Intuitive Running Could Be the Key That Unlocks Your Best Race Performance

Kiera Carter |

The idea of using intuition to guide our decisions goes as far back as ancient Greece when intuition informed the teachings of Aristotle and Plato. And yet, intuition is having a moment. Dietitians talk about “intuitive eating,” trainers talk about “intuitive fitness,” and there’s now a MasterClass on “intuitive cooking.”

Is intuitive running next?

It could be. I trusted my own intuition and ran my fastest (and happiest) half marathon in 12 years, and experts confirm that using this gut feeling to guide your training and racing decisions could indeed help you run better.

Defining Intuition
“Intuition is the productive use of unconscious information to make better decisions or actions,” says Dr. Joel Pearson, founder of the Future Minds Lab at the University of New South Wales, who studies intuition. “We can feel information even though it’s unconscious, and people often describe feelings in their gut, stomachs, or back of the throat.”

Pearson’s goal is to move intuition out of the woo and into the real, and his research shows that people can use unconscious information to inform conscious decisions. “Our brains take in an immense amount of information each day, but we’re only conscious of a tiny tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The bulk of the associations we make are below the surface, things that we mostly ignore in order to go about our lives.”

But they’re still there, so when you have a hunch about something, it could be based on the information you aren’t overtly aware of; like, say, the connection your brain has made between mild levels of humidity and your performance. Humidity is up ever so slightly and you think, maybe this isn’t my day to go hard, even if you don’t consciously acknowledge the sticky air.

Conversationally, when “intuitive” is placed in front of verbs like eating and running, it has come to imply trusting yourself over outside influences, like diet pressures and data, respectively. In conversations about these topics, people tend to conflate intuition with mindfulness, but FYI, they’re more like cousins than twins. Intuition is a gut feeling that drives a decision, Pearson says—the reason you sprint without getting caught up in what-ifs, for example. Mindfulness is a sense of awareness and presence that can make you more intuitive in the long term.

Intuition is the productive use of unconscious information to make better decisions or actions

Before we get into how to tap into this seemingly magical, mystical sixth sense—and don’t worry, we will—it’s important to acknowledge what intuition is not. Intuition is not every thought that pops into your head.

“The conscious mind is loaded with self-doubt, fear and anxiety,” says Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, a certified mental performance consultant. Remember that intuition is based on information we aren’t overtly aware of, so if you’re beating yourself up and thinking you’ll never hit your goal, that’s pretty overt—and therefore, not to be confused with intuition. You’re more likely experiencing fear and anxiety here.

And while we’re at it, pain, discomfort, and fatigue in the second half of a marathon are also not part of intuition, Pearson says. This doesn’t mean these feelings aren’t real and valid, but they aren’t intuition. Instead, they’re the physical effects of running for long periods of time. While your gut can sometimes help you decide whether to push or pull back, if you stopped running whenever it got hard, you’d simply never run a marathon.

Why Consider Intuitive Running
To tap into your intuition, you need to move away from surface-level thoughts, whether they’re about your to-do list, your running time, or how you wish the workout would just end already so you can get on with your day. These types of thoughts (a) distract you from your deeper needs and capabilities and (b) take you out of the present tap tap tap of your steps. “You’re more likely to race your best when you’re focused on the present,” Kamphoff says. “Sometimes, the mind holds us back.”

While running intuitively can mean taking a step back if that’s what your body is craving—important for long-term success in our sport, to be sure—it can also mean pushing forward with a clear head and heart, basically booking it without letting any bullshit hold you back; otherwise known as the self-doubt, fear,and anxiety Kamphoff mentioned earlier.

I’d be sceptical if I didn’t experience this firsthand. A few months ago, I ran my fastest half marathon. Cooler than the speed itself, my splits were consistent down to the second, and they were led by a feeling, a click, a rhythm, a dance to a beat that never changed. I had no hangups and no concept of my pace as a particular number; yet I maintained it—again, to the second—for 15K because it felt good in the moment, only speeding up in the 5K.

