Running Without a Watch

Running has been an individual sport since the Ancient Greek Olympics. There are no excuses when you run a race poorly, and no teammates to blame. Even in the few running events that are team related, you have complete control over how you perform.

For many runners, this is an aspect of the sport that they love. You can train and compete on your own. The only person you need to worry about beating, is yourself. You are in command, and in the end, it’s just you against your previous best time. All you need is a pair of shoes and a watch to continually improve on your sport.

But what if someone told you that you are doing it all wrong? Would you still run if you were told you could never use a watch again? What if you never knew your best 5K, 10K, or marathon time? How would running change for you?

Effort-Based Running

Steve Magness, whose friends and colleagues sometimes refer to as “the science guy,” has a love for numbers and stats. In some ways, numbers have defined who he is. Steve was first well known for running a 4:01 mile in high school. If there was any teenager who deserved to be obsessed with a watch, it was Steve. 

Magness went on to run on a collegiate level, and shortly after he began his coaching career. He is now a coach for a handful of elite runners as well as the head coach for the University of Houston cross country team. Houston is known for its heat and humidity which can completely dictate the pace of a run. Steve quickly realized that conducting workouts focused on time alone can be dangerous. It is impossible to base training sessions and race times off the face of a clock when the weather is in control. 

So, how can you race against yourself if you can’t count on a watch? 

Steve has learned over the years to pull back the reigns on his left side brain of statistics and fact, and let feeling dictate the pace of his athlete’s runs. “As you deal with people you realize that they are people, not robots,” says Steve, “It’s incredibly important to remember the human component of it. Running by feel requires a different skillset than saying, ‘go run a 5:00 pace.’”

Coach Magness’s athletes learn how to do things like run at a 6:00 per mile effort. This is very useful when race day comes around and the weather looks scary. Instead of mindlessly trying to hit certain splits, Steve’s athletes can run at certain efforts based on how they feel. Whether the weather is humid, freezing, or windy, they know what it feels like to run at a pace that should allow them to do their very best.

Running Smarter vs. Runner Harder

“We’ve lost the notion of smart work at the expense of hard work which somehow almost always gets confused with more work.” 

When you tap into your feelings as you run, you have a chance to truly run your best. The only way to run smart, instead of just hard, is to understand your emotional and physical self completely. Taking time away from your watch is one way to stay in touch with how you feel. Another way is to take a break from running completely.

“Our culture is one where success and performance has been mistaken for ‘do more work,’ and that’s not reality,” says Steve, “Performance and success aren’t dependent on how much work we do, it’s how much better we get. And sometimes that means having the courage to step back and take rests.”

Taking a break from using a watch, or from running in general, is less about letting our bodies rest and more about letting our minds rest. We need emotional restorative periods that allow full recovery. Overuse of our mental muscles is just as real as overuse of our physical muscles. 

Start Small

If you are addicted to your watch, Steve recommends taking baby steps in moving away from it. Especially for recreational runners, it is important that running stays a form of release rather than another daily stress.

Try doing one workout without your apple watch, or do one 400 without looking down at the half-way point. Slowly, you will learn to run by feel and effort. As you do, you will be confident that you have done your best, no matter what the clock says.


The Science of Running (Book)

Peak Performance (Book)

The Passion Paradox (Book, Preorder)

Steve’s Website

Steve’s Twitter

Adam Grant’s Twitter

Listen to the Running for Real Podcast here:

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The wonderful sponsor for this episode is ME about my new book.
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