Running by Feel Workouts: Ditch the GPS and Run Faster

Running by Feel Workouts to Ditch the GPS and Run Faster

Is your running stuck in a plateau? Are you feeling a bit mentally burnt out? Do you want to improve your times and PR, or just run the for the sake of running?

If you answered yes to any of those questions – or even if you answered no – you can benefit from running by feel for your workouts and ditching the GPS.

I credit learning to run by feel, or perceived effort, for my breakthrough training cycle and 5 minute half marathon PR, breaking 1:40.

Now, I’m not telling you to leave your GPS behind completely unless you so wish. I still wear mine to have the data after the run and to keep track of distance and elapsed time.

Running by Feel Workouts to Ditch the GPS and Run Faster

If you do run with your GPS watch, switch the screen to elapsed time, hide it under your shirt sleeve, or even leave it with the clock screen showing as your run. Save the data for after you run, not during your run.

And remember that, based on the weather, wind, cloud cover, and where you run (trees, skyscrapers, mountains, etc.), your GPS watch can be inaccurate. That’s why sometimes in a race your watch may read 26.3 or 25.9 miles instead of 26.2 (that and how well you ran the tangents). If it’s a USATF certified course, you know the distance is accurate – which means your watch has a discrepancy in its measurement for that particular run.

So don’t let your GPS watch be the determinant of your confidence as a runner or in how you pace a workout. You can use it as an external metric after your run, and you can use it to see how consistently you paced yourself. Ultimately, though, you want to master the art of running by feel – running by perceived effort – rather than running by pace.

What can you gain by running by feel and ditching the GPS?

How can not knowing your instant pace on a training run actually help you run faster? Because by relying upon perceived effort for your runs, you avoid training at the wrong paces.

Take, for example, if you set the goal of running a sub-1:45 half marathon and base your plan off of that pace, your end goal pace, you’re not training for your current fitness. Let’s say for the sake of this example you are currently in shape for a 1:50 half marathon. While hard work and an individualized training plan can help you prepare for that goal, if you start doing all of your tempo runs at the pace appropriate for a 1:45 half versus a 1:50 half, you are training at too fast of a pace – closer your 10K pace than your half marathon pace. 

As a result, you build up too much fatigue but are unable to elicit the appropriate physiological adaptations necessary to run a fast half marathon. You may even overtrain or get injured from doing too much, too soon.

However, if you run your tempo runs and long runs based on perceived effort, you train at the appropriate efforts because your body knows effort, not pace (think of how pace changes as you get faster but you still run each particular workout at the same effort), avoid overtraining, and cross the finish line injury free AND faster. 

How do you monitor intensity if not by pace?

By rate of perceived exertion, which is actually quite easy to follow. By using perceived exertion, you also learn how to tune into your body’s signals while running. Exertion doesn’t lie: an easy effort is an easy effort. Yes, fatigue can alter your perception of effort, but if you often find yourself at slower paces that you feel your running, that may be a sign of too high of a goal, overtraining, or pushing yourself too hard on your easy days.

Ten Point Scale of Rate of Perceived Exertion:

  • 1 (Extremely Easy): You feel like you could run forever, feels almost too slow  – easy run.
  • 2 (Very Easy): Holding back the pace quite a bit – easy run.
  • 3 (Easy): Easy pace, holding back just a bit – easy run.
  • 4 (Comfortable/Moderate): Pace feels natural, not holding back but not pushing too hard – moderate run/steady state.
  • 5 (Fairly Comfortable/Moderate): You are pushing ever so slightly but it’s sustainable – steady state/tempo run.
  • 6 (Slightly Hard/Still Moderate): You could run this pace for 30-40 minutes only – tempo run.
  • 7 (Moderately Hard): You could run this pace for 15-20 minutes only – VO2max/5K pace workout.
  • 8 (Hard): You could do only a mile or so at this pace – VO2max/3K pace workout.
  • 9 (Very Hard): You could sustain this pace for only 2-3 minutes – very short sprint intervals.
  • 10 (Hard): Maximum sprint, could only do for one minute – ouch.

(Adapted from Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running.) 

