with international friends), time, pace, perceived effort, breathing rate, stride rate, and the sweat to step ratio (Fitbit measures this – go to menu, settings, sweat rate – enter baseline information, select sweat to step ratio, on).
At some point, I’m sure we’ll be able to discuss all these important variables, but today I’d like to discuss pace. Now as you know, I’m a bit of a minimalist in regards to running tech, but this wasn’t always the case. Early in my running career, I would excitedly return from a run, log onto the computer, map out my route, and compute the distance. I would then use a online pace calculator, plugging in my distance and time variables, and viola, I would receive an estimate of my pace over the course of the run.
This was heady stuff. However, it only provided me with the average pace over the course of the entire workout. Left unanswered was my pace 3/4 of the way up Log Cabin Hill, or my pace over the small rollers leading up to the hill’s base, and what about the long flat stretch just after I exited my parents’ neighborhood. I was training like a fool, but even I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I actually ran the entire course at the exact same speed.
In search of answers I looked to the stars.
Throughout most of history sailors used a sextant to calculate their location, using the stars and the horizon. This seemed like a possibility as the horizon is always there, and if I started running at night the stars would be out as well. I would just need to take frequent running breaks in order to complete some calculations and my pace problems would be solved. Alas, a sextant must be kept stable or its calibrations become damaged, plus it proved cumbersome to run with while strapped to my arm or torso, so it didn’t work out.
It was at this time that I decided to use my head, since it came along for all my runs, and knowing that my breathing and heart rate are involuntary functions, I felt my head needed something to do. I would learn to feel the pace.
Back in my weight lifting days, I’d simply look at the plates on the bar and I knew how much weight I was lifting (yes, I know the plates were labeled, but I had multiple plates in use, I had muscles back then). I didn’t need to take the entire apparatus over to the scale, so why would I need to keep a little computer strapped to my arm.
I already knew where various mile markers were located on my running routes, so I simply started challenging myself in two different ways. Sometimes I’d mentally set a pace and attempt to the hit that pace at each mile marker, while receiving no feedback from the stars or a GPS along the way. Alternatively, I’d head out and just run, and when I arrived at a mile marker, I’d attempt to guess my pace based on how the run was feeling. Soon enough, I was able to feel my pace within a few seconds of the actual speed.
As my Nostradamus-like skills improved, I further challenged myself by attempting to vary the paces within a run while still predicting the speed at each mile marker, or when running with someone with GPS, at random times I’d simply say something like “what are we running right now, 7:15’s?” Oftentimes, I was within seconds, and given the lack of accuracy exhibited by GPS as evidenced during post race conversations, my guess was easily as credible as the machines.
If I haven’t intrigued you by this point in my story, you might as well stop reading, as I’m unlikely to influence you over these last paragraphs, but I do believe I’m a better runner by having the ability to feel my pace.
Obviously, in a race this is extremely important. We’ve all started far to fast or slow on occasion, only to be ridiculed by the person reading the mile splits. One time, after seeing my shocked expression as my time was read, I swear the guy mumbled, “that idiots going to die.” This is not something one enjoys hearing.
Being internally aware of your pace allows for much more controlled, intelligent racing. Also, at some point, you’ll find yourself locked into battle with another runner, or group of runners. If you allow a machine to dictate your pace you will miss out on all that racing has to offer.
In these moments, its no longer about the clock, but rather how can you beat these similar souls to the finish line. By understanding my body, I’ve intentionally slowed, hid in the group, and employed a strong kick to break away at the end. I’ve surged for a short period, created a gap, and then returned to my normal pace. Or I’ve done a combination of these tactics while attempting to find a weakness to exploit. (Sadly, I’ve pushed to early only to be passed in the end as well.)
None of these strategies would be possible if I wasn’t in tune with my own body, and well aware of what it was capable of both in the moment, and as the race progressed. This knowledge comes from understanding you body during training.
Your brain is the best pace calculator yet made, trust it!