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How to use your breath to control pace

For runners who'd like to ditch their watch and other technology, understanding your breath is an easy way to manage effort

In our technology-obsessed world, it’s easy for runners to get caught up in the numbers — pace, heart rate, weekly mileage, etc. As we compulsively check our smartwatches and Strava totals, we can sometimes become detached from how our bodies are actually feeling and miss important physical cues that our training needs to be adjusted. For this reason, it is sometimes beneficial to ditch technology and run by feel instead. But how do you control your pace during runs and workouts without a watch? The answer is in your breathing.

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Your breath can be a very effective tool for determining effort and controlling pace, and the best way to understand your breath is to pay attention to how much you can talk while running. Can you easily carry on a conversation, or are you only able to spit out a few words here and there? This is a great way for more experienced runners to gauge their effort level. Keep in mind that if you’re brand new to running, you may not be at a point where ‘talking pace’ is feasible. If this describes you, don’t worry about pace at all, but instead focus on staying relaxed while you run and staying consistent with your running schedule. If you run regularly a few times a week, you will soon develop the fitness to be able to talk while running. 

How to control your pace with breath

To use your breath as a pacing metric, it’s important to understand how the different levels of breath equate to running effort. Let’s break it down.

Talking pace

This is the pace you want to use for your easy and long run days, which should make up the majority of your training. The idea of talking pace is that you can speak in full sentences without too much trouble — if you can’t talk your running buddy’s ear off about your cat’s latest shenanigans, then you’re running too hard. The actual pace you’re running will vary depending on the day, and some days you’ll be able to chat easily while running a 5:30 kilometre, while other days you have to slow down in order to stay in control. This is the benefit of running according to your breath — it allows you to push your body a little more on days when you’re feeling good, and ease up when you’re not.

‘Shy guy pace’

Others may refer to this as ‘comfortably fast’ pace, with the basic idea being that you can manage only a couple of short sentences at a time (imagine the way a shy person might interact at a party…not exactly a Chatty Cathy). This is the perfect pace for tempo runs and progression runs, which you’re likely only doing once a week. As with talking pace, some days you’ll be able to manage a much quicker speed at this effort level, and other days you’ll have to back off a bit.

Antisocial pace

This is the pace you reserve for your hardest efforts. At this speed, you should only be able to spit out a few words here and there, and you will likely need a bit more recovery time to catch your breath when you’re done. This is the pace you want to shoot for when doing hard interval sessions.

The benefits of pacing with breath

As we said, some days you’re going to feel amazing, and you’ll be able to manage a quicker pace at each of these effort levels, while some days running is going to feel harder. When you track your pace with a watch, it’s easy to stop paying attention to your body, and not only will you end up pushing yourself too hard on days when your body isn’t ready (or feeling discouraged when you can’t hit the pace), but you might also hold back on days when you could have given more, and end up missing out on some training effect. Running according to your breath solves this problem and helps you become more in tune with your body. It is also a great way to pull yourself out of a running slump, especially for those who are feeling frustrated that they’re not hitting the paces they think they’re capable of.

This is not to say that watches are evil and you should never use technology to track your progress – only that there is a benefit to occasionally leaving the tech at home and running according to feel. This approach could make you a faster, happier runner.

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