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Pacing with P - Listen to your body? Sure, but how?

Pacing with P - Listen to your body? Sure, but how?
By Pierre • Issue #2 • View online
Thank you for being a subscriber and welcome to issue #2 of Pacing with P where we’ll be talking about how to follow the abstract advice we’ve all heard many times “just listen to your body”.
As I’m writing this I’m finishing my fifth week of running, after taking a five week break, so things are starting to feel like they’re back to normal on that front. On the other hand, all the problems that were there before, racial injustice and covid being top of mind, are still here, and it’s really hard to gauge if progress is being made. But at least there is momentum to make things better, a lot of people are speaking up, on both end, and that might be the silver lining.
On the protesting front, there are things we can do as runners. I’ve had the chance to participate in two runs for social change in the past few weeks. And let me be extremely clear here, I am in no way saying that this it, that by signing up for a run promoting civil rights you did your job, that you should pat yourself on the back and resume your daily life. There is a lot of more that can, and probably should, be done, such as donating, educating, engaging, debating, learning, and probably more. I know I’m working on it, and I don’t think I’m doing as much as I could. But I’m only hinting at the fact that there are ways, that we, as runners, can introduce ourselves to social change, if that’s not something we were used to before, through running.
Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr., I had never heard the name until I recently participated to one of such runs. He was a thirteen-year-old black boy and was shot in the stomach by a police officer while playing with a toy gun in a stairwell in New York City. There are just so many names, too many, and we need to make sure we don’t only remember the ones that make the headlines.
The amazing people taking the time and energy to organize these events and educate us should be recognized, so Jason Fulford (@jayfuf15), thank you!

Jason Fulford and Power Malu at the Run for Justice in Gowanus, New York on 7/18/20
Jason Fulford and Power Malu at the Run for Justice in Gowanus, New York on 7/18/20
So, I'm supposed to listen to my body, tell me how
Set your ego aside, do not make too many changes at once, and finally, probably the most important part, understand your mistakes and try to not repeat them.
Many wearables have become available and more affordable in the last few years. The Apple Watch is probably the most popular one but there are others. A lot of brands often try to convince us that we need their new devices to help us with our goals, and I fundamentally disagree with that. All of these are nothing more than tools, they can be useful, but you do not necessarily need them. It may sound a little bit hypocritical given that I use not one but two watches — a Garmin watch for running and swimming and an Apple Watch for day to day tracking — but what I’m arguing about here is their necessity, or lack thereof, not their usefulness.
Set your ego aside
Back in the spring of 2015, I was coming off an injury earlier in the year and started getting back to a more consistent training and started increasing my weekly mileage. It started around 10 and 20, got up to the 30s and 40s and I even got a few weeks in the 50s. A few months later, in August, I realized that I could add a few miles here and there and log a 100k week — about 62.2 miles — which I had never done before. And so I did, I was really proud, it felt like a huge personal achievement.
I had been ignoring the fact that my shins started hurting way more than they usually did after each run. The pain would persist until the next run, and it started building up. It was never bad enough to stop me, but I did end up with a runner’s knee a few months later. And while I have no proof that it was caused by my 100k week attempt, I am convinced that it contributed to it.
Why was I chasing 100k in a week? Because it sounded nice, I thought it would put me closer to being a “real runner”, pride, ego.
And here’s the thing, the shin pain was there all along, it’s not so much that I didn’t pay attention to it, it’s more that my ego was telling me that it was fine to ignore it, that the achievement would be worth the cost.
Too many changes
Mileage was not the only element that made this 100k week episode a real failure. As I was running more, I was was also cranking up the intensity of my workouts. More mile repeats, more laps at the track, faster recovery days, all of the above.
And the point here is not to say that no one should do that, but I, in 2015, was not a seasoned runner. I had been running for a little over a year, with a big injury break in the middle, my body was not ready for it.
If I was given a chance to offer a correction, I would choose one or the other. Running 100k in a week still feels like a significant threshold to me, it’s nowhere near what elite athletes run, but I think it’s still a distance to be proud of.
