Runner GPS

Calibrating Your Inner GPS



When I started running way back in the 20th century, I wanted longer legs. Long, lean legs for a flowing stride that would simply eat up the ground. As a runner in the 21st century, I find that I need longer arms. I’m up to my elbows in watches, GPS units, heart-rate monitors, and phones. And I’m not alone. Some runners look like they are straight out of a science fiction movie—water bottles in holsters circling the hips, gadgets running up and down the arms relaying detailed information on location, position, elevation, temperature, speed, heart rate and distance from the target. A pre-dawn encounter with a 21st-century runner in full gear can be quite scary!

There is nothing wrong with our 21st-century technology. Over the last few decades, remarkable advances such as heart-rate and speed/distance monitors have enhanced our ability to better prescribe and monitor training for a variety of runners. Coaching is now so much easier, and new runners can avoid the problems runners in the 20th century faced. Any training can now be adjusted to any runner. When you do run with a device, here are 5 tips to getting the most out of your monitor.

The problem is that we are at risk of becoming too dependent on the technology—so dependent that we forget the art of learning our bodies. And, learning our bodies is what this sport is about. After all, we can’t predict the conditions for race day, so we need some internal gauge to properly adjust our pace. How will you know how to adjust your pace if your marathon day turns out to be hot and muggy? What if it is windy? How can you adjust if you’ve only relied on external devices to guide your training? Too often, we’re handcuffed by the tools instead of using the tools to learn ourselves. In essence, we need to calibrate our “inner GPS.”

Inner GPS Training

I’ve worked with some of the world’s best coaches and have successfully coached a full spectrum of runners—beginners, high school, college, masters, and even Olympians. I attribute part of my success to what I call “inner GPS training.” The crux of inner GPS training is that it reconnects your body and your mind. You use workouts that help you better judge race pace internally, allowing you to adapt to a myriad of external factors (heat, cold, wind, altitude, terrain, tactics) that can affect performance. And the best part about inner GPS training is that it’s fun, reduces performance pressure, and I suspect that it even helps prevent injury, since you’re never over-extending yourself. Instead, you’re working within a smart, yet challenging, training zone.

In inner GPS training, several key workouts each week are done by effort. Effort comes first. Then, you correlate different effort levels with different paces, heart rates, etc. Done correctly (it only takes 4–8 weeks) inner GPS workouts provide insight into your body and mind. Once the connection between your internal effort level and your running performance is made, and you’ve “dialed into” your effort, you’ll never have a bad workout or race. You’ll be able to adjust your effort to fit the conditions, terrain, or how you feel on the day.

These workouts are a great way to build the initial fitness you’ll need for your race-specific training. You also begin to correlate your effort levels with various paces and heart rates so you have a better understanding of what paces, heart rates, and effort levels work specifically for you. You’ll exit this program more fit and more confident in your training.

Calibrating Your Inner GPS with Heart Rate and Pace

The next step in inner GPS training is to begin to correlate varying effort levels with specific paces and heart rates. While you usually avoid looking at the watch during the workouts, you now spend time reviewing the training data. Set up a chart so that you can compare paces and heart rates to effort levels. You also want to observe how this changes in various conditions: how you are feeling on the day, hydration status, life stress, and any other condition that affects how you perform. You can even match effort levels with different types of training, whether training for endurance (easy to medium effort), stamina (medium to medium-hard effort), or speed (medium-hard to hard effort). Put some thought into your training and begin to get a better feel for your running. Armed with this information, you’ll always be able to adjust your pace so that you stress the body at the correct level and avoid overtraining.

Scheduling Your Inner GPS Workouts

The best and most important time to use inner GPS training is early in your training cycle. At this time, you really want to learn your body—how hard you can push, how well you recover, and what effort is best for different distances. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be even better prepared when it comes time to do race-specific training, which relies much more on external feedback than does early season training. Remember, we need to learn effort first, then rely on the tools, not the other way around. When getting geared up for a new training cycle, we often get all our calculations complete to know exactly what pace and heart rate we should run at every day. I say throw this out the window! Focus on just running by effort first. Then, after each run, begin to correlate your different effort levels with the tools. Find out what an easy effort relates to in pace and heart rate. In this way, the tools become the gauges that we use to help monitor effort.

It’s also important to begin with inner GPS training because it reduces performance pressure in workouts. Here’s an example: In my work with a world championship runner, I frequently have her do effort-based workouts early in the training cycle. The primary reason is that she is so competitive with herself and knows exactly the times she ran for every workout in the previous training cycle. So, if I give her the same workout, she gets frustrated if she can’t hit her previous times, even though those came when she was in peak shape. Instead, I give her inner GPS fartlek workouts that mimic the regular track-based workouts I would usually prescribe. If she would normally do 1,000m repeats, then I’ll prescribed a fartlek workout of 5–7×3:00. In this workout, she relies only on effort, as I’ve removed any performance standard that she may calculate. After a few effort-based workouts, I can send her to the track and she’ll be more fit and ready to hit times that she’s comfortable with. This scenario is beneficial for any runner who freaks out over workout times (and you know who you are!). It also works great for younger runners as these athletes really need to learn their bodies and avoid competing against the clock early in the training cycle.

Time-Based Training Has Its Place

Inner GPS training should not take the place of your traditional time/distance-based training. If you want to run 17 minutes for 5K, you better well know exactly that pace! Rather, it is to serve as a lead-up to time/distance-based training so that you can get more out of your race-specific training phase. As mentioned before, inner GPS training is best done at the start of the training cycle, when times and distances are less important and general fitness and effort identification rule the day. Later, however, you need to use the technology available to get ready to race. At this time, challenge yourself to hit certain times for certain distances and learn to dial in race pace so you can run like a metronome.

Now You’re Ready

By calibrating your inner GPS, you’ll be ready for whatever a workout or race throws at you. Whether you’re dealing with bad weather, undulating terrain, fatigue, or even just having “one of those days,” you’ll be able to adjust your workouts and races to achieve the best performance on the day. And I find that consistently good performances across a training cycle lead to great performances in races.



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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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