Q&A: Running by feel

Matt Fitzgerald is a proponent of the mind-body method of running by "feel," the ability of an athlete to use past experience to set realistic goals for their exercise, whether they're competitive or recreational.

It's that time of year again. Spring is slowly pushing out winter's grip and more Canadians are beginning to look to the outdoors for their fitness needs. Whether you're a casual exerciser or a hard-core endurance athlete, you're probably looking for ways to up your game.

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of 17 books on the topics of health, fitness, nutrition and endurance training. Among them is RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel  in which he argues that the elite runners achieved their success by being in in tune with what their bodies were telling them about their routines.

He says anybody — recreational and highly competitive athletes — can apply the same principles and improve their results.

Does this mean ditch the training program and just go?

Fitzgerald: Mind-body running and running by feel are things all runners do all the time. When you sense, at the beginning of a race, the fastest pace you will be able to sustain to the finish line, that's running by feel.

When you decide to replace a planned track workout with an easy run because you feel sore and tired from previous training, that's mind-body running. When you use past experience to set a target of 120 kilometres as your target for a peak week of marathon training, that's mind-body running, too.

So my book merely systematizes what all runners are doing already.

Coaches and experts generally discourage runners from listening to and learning from their bodies in favour of training by the rules. But in my experience, the most successful runners are those who most fully master the mind-body connection and use it to define their own ideal training formula.

How do you maintain a level of running that will allow you to be competitive (assuming that's what you want to be)?

Setting goals requires self-knowledge. You have to have some feel for your potential to set appropriate goals. These goals can be competitive or not, but either way they should challenge you to run better.

If these goals are, in fact, realistic, then it's just a matter of learning the most effective way to train toward achieving them. Again, this requires increasing self-knowledge.

While the same general principles of effective training apply to all runners, the only way to develop past a certain point as a runner is to customize your training practices to fit your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.

How do you deal with plateauing — or motivating yourself — if you "feel" like your body is content to pile up a bunch of "junk miles?"

There are no inherently bad goals in running. Any goal that makes you happy as a runner is a good goal.

If you are happy doing a bunch of junk miles and not making any performance progress, so be it. But if you have merely become accustomed to that and are not truly content with it, then you need to take some time to dream up some kind of goal that excites you.

It could be anything from doing some master's track races to doing a triathlon. Once you have a goal that excites you, staying motivated and breaking out of your fitness plateau will be easy.

You say "through the practice of running, the body learns what it can do." Presumably it also learns what it can't do. How do you turn things around if you've convinced yourself that you just can't run like you used to?

Seeking progress in running is a matter of creative problem solving.

First you have to define the problem as precisely as possible. Think of it as determining "what's missing" in your fitness, performance, or running experience.

Once you know what's missing, you need to come up with a short list of measures that could address it. The more experienced and knowledgeable you are, the easier this is. Take your best hunches and apply them. The solutions you try won't always work, but more often than not they'll get you farther than not taking this creative problem-solving approach.

Is it as simple as reducing running to its basics? Making sure that we keep the fun in it?

Enjoyment is critically important to success in running. It's impossible for the performance-minded runner to enjoy training without training going well, and vice versa.

Most runners make the mistake of focusing entirely on ensuring that training goes well, trusting that they will enjoy their training as a result. But I think it's also very important to plan, execute and adjust training in ways that increase your enjoyment of it, knowing that this will yield better results.

It's worth pointing out that loss of enjoyment in training is one of the earliest and most reliable indicators of overtraining syndrome. Emotions are extremely valuable sources of information to the runner.

Is there room for fancy GPS watches and the detailed stats they spit out if you want to run by feel?

I think it's vitally important for the performance-minded runner to regularly train on the clock. Runners perform at a higher level when they run in pursuit of external targets, whether they are other runners or time standards. The competitive runner cannot run completely by feel.

Runners are notorious for running through issues that may later turn into some pretty serious injuries. What kinds of things should they do to actually listen to what their bodies are trying to say?

Experience is the key. If you are not the type of runner who is tempted to stupidly push through fatigue and pain, then you are not the kind of runner who has what it takes to reach his full potential. The most successful runners are always inclined to do too much versus too little.

That said, actually doing too much ruins one's progress in running. The smartest runners learn from doing too much. They get tired of hitting their head against the wall and develop the capacity to resist the temptation to do too much in the future.

You have to be both wilful and smart to become the best runner you can be.