Learning how to pace yourself – why data can only tell you so much and how you can learn to run by feel

With the advent of GPS watches that tell us anything and everything, is internally knowing your pace on the run, the art of a pacing by feel, completely lost? Have you ever gone out for a run or a race and agonised over whether you’re going too fast or too slow? Too hard or too easy for the distance or goals? And is over reliance on our watches responsible?


Runners of a certain age will remember the days before GPS watches where you would have to listen to your internal cues and gauge your run by feel and a Casio stopwatch. Of course, watches have their place, and they can definitely enhance your training as well as being a godsend for online coaches such as myself, but that doesn’t mean they know best.


It’s incredibly useful to have a feel for the different paces you run at. Of course, your easy or recovery runs should be done by feel (effort), and are a great time to practice, but this skill really comes into its own in races. You need to have a solid sense of the fastest pace you can sustain through the race distance and adjust as needed through the race. Relying exclusively on your watch can lead to problems, especially if you have a hilly course, lose GPS signal or have to get round other runners.


So how do you get a feeling for your pace?


Whatever run you are doing, you need to be able to tune in and recognise certain cues:

  1. Perceived effort. When out on your run, be aware of how you are feeling. Use a scale of 1-10 where 1 is lying on the sofa, 2-3 is a gentle walk. Easy runs should be 4-5, and thresholds 6-8. When you get home note the perceived effort of a workout before you look at the data.
  2. Breathing rate. Think and feel how many steps you’re taking when breathing. Can you talk whilst you run? In full sentences, part sentences or barely at all? Can you sing along to your music? Can you hear your breathing? How heavy does it sound?
  3. Foot strike rhythm. As you increase in pace you will usually increase your cadence (steps per minute) as well. Faster paces or harder efforts mean your foot makes a different sound. Note this sound for different paces.
  4. Running form: As you run at any speed or intensity, think about how your body feels. Think about how your feet feel hitting the floor, how your legs feel at different paces, how you use your arms and how you hold your core. What differences do you feel as your speed or intensity changes? Can you remain relaxed or do you tense at a certain speed and your form starts to suffer?


One or more of these methods may work for you – you don’t need to use all of them, but have a play and choose what works best. Most important is consistency of practice. Don’t expect to know your pace to the second from day 1.


Certain types of runs lend themselves well to identifying these cues and relating them to paces:


Easy effort runs. 
These are a great time to practice running to feel. As your easy run should be done on effort and has nothing to do with speed or pace, cover your watch and note how you feel, your breathing, your foot strike.


Progressive runs, fartleks and intervals 

These change pace at set intervals so are great way to get used to how different paces feel. As you change pace, you can note how it feels and adjust your effort.


Miles at a set pace e.g. marathon pace

This gives you a chunk of mileage at one pace that you want to get used to the feel of. Try a three to four mile segment, where you run a mile or two by your watch, then only look at your watch a couple of times in each subsequent mile. Try and maintain the same effort by using the cues above and see how you did at the end of the mile.

When you are doing them, make sure you are using average lap pace instead of current pace on your watch. Current pace can fluctuate wildly with your natural pace changes, and with GPS fluctuations. This can result in surges of pace if you think you are behind or ahead.


Above all, learning how different paces feel takes practice of self awareness at different paces to get a feel for it. Don’t expect it to be perfect the first few times you try, but after a few goes you will find it easier to tune into your feelings.


Let us know what methods work for you and how you get on in the comments below.


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Martin Hulbert

Running Coach & Personal Trainer Leicestershire

MH Health and Fitness Online Community