Increasing the intensity was also not a bad idea in and of itself. It’s even a key element of many training plans. I also find it way more fun to run at faster paces, it breaks the monotony of running at the same pace for a long time.
But increasing both at the same time, that was a mistake.
This is almost a case study of what not to do. Run too much and too fast and you will get injured, it’s not rocket science. But while this is obvious in hindsight, it can sometimes be really hard to see the problem when you’re in the middle of it. This leads us to the final and most important part of my answer, understanding your mistakes.
Understand your mistakes
The previous example is easy to analyze after the fact, but there are also other, more subtle elements that are still worth paying attention to.
Take fueling before a run for instance. Should you eat or not before leaving your home. The general rule being that calories act as fuel for the body, if you go for a run on an empty tank, you won’t go far and it might even be dangerous. If you’ve been fasting for a week and go for a run, and have never run in a fasted state before, this is extremely dangerous, even reckless.
Setting aside extreme fasting since it’s not what most runners do, let’s look at a more familiar example, going for a run in the morning, soon after waking up. I believe that most people eat dinner between 6 and 10pm, so even if you last ate at 6, you’re at most 12 to 13 hours removed from your last meal when you’re lacing up your shoes the next morning. Your body is not depleted, you can technically run. But now introduce other factors, heat, humidity, dehydration, the length and intensity of the run, the quality of the meal you had the night before, the quality of your sleep and the equation becomes quickly complicated, and unique to each athlete.
It’s not possible for me to give an advice that would work for every runner. What I can say is that by following the two previous tips, setting your ego aside, and gradually introducing change, you can minimize the risk of making a big mistake. What do I mean by big mistake? Drinking an espresso shot and leaving right away and finding yourself miles away from your bathroom, desperate to find a place to go number two. Yeah, I’ve been there, it’s not fun. In this example, my advice would be to go for a really short run, really close to your home, or somewhere where you know you will have an easy access to a bathroom, baby steps.
If leaving for a short and easy run, you might be good without any food. But what if your plan calls for an intense run at the track? You’ll very likely perform better with food. Finding what to eat and when to eat it is not easy. It’s usually recommended to wait a few hours after a substantial meal before doing any kind of intense activity, so unless you’re willing to wake up before 4am, that’s likely not an option. I personally like to pack one or two energy gels, just in case I start to feel low on fuel. If it’s a really intense day, I might even have a banana or a small PB&J right before leaving, something that is easy to digest.
You will try things that work and some that won’t, and ideally you won’t repeat the same mistakes. I’ve personally failed at this many many times. For instance, I have more than once ate way too much before an intense run, I was afraid of running on an empty stomach, and ended up feeling horribly bloated as I was digesting all the food I stuffed in my face an hour earlier.
One way to perfect the trial and error process is to take notes, journaling is an incredibly powerful thing. Had I taken notes every time I ate a lot and went out for a hard workout, it would have be pretty explicit that it was a bad idea. Instead I made the mistake and forgot about it.
It takes a lot of dedication to maintain a journal I’m personally terrible at it. Wearables can help with this, to some extent, by doing some of the work for us.
So what about wearables?
One way to get some of the benefits of journaling while not actively taking notes is through the use of wearables.
Your Apple Watch won’t be able to know what you ate before you run unless you tell it, but it will track a few metrics for you, and some can be useful to see what works and what doesn’t.
The most common metric is the heart rate, which can tell you a lot about your fitness. My main advice is to not obsess about the actual number, but instead to look at the trend, over a few weeks. If your resting heart rate is a few beats higher than usual once in a while, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. On the other hand if it has consistently been going up for weeks, then this might be a sign that something worrisome is happening. I personally often see a small spike after a hard workout, and I expect things to go back to normal within a day or two. When that doesn’t happen, I give myself a few more days to rest. It is important to not jump to conclusions too quickly as many factors could be at play, such as stress, diet, alcohol and many others.
