The Art of Feeling Based Training

by Sandi Nypaver (first published in 2015)

Perhaps “Feeling Based Training” sounds a little too cute and fuzzy for some of the hard core runners out there, but in reality, it’s something the best coaches in the world have used for decades. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t follow a training plan, it means that you know your body well enough to know exactly what it needs to do every day to help you reach your optimal performance. Learning your body’s signs can help you avoid overtraining, let you know how to balance recovery days with workouts, and give you a performance boost. Since this is such an important topic, we’re going to separate this post into 3 parts:

  1. What can interfere with learning your body’s signs?
  2. How to listen to your body’s signs.
  3. How to apply what you’ve learned to your training program.

Part I:

Are you low on energy because of running or is it other life factors?

A healthy lunch filled with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals!

-Food: If you’re not eating healthy and getting in the right recovery foods, you’re never going to feel healthy. Of course we’ve all heard of great athletes who ate fast food every day, but it’s much harder to find an example of a great athlete who ate junk food all the time and had long term success.

-Low in Vitamins/ Minerals: This may be food related, but not always. It’s never a bad idea to get things checked like iron, B12, vitamin D, magnesium, etc.

-Sleep: If you’re not getting an adequate amount of sleep, you’re not giving your body a proper chance to recover from your training. The power of sleep should never be underestimated.

-Coffee: Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you not to drink it!  Well, not exactly anyway… If you’re drinking 5 cups of coffee a day to mask how tired you are, that’s not helping your running or overall health! Furthermore, if you have coffee before every single run, that nice little caffeine buzz could be making your recovery run a little faster than it should be. If you’re supposed to be running easy, try holding off on the coffee until after the run.

-Long term stress/poor habits: If you haven’t gotten enough sleep, eaten well, or overtrained for years and years, you might not even remember what truly feeling healthy feels like and so you don’t have a proper feel good baseline to compare too. If you think you fall in this category, it could take months of easy runs and living a healthy lifestyle to find what it really means to feel good.

-After reading the rest of the post, it might be helpful to think of other things that might be personally interfering with reading your own body’s signs.

2:11 Marathoner and US Olympic Team hopeful Nick Arcinigia once said:

“It’s only ‘overtraining’ if you are doing too much for what your body can handle at a certain time.” 

The key here is that all the stresses in your life add up and can push you over the edge.  Everyone is a little different in that regard. With the running/training stress what we hope and look for is positive adaptation that makes you stronger and able to handle higher mileage and intensity over time so you improve. But it’s all relative.


Understanding your body’s signs:

Your body will always let you know if you’re doing too much, but you have to be willing to listen.

From our experiences with coaching athletes, we’ve discovered that the majority of athletes know what their bodies are telling them if they’re completely honest with themselves and set their egos aside. The next time you’re uncertain about what’s best for your body, try asking yourself this: “Being 100% honest with myself, what do I need to do today to run fast and strong when it counts?” or if you have nagging pain: “Being 100% honest with myself, will I do more harm than good if I run today?”.

While asking yourself those questions is a good place to start, we know that may not work for everyone all the time. Luckily, there are a number of ways to tell if your body is well rested or still needs some recovery time. Before we get into the different signs, it’s important to acknowledge that if you’re training to reach optimal performance, there are going to be plenty of days you feel a little tired on a scheduled hard workout day and that’s okay. If you’re a little tired from your training, you should still have the energy and motivation to get through your workout (although sometimes it is easier to hit goal pace than other days).

Okay, let’s look at some of the indicators that let you know you’re still recovering from a workout* or you’re overtrained:

You shouldn’t feel like this all of the time!

-Exhaustion: Don’t confuse this with being tired! If you’re exhausted you may have trouble concentrating and motivation could be hard to come by. If you’ve reached this point it could mean that you have already overdone it, so you may need to cut back on miles and only run at an easy pace for a while.

-Mood: Feeling more like the Grinch or Eeyore than that happy runner you used to be? Unless something terrible happened or you have a history of mental illness, this is a classic sign of overtraining.

-Quality of sleep: This may seem contradictory, but if you’re constantly pushing too hard while your body needs rest, your quality of sleep may actually suffer. Sometimes it means you get insomnia and have trouble falling asleep at night despite feeling very tired all day.

