Why Ignoring Your Watch (and Pace) Makes Runs Faster

How many of you have heard—or said—something like, “You wouldn’t want to run with me—I’m slow”? Or: “I was so much faster before”? Or: “I want to enjoy running more, but....”?

As a runner and now as a coach, I hear over and over again—from runners who have qualified for Boston and from those who run-walk a 20-minute mile—that they are not “good” enough unless they are constantly setting PRs, or consistently able to hit some arbitrary pace goal.

And that’s total bullshit.

This past July, I participated in a Ragnar Relay Trail Race in Lake Tahoe. I say “participated” deliberately, because I didn’t run most of it. As a relatively new trail runner, I didn’t feel confident that I could run sixteen miles within a twenty-four-hour period, at altitude, on technical trails. But I knew I could hike it, and so that’s what I did.

My first leg was the hardest. It was 6 steep miles but, like most of Tahoe, the trail was beautiful. I love being outside in nature. As other runners passed me, we chatted about the weather, the stunning scenery, and the race.

One runner asked me how things were going.

“Great!” I responded. “I’m taking it easy and hiking this thing. How are you doing?”

“I’m good. I wish I could be relaxed, like you, and enjoy the run more,” he replied as he bounded down the hill.

Speed must really matter to him, I thought. Maybe his team is up for awards.

But then I remembered that Ragnar doesn’t offer any prizes for winning. Sometimes, officials don’t even announce the “winners” of the race. So why was this runner sacrificing his enjoyment of a gorgeous, once-in-a-lifetime run for a time that wouldn’t matter tomorrow?

As runners, we often emphasize speed as a barometer of how “good” we are at running. I call this the speed trap. Like so many runners, I used to be a slave to my watch, constantly chasing PRs. In 2015, I ran an entire half-marathon surrounded by the Grand Teton Mountains, yet I didn’t take a single picture because I was so focused on my time.

For a while, this mindset worked. I had a completely unexpected 20-minute PR at the New York City Marathon in 2015. I declared 2016 as “The Year of the PR” and accomplished huge new PRs at 5K, 10K, and half-marathon races. But then, as I’ve shared before, I got miserable. Here’s why.

Speed and performance are heavily influenced by mood as well as physical capabilities and weather conditions. A Ragnar teammate, Madison, is a tough and fast runner. But between her first leg and her second, she confessed to me that she wasn’t having very much fun on her runs anymore. A former elite equestrian, she knew how to compete, but chasing times and results on her runs had become grueling. She simply didn’t get the same satisfaction from racing as she used to.

Madison knew I am a coach, and she asked what my advice would be. I told her to focus on feeling good and having fun.

“We aren’t going for time,” I said, “so just go out there and enjoy it.”

She went out on what would be her hardest leg—the same six-mile technical trail I had started on—and came back beaming. “I had a blast! I haven’t had a run like that in forever,” she told me.

By ignoring her watch, Madison was able to remember why she had signed up for the race in the first place—to cruise up and down the trails in Tahoe. And guess what? That leg was faster than her first, despite being technically harder.

I’ve seen runner after runner perform better by concentrating less on speed and pace. It’s like searching and searching for the right romantic partner. I was dating a series of dudes who didn’t want a girlfriend when all I wanted was a serious relationship. So I set a boundary. When I met someone new, I would say something like, “I’m totally willing to have fun, but if you don’t want a girlfriend, then I’m out.” And guess what? My husband popped up in a dating app only a few weeks later.

Whether it’s running or dating, sometimes we benefit from switching up our goal. I strongly believe that we can become healthier and happier athletes by shifting the focus of our runs away from performance. If valuing your runs by time isn’t working—because you’re feeling discouraged or less motivated, or because you’re missing out on why you run in the first place—then change your priorities.

Prioritize time on your feet (time versus distance). Focus on what you get to do because of running, like listening to music or a podcast you love, or even just leaving the house and not having to think for a while.

Prioritize your friends who are runners, and go out at a slower pace so you can have a good conversation.

Prioritize your running form—look for small tweaks in your posture, gait, and cadence that can make you run more efficiently.

Prioritize your surroundings; try to notice something new on your same old route.

Prioritize why you started running in the first place, because that probably wasn’t about being fast.

I started running because it was a challenge both physically and mentally. Admittedly, I also needed an inexpensive outlet for the anger, frustration, and loneliness I felt at what was a hard time in my life. And, when I think about it, those aspects about running are still true for me today. Running is still a challenge physically and mentally. And running is still an outlet for my feelings. Those objectives are more important than any signifier speed gives me because, just like at that Ragnar, my time won’t matter tomorrow.

All that matters is that I’m still out there, mile after mile, giving myself a challenge to rise to and a place—no matter where I am—to come home to.

I’d like to hear from you—how do speed and pace goals affect you in training or racing?