Pearson says this is actually interoception, a supreme awareness of your body that drives intuitive decisions. “You can sit some people down and say, ‘tap out your heart rate,’ and they’ll just go ‘sure,’ and tap on the table,” he says. “Same with breathing, temperature, and digestion; some people are very in tune with sensing things inside their body.”

You need a certain level of interoception to make intuitive decisions in running, but once you have more body awareness, “you should know exactly what your ideal pace feels like, how much you can push, and what that means at the end of the race,” Pearson says.

How to Tap Into Intuitive Running
Pearson is very clear on this: You need experience in whatever you’re trying to be intuitive in because intuition works by internalising information over time. Think of it this way: You might make intuitive decisions in your current job, but you probably made fewer when you were a new intern. (To be clear, this is partially why intuition does not apply to that super-dramatic feeling that you get on a plane when you think something bad is going to happen, or when swimming in the ocean when you think there might be a shark. You don’t have enough experience in these spaces unless you’re a pilot or deep-sea diver, so this feeling is probably fear.)

In my case, I was able to run such precise splits based on gut mainly because I’ve been tracking my pace for years and knew what it was like to run in those conditions. But this doesn’t mean beginners can’t start to develop a more intuitive relationship with running. In fact, now’s a great time to start, no matter your experience level. A few guidelines:

Know thyself
“When you’re really in tune with you’re body, you know when to push and when to back off,” Kamphoff says, which makes intuitive decisions a lot easier and more accurate.

That’s why running fitness instructor Chloe Steinbeck does a check-in before every single run. “How I am feeling that day? Am I tired? Did I get a good night’s sleep? Did I have a hard workout the day before and am feeling sore?” she asks herself. “I set realistic goals after I acknowledge how I feel physically and mentally.”

Feel first
If you wear a watch or run on the treadmill, take note of what happens to your body at different speeds or inclines. Is your heart rate going up? Can you talk? How many words can you say?

“I start every class by explaining what I believe each speed should feel like,” Steinbeck says. “This gives our clients ownership over the workout, so they know how to adjust their speeds to meet their bodies where they are that day. It also sets treadmill runners up for success when moving outside.”

In the spirit of paying attention to your body and environment, both Kamphoff and Pearson are fans of forgoing music from time to time. “Awareness is the first step to high performance, but we’re often distracted when we run,” Kamphoff says. Paying attention to your breathing, cadence and effort is crucial in building more body awareness.

Be watch-savvy
The problem with obsessing over numbers is that it sometimes comes along with what Kamphoff calls “future-based thinking,” or that “I’m too slow, I’m never going to hit my goal” doom-spiral. So, ask yourself why you’re looking at your pace.

When I was tempted to glance at my watch during that half marathon, I asked myself if I would do anything different based on the number on the screen. If the answer was, “no, I feel good and happy, and I want to do exactly this forever,” then I kept going without looking. I allowed myself to look only when I felt like I could be going too fast for my own good. If you think data could screw with your mood, then protect your mood.

Paying attention to your breathing, cadence, and effort is crucial in building more body awareness

Also, keep in mind that pace probably isn’t the only data point on your watch, so there are other numbers you can pay attention to instead (or in addition to) your speed. In fact, many trackers are taking a more holistic approach to fitness that—perhaps ironically—can help you tap into your intuition later.

For example, most top-end fitness watches can help you track sleep patterns. This can help you tune into how you feel the day after a bad or good night’s sleep and how that’s affecting your running. “I enjoy trail running, and I’ve noticed that when I haven’t slept, or if I’m anxious or stressed, I need to pay more attention to my footing,” Pearson says. “I need to slow down and think about it, so I’m less intuitive.”

But if you do an honest check-in with yourself and you’re feeling good, there’s just one thing to do: run intuitively. No fear. No watch. Just that gut feeling guiding you to a potential PB.




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