-Weak immune system (you get sick more often and have trouble shaking minor colds)

-Increased cortisol levels (can get a blood test to confirm this)

-Elevated resting heart rate: In order to rely on your rest heart rate, you need to take your heart rate when you’re fully rested. This is preferably done first thing in the morning while you’re still laying in bed. Once you have that number, try checking your resting heart rate the morning after a challenging workout or a race. If you’re 10% above normal, you’re probably not recovered.

-Elevated blood pressure

-Change in body weight

-Appetite cravings or decreased appetite (this can be caused by a myriad of things though!)

-Injury: There’s a lot of factors that can lead to an injury and overtraining is one possible cause.

-No sex drive: You know what we mean…

-Decreased aerobic endurance: Is your usual long run distance starting to feel exceedingly hard?

-Menstrual irregularities in women

-Increased rating in perceived exertion/ decreased performance: While there’s no need to worry about one bad run, you should be concerned if your normal easy pace starts to feel hard or you can no longer hit your typical tempo pace.

-Constant muscle soreness or leg heaviness


Putting it into Practice:

As 4-time Olympian Lorrain Moller would say, “Inner technology is better than anything you can get from a computer.”

If you currently feel like we just described you with every point from the list above, there’s a good chance you’re overtrained and need to take a step back in training. Depending on how many steps you took past that overtraining line, you’ll need to stop any challenging runs and cut back on miles for weeks or possibly months, and/or take some time totally off to recharge. During this time it’s important you take an honest look back and see what led you to this point. This is why you keep a training log! Once you start feeling like a normal person again, cautiously start adding in short tempo runs and easy paced mileage. If you’re worried about hitting a certain pace that first tempo workout back, you’d be better off leaving your watch at home.

Now let’s get to the really important stuff so you know how to apply everything you learned to a normal training cycle! Let’s say you have a Sage Running Training Plan and you have two workouts this week. You nail the first workout! A few days later, the morning before your next workout, you check your resting heart rate in bed and find it’s still higher than normal. You realize you may not be recovered from the last workout, but you’re stubborn and decided to try the workout anyway. You start the workout and within a couple of minutes you’re struggling way more than you should be and you know you won’t be able hold the pace, even though it’s a pace you normally hit. In this case, you’re better off stopping the workout right there and you just finish off with an easy run. From here you have two choices and you need to decide what’s the better option for yourself. Choice one is two try the workout again the next day. It’s very possible that your body just needed one extra day to recover. Your second choice is to skip the workout altogether. If you’ve been feeling crummy for a couple of days, this very well could be the better option. If you struggle during a workout, keep in mind in might not be from just the demands of running/training. Stress, lack of sleep, poor food choices, etc., may cause you have a bad run.

Knowing your body well should also mean that you can run a tempo or VO2max session without a watch (although we do endorse running the correct pace and tracking even splits for workouts). You can say you’re running at a certain tempo pace, but if you feel like you’re running a 20 minute race during your 20 minute tempo, than you’re not running at the right pace or getting the benefits of a tempo. Same with a VO2max session. If the pace feels a little too comfortable, than it probably is. Going at paces can be important to any training plan, but you need to know what certain workouts should feel like as well. Fartlek workouts ensure that you get to experience and challenge yourself by feel in harder workouts.  If you use a heart rate monitor, challenge yourself to get to know your body so well that you can know your heart rate before even looking at what the bpm on your monitor actually reads. You’ll find over time that certain HR correspond almost exactly with certain paces and a certain feel of fatigue.

Every single run, take a few minutes to check in with your body. Are you running a little too fast on your recovery run and delaying your body getting stronger from your last workout? Can you really count that run up a mountain as your recovery run? Are you cheating yourself on that uncomfortably comfortable tempo and running a little too comfortably? Should you be doing strengthening exercises to get rid of that hip pain? Listening to your body, and we mean truly hearing it out, can be the difference between feeling strong in the second half of that goal race or feeling tired before the race even starts. Listen to your body, it may not tell you what you want to know, but it will tell you exactly what you need to know.

Train Smart, Run Faster,

Coach Sandi & Sage

*When we use the word workout, it means a long run, tempo, track session, etc. It does not mean an easy run.