4 Running By Feel Workouts to Ditch the GPS and Run Faster

Running by Feel Workouts to Ditch the GPS and Run Faster

Tempo by Feel Run

I hear a lot of runners say that tempo runs intimidate them – they are unsure if they will be able to sustain the appropriate pace for the duration. However, tempo runs are not intended to be some impossible workout beyond your ability. If you cannot sustain a certain pace for 20-40 minutes, then it’s not your tempo pace.

Running by feel for your tempo workouts will provide an accurate assessment of where current lactate threshold is approximately – and thus give you an honest idea of your fitness.

How to run it: Warm up with 1-2 miles of easy running, followed by some drills and dynamic stretching. Run for 20-30 minutes, depending on your level of fitness, at a hard but controlled pace (5-6 out of 10 on RPE scale) and with your breathing at approximately a two counts inhale, two counts exhale rhythm. You should be able to speak in phrases but not hold a full conversation. Aim for a consistent effort and don’t check your watch until the run is done – set a time or view only elapsed time on your GPS watch.

Fast Finish Run

Your pace changes as your accumulate fatigue on a run. More accurately, it’s that your perceived exertion increases near the end of a run, so any given pace will feel harder than it would without fatigue in your legs and lungs.

A fast finish long run (or progression run, depending on which coaching philosophy and corresponding semantics you follow) teaches you to increase your effort and run harder over the last mile or a run. Your pace may change or stay the same, depending on the day or route.

How to run it: Run easy for your normal duration of a run, but then add a final mile at a hard but controlled effort (5-7 on RPE scale).

Fartlek Runs

Regular readers aren’t surprised at all by this. I employ fartlek workouts in my own personal training and in my athletes’ plans to reduce the risk of injury, build speed without the mental intimidation of pace, and tune runners into their effort levels rather than a possibly unreliable instant pace on this watch.

Fartlek runs are as varied as the selection of shoes at your local running store, so the options are endless. While multi-pace fartlek runs (such as one of these fartlek countdown runs) are valuable for teaching your body to shift gears and change paces, fartlek intervals at the same effort will train you to sustain an even effort and push through fatigue later in a race.

How to run it: After a 10-20 minute warm up of easy running, run 10 repetitions of 2 minutes hard (7 RPE) and 2 minutes easy. Don’t look at your pace on your GPS; instead, focus on running each intervals at the same effort without noticeably slowing down in the later intervals. Cool down with 10-20 minutes of easy running.

Running by Feel Workout: Easy Run

Yes, an easy run is an ideal running by feel workout. Why? Many runners need to learn how it feels to run truly easy. Even more so, your easy pace can vary by day, especially during high volume and/or high intensity training periods when you accumulate fatigue in your legs after a hard run.

Ultimately, easy run pace doesn’t matter as long as you are running truly easy. Easy is a relative measure of feel and effort, after all – one runner’s easy pace is another runner’s 5K pace. If you run a pace which you deem slow, you may speed yourself up so much that the physiological stress of the workout alters – and then you’re not really getting an easy run, just extra unnecessary fatigue.

How to run it: Run a measured route or plan to run by time. Don’t look at your GPS at all during run, but aim to run at a 1-3 on the RPE scale – you should feel as if you are holding yourself back a bit. In terms of the talk test and breathing, you should be able to speak in full sentences and your breathing should be only slightly relative. If you notice your breathing become more noticeable or your effort creeping up to moderate (slightly pushing yourself), rein in the pace.

[Tweet “Ditch the GPS and run faster with these workouts from @thisrunrecipes #sweatpink #running #marathon #halfmarathon”]

Running by feel is the method I strive to use when training runners. Interested in starting to train by perceived effort? Learn more about my individualized virtual coaching services here

Linking up for Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday

What metrics do you use for monitoring intensity on run? Feel/RPE? Pace? Heart rate monitor?

What’s your run today?



Sign Up for My Newsletter for More Running Tips

* indicates required

Share this post

31 Responses

    1. Thank you! Running by feel makes planning a training week so much more adaptable – if you’re having an off day you just adjust and go by effort, and the same if you’re feeling extra fast! 🙂

  1. I like running by feel especially for easy runs. I also think its really good when its hot out, because our pace will change naturally while putting in the same level of effort. Sometimes I wear a HRM to check intensity but I find it causes quite a but of chafing, so I haven’t been wearing it in the summer.

