Running Faster Using Visuals, Not Numbers

running faster using visual cuesI love my GPS running watch, and credit my use of this tool in improving my 5K time from 31 minutes to 25 minutes, from a competent but average runner to a consistent age-group winner. I love being faster! But I have also found that my constant emphasis on pace and distance has robbed me of running joy.

A couple of conversations with athletic friends made me rethink my training and compelled me to move away from math-based workouts (requiring myself to run a certain distance at a specific pace, for example) and toward visually-inspired workouts. At the same time, I realized that many people often get confused by a heavy emphasis on paced runs and intervals, and may more readily understand visual instructions.

So, I have developed a few workout ideas that focus on visuals rather than numbers:

  • Distance runs

    There are a couple of approaches to doing distance runs. For both, choose a starting place and route that you plan to run regularly. You can use this method to either become acclimated to a certain distance or increase your distance over time.

    1. Develop a route that covers a specific distance (try your longest run to date or the distance of a target race). For the first couple of runs, use a watch or app to map the route (so you’ll use a bit of math in the beginning). For subsequent runs, simply cover the distance based on visual markers.

      For example, when I train for a 5K, I do an up-and-back run on my favorite trail that starts at a parking lot and extends to a certain park bench (at 1.6 miles), where I turn around and run back to my starting point. I cover 3.2 miles, just a bit over the 5K distance of 3.1 miles.

      If I decide to train for longer distances, I either run a bit further along the trail or develop an extended route.

    2. Start your run at a certain place and develop a visual image of initial and subsequent routes.

      For example, if you run in your neighborhood, pick a regular starting place and cover specific streets (or sidewalks along these streets) for each workout. To add distance, periodically increase the number of streets you run.

      Using this method, you won’t know the precise distance but you’ll run consistently and have the opportunity to increase your distance.

  • Fartlek (speed play) workouts

    After you have developed a regular running route and become accustomed to the distance, you can introduce speed into your workouts using the fartlek, which means “speed play.”

    I like to think of this run as “play” as much as “speed.” This technique reminds me of my childhood when my friends and I would challenge each other to race a certain, generally short, distance. Imagine children walking in the neighborhood; just to have fun, one child names a specific landmark, such as a mailbox or fence post, and everyone in the group races to that point; after each child catches her or his breath, another landmark is called out and again the children race.

    A grownup version of this game looks very similar, except that you typically will run at a gentle pace in between short bursts of speed.

    For example, when I do my regular trail run, I may pick out a point ahead of me (perhaps a tree or a trail sign), sprint to that point, run slowly as I recover, and then repeat, etc. So, instead of running speedily based on a certain amount of time or measured distance (e.g., 45 seconds or one-tenth of a mile), you add speed using visual cues.

  • Interval training

    Interval training involves alternating intensity of effort and rest, according to specific intervals.

    There are many ways of implementing an interval training session. Typically, you will decide on the distance, pace, resting or recovery time, and number of sets. For example, you might do four sets of a quarter of a mile at an 8-minute per mile pace with a minute rest in between intervals.

    In general, this type of training is very numbers oriented; however you could easily adapt your workout to a visual-based approach.

    Choose a track for your interval session and decide whether you want to do short intervals or long ones; for example, you could do a full lap (or one-quarter of a mile) or four laps (one mile). After warming up, run your chosen distance at a quick pace and then rest by walking or lightly jogging; repeat a few times; end with a cool-down run.

  • Hill training

    Hill training lends itself to visual cues rather than numbers.

    A numbers-based method of hill running would involve running up hills that are a certain length or grade and precisely timing your recovery between hill repeats.

    For a more visual approach, find a hill in your neighborhood or on your favorite running trail. After warming up, sprint up the hill (if short) or exert extra effort (if long), run slowly down the hill and repeat until fatigued. Also consider doing your fast runs down the hill to become acclimated to hill running in various situations.

  • Negative splits

    A negative split means running the end of the race or workout at a faster pace than you did at the beginning. I decided to add negative splits to my training after being passed on numerous occasions just yards from the finish line.

    A simple example of a negative split using a numbers-based method is to run three miles at the following paces: 11-minute mile for the first mile; 10-minute mile for the second mile; and a 9-minute mile for the third mile. In this way, you accustom your body to going faster when you are fatigued.

    The visual approach may not precisely reproduce exact times that constitute a negative split. But you can run based on perceived effort with a relatively fast pace for the last mile or whatever distance in which you have slowed down in the past. Very often, I visualize the last stretch of a specific race and push myself to finish strong.

Noticing my surroundings rather than constantly checking my statistics helps me enjoy my workouts while still improving my speed. Using visual cues may allow you to incorporate speed into your workouts while still enjoying your runs.