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Train By Feel For Better Results

By training to feel good you'll race better as a result.

By training to feel good you’ll race better as a result.

Every runner knows that a great race cannot happen unless a fair amount of hard work and suffering precedes it. But how much suffering is the right amount?

Obviously, there is such a thing as too much suffering, just as there is such a thing as too little. Opinions on the proper definition of what we might call the “misery sweet spot” vary. Some coaches and runners believe one should train more or less according to Nietzsche’s dictum, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In other words, the more you suffer in training without breaking, the better you will race. Others believe that runners should suffer in carefully measured doses and should feel good at most times in the training process.

Even most coaches and runners who have a philosophy of suffering in training hold their beliefs implicitly, however. They do not actually put much thought into the question of how a runner should feel as the training process unfolds, and while they recognize that this emotional-sensory dimension has some importance, they fall far short of believing that runners should train by feel, in the sense of intentionally steering the course of their training in ways that make them feel how they should feel. Instead, they view the emotional-sensory dimension of training as ancillary and focus on the physiological dimension.

Not I. Unlike most of my peers, I believe that runners should train by feel. The reason is that how a runner feels during runs and about his or her running generally at any given time is the most sensitive and reliable indicator of how well the training process is going. The mind and the body are deeply interconnected. Your mind receives a million times more relevant information about how your body is doing than some silly gadget like a heart rate monitor and is able to interpret it much more clearly and immediately. If you feel really strong during a hard tempo run, then you are fit and your body is responding well to your training. Period. It doesn’t matter what number your heart rate monitor spits out.

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Quite simply, I believe that runners should plan their training with the intent of producing certain feelings as their top priority, and that runners should adjust their training as necessary along the way to maximize desired feelings and minimize undesirable feelings. So then, how should you feel during the training process? I recognize that some runners achieve great success with a grinding approach to training, where they heap on as much hard work as they can handle and feel kind of lousy most of the time until the very end. When they taper down, however, their legs spring back to life and race like superheroes. I think the best approach for most runners is to try to feel as good as possible at most times.

Now, having read this you might now be thinking, “Well, the best way to feel good in training is to not train very hard — and that’s not going to result in a great race!” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Feeling good in running is about feeling fit. The fitter you are, the better you will feel generally. And the only way to get fit is to work hard and, yes, suffer. Paradoxical though it may seem, suffering is essential to feeling good in training as a runner.

The joy of feeling fit is different from other pleasures, like the pleasure of lounging on the couch in front of a good movie. The joy of feeling fit is the pleasure of hard work. If you’re like me, the most enjoyable runs you experience are not easy runs but very challenging ones that happen to fall on days when your body feels up to the challenge. In running, you can experience pleasure and suffering simultaneously. In fact, there is probably no better indicator of successful training than enjoying one’s hardest workouts — that is, maximizing both pleasure and pain in the same sessions.

There are two enemies of feeling good in training. The first, as I’ve already suggested, is lack of fitness. If you train too lightly to stimulate steady improvement in your fitness, you will not enjoy your training as much as you would if you worked harder, suffered more, and grew stronger for your pains. The second enemy of feeling good in training is fatigue. The more fatigue you carry into a workout, the lousier you will feel, regardless of your fitness level. Therefore, maximizing your enjoyment in training requires that you minimize fatigue.

RELATED: The Mind-Body Training Method

Of course, fatigue and increased fitness both come from the same source: hard work. You cannot get the benefit of hard work and increased fitness without the cost of fatigue. However, there are a million different ways to apportion hard work in training, and each yields its own unique balance of fitness and fatigue. Some yield more fatigue than fitness, others more fitness than fatigue. The best way to train is in a way that maximizes the fitness/fatigue ratio in the output of your hard work.

And how is this done? The most effective way to optimize the fitness/fatigue balance is to pay careful and consistent attention to how you feel and steer the course of your training in the direction of feeling as good as possible as often as possible. Again, feeling good is the most sensitive and reliable sign that your fitness is improving and that your fatigue level is within manageable limits. When you don’t feel good, you must determine whether it’s because of lack of fitness or excessive fatigue. Lack of fitness is corrected by more hard work; excessive fatigue is corrected by more rest.

In addition to adjusting your training appropriately as you go, you can also maximize your enjoyment in training by planning it appropriately. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into that, however. To learn more about the planning aspect of my feel-good training philosophy, check out my book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit