Running to Feel: The Key to Improving Running Fitness

Once a runner understands what a normal effort feels like for a given type of run or workout they should stick to it. The watch will vary considerably day-to-day for a given perception of effort, but how the runner feels represents what their physiology is capable of that day. Fighting physiology to try and somehow align human biology with a clock is only serves to impede progress (and is slightly irrational if you think about it).

This piece has been inspired by my continued surprise at the mismatch between how hard I feel I am running and what my watch says. To give two simple examples. I recently ran 16:26 and 17:44 for 5-km Park Runs one week apart and both efforts felt of similar difficulty.

On a Tuesday and using a road loop, I performed 8 x 1-km (3-minute run on recovery) at paces between 3:30 – 4:00 minute kilometre pace. I ran this at session feel. Yet on a Saturday, for a tempo run I ran 6-kilometres back to back, at what felt like a similar effort. The same athlete. The same fitness. Different output on different days.

Why is this important?

Different output on different days leads to very different psychological responses in relation to our perceived fitness. This can have a big impact on our approach to training and confidence in our abilities. Unfortunately, our minds are slaves to our watches on a given day. We can feel miles from our targets or as though we are exceeding them, if we pay too much attention to any one day.

Let’s use the example above of the two 5-km. They were both run in early January after a Christmas break that involved more indulgence and less running. Imagine, I had ran the 17:44 first. It would be very tempting for my mind to dive into despair and reflect on how unfit I had become. This would of course have been irrational given that just before Christmas I had run 16:40 on a harder course. The idea that I could have changed in a week would be silly. But my brain would have looked at my Christmas indulgence and looked at my watch and drawn some harsh conclusions. The risk of all this being, training too hard, too soon in January and risking injury and interruption of consistency.

Thankfully, my days of reacting to any one session in terms of behaviour change are long gone but that is not to say that the psychological reaction does not occur. It does, it is just easier to tame.

How do I know what normal feel is?

You can learn this over time. For example, over the past 12-months I did a lot of track sessions that required 75 – 80 second laps. I began to no what they felt like. If aiming to run a kilometre on the track in 3:20 (80-sec lap pace), I knew what it should feel like. So I would run to feel. This would sometimes give you a 3:17 and sometimes a 3:24, the key was never to read to much into either. If the same feel, gave me a 3:35, I would stay there if comfortable or cut the session short if it really was one of those days. I never over-analysed any one session. This concept applies to the long run, tempo run etc.

One simple way you can understand feel and identify appropriate paces is to use an RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion) pictured below. Practice what a jog (9), an easy run (11), a tempo run (13) and a session (14/15) might feel like and see what paces it gives you. These paces are most likely related to your physiology rather than a prescribed set of times. Training at these paces will improve YOUR physiology over time.


Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is strongly linked to physiology as measured in laboratories. Therefore, it is a simple and effective tool to find the correct paces for your run.

The beauty of running to feel, is that it remains constant while the watch varies. This allows you to build confidence that if you consistently train at the required feel week to week, you will improve over time.