I only recently started wearing my Apple Watch at night, to get an idea of what my heart rate is when I sleep, and the results have been really interesting. One of the biggest takeaways is to be able to see the direct impact of things like alcohol, poor quality meals or lack of sleep.
The data nerd in me is excited to know that one or two drinks doesn’t really impact my heart rate, while my deep sleep heart rate can be 10 to 15 beats higher than usual if I drink a lot. Note that I’m explicitly not calling this my resting heart rate as it seems like it’s technically different. I’ve seen resting heart rate described as your heart rate when you wake up, which in my case can be up to 5 to 10 beats higher than my lowest heart rate while sleeping.
A related metric that is seeing more and more attention these days is Heart Rate Variability, something else that the Apple Watch tracks for you. Interpreting HRV data can be tricky, the general idea being that higher is better, and that a downward trend over a few days or weeks might be a red flag. This is a simplification and this article from Whoop goes way deeper on the topic.
HRV Data can be tricky to interpret. The overall trend is fairly flat so I guess I'm not doing that bad 🤷‍♂️ But I really can't explain the highs and lows
HRV Data can be tricky to interpret. The overall trend is fairly flat so I guess I'm not doing that bad 🤷‍♂️ But I really can't explain the highs and lows
Speaking of Whoop, I have never tried their strap, but it seems like an interesting device overall. Oura is another one that I would like to try at some point, but I don’t personally see the need for me at the moment.
These devices do help to see the big picture, and to see trends that might otherwise be hard to notice.
That being said, for metrics like Heart Rate, it’s worth noting that you could take a few seconds every morning to measure your resting heart rate and take note of it, and that’s essentially free.
Do I need a $300 device to tell me that too much alcohol is not good for me? Did I need my watch to tell me that a drink or two is not that bad, but that the more I drink, the worst the impact will be? Well, I’m not going to answer because it might make me regret buying said watch, but you see where I’m going with this.
Do I think that these devices are a waste of money? Absolutely not, the data they give can be useful, but if you’re on a tight budget, or you don’t really care that much about seeing that level of detailed information, I would absolutely recommend just ignoring them and moving on.
Final thoughts
Finding our limits and pushing ourselves is part of the sport of running. Interestingly, I only realized this after hearing it while doing yoga, I believe it was in one of the free NTC yoga classes, where the instructor said: “find your edge, get to it, and don’t go past it”. I find the advice fairly easy to apply in Yoga, regardless of the pose, you’ll easily notice when it starts hurting and become uncomfortable and can stop there. I find it a bit harder to apply to running because of the number of factors at play and that you might only notice that you went way past your edge only a few days later, when the pain persists.
Meditating has also helped me a lot. I’ve been using Headspace but there are a lot of other free options as well. It is a great way to hit pause, and assess how we feel. The best part, it really doesn’t take that much time and can be beneficial with less than five minutes a day.
Most of us are not elite athletes, the stakes are not that high. The impact of slightly underestimating our abilities and missing out on a new PR is, in my opinion, far far less than the consequences of overshooting and getting injured. At best it’ll be painful and uncomfortable for a while, at worst it’ll mean stopping all running to recover. No one wants that.
Knowing these things is only half the battle, the hard part is to actually apply them in your day to day. I often try to remind myself to set my ego aside, to not overestimate my ability to tackle a new training plan.
And the learning from mistakes part, well this one is a never ending process.
Other articles/videos/links from around the web
Video: Running, Race And The Politics of Taking Up Space After Ahmaud Arbery — From Code Switch (NPR)
Fast Women – Women's competitive distance running
In the reviews corner
We're done!
And that’s a wrap. Thanks for reading, stay safe, run if you can and see you soon!
Feedback?
I want to reiterate my thanks for being a subscriber, and if you have feedback, please do not hesitate to reach out, whatever works for you will work for me, email, instagram, strava, or literally anything else.
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Pierre
By Pierre

Monthly newsletter, about running. As someone who went from zero to addicted to running, I share all the things I've learned along the way. I might not answer all the questions you have, but I'll try.

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