    1. I agree – the heat affects pace so significantly that it becomes an unreliable metric. Chafing is not desirable at all in summer – HRMs just sound comfortable in the heat!

  2. I have gotten so much better at running by feel and knowing what the feel means lol. I don’t monitor my pace every second with the running apps but I have been switching over to running more by effort level this summer and time vs. pace and mileage. I had a workout post sort of planned on this – please remind me to talk to you about it later or I will forget I wanted to talk about it with you . ha

    1. It’s just annoying to have to stare at a watch or app every second – and the instant pace can be unreliable on those especially with trees or skyscrapers. And I will remind you tomorrow morning! 🙂

  3. With my clients, I will sometimes have them run by fee and effort, sometimes by time. Because there are always days where pace just can’t be hit, or shouldn’t be used as a metric (like the really hot days during the summer). I have a feeling htat is how I’m going to be running today!

    1. I agree that summer is not the time to use pace as a metric! Seeing slower paces can just be discouraging, when really it’s the heat and humidity making running so much more difficult!

    1. Thank you! A non-training period is an ideal time to introduce running by feel. Pace can be stressful and during the off season no one wants to add that stress to their running.

  4. I like this. I think up until Hanson’s, this is how I ran all of my runs! I’m just about to meet my friend Lora for 15 (slow) miles.

    1. I hope you had an enjoyable 15 miler! Hansons does advocate pace over perceived effort, which has its pro and cons and of course, like any plan, works better for some runners than others.

  5. Doing these different kinds of workouts on purpose for training is what really makes a difference I think! When I’ve been running half marathons sometimes workouts are faster, sometimes slower, sometimes like during the NYC Half this March I got lucky and ran well and had negative splits all the way and PR’ed – so I like to think about what might be possible if I started to do this stuff purposefully. Hopefully as my hip heals I can do more fartlek and tempo runs!

    1. I agree! Even if a workout is done by perceived effort, it still has a specific purpose and elicits a specific physiological response. I think tuning into the perceived effort helps so much for race day in particular, especially at big city races like NYCM where the buildings and crowds can affect the GPS signal so much and making hitting a certain pace more difficult in the first few miles. I hope your hip heals soon so we can add back in more fartlek and tempo runs!

  6. Ahhhh….you must in be in head. 😉 Nearly every time I go out and “just run”, I typically end up pleasantly surprised at the pace I hit. When I try to hit a certain pace, I will typically spend way too much time looking at my watch which messes with your pacing. Thank you for sharing the 10-point scale. Those are great indicators of how you should feel when running by effort.

    My run today will be an “easy” run along the water…30-40 minutes. Hopefully there will not be too many people on the sidewalks that I have to dodge. 🙂

    How was -your- run today?? 🙂

    1. Staring down at a watch does not help you get into a good pace groove – that rhythm is important! I hope your run went well! My run was hill repeats which were fun and challenging, thank you for asking! 🙂

    1. Thank you! The tempo workout is a good method for determining tempo pace – I know you can use a HR monitor for an even more reliable pace – and it’s more accurate than relying upon past race times.

  7. Confession: I rarely look at my pace on my watch. Unless I’m running a speed-specific workout, I use my GPS watch for distance only. It makes running much less stressful. 🙂

  8. I’ve been using my GPS less and less over the past year. I still track it so I have the data, but I’ve been relying on my HR, or effort in order to pace most of my runs. I also think learning what a certain speed feels like is hugely important in being able to hit consistent splits.

    1. I like to use it to track the data for post run feedback also – that data is helpful, especially when assessing and pursuing certain running goals. You are right – learning what a speed feels like is so important for consistent pacing, especially in a race when there’s other people and distractions.

  9. I loved this post! That RPE table is super helpful. It is so easy to fall into the trap of following specific paces and “forcing” yourself to hit them – even if your fitness isn’t there yet – especially when training for a specific race finish time. I have been trying to make a more effort-based approach during my speed workouts lately, and I am almost forced to when doing hill repeats with my marathon clinic, since the hills we do each week are different! It’s helped to relieve a lot of the stress around those workouts.

    1. Thank you! Training for a specific race time is certainly a trap that I think all of us have fallen into at some point in time! That’s good that taking those hills by effort has relieved stress – less stress means better (and more enjoyable!) running. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *