Should Runners Train By Feel Or Use A Running Program?

It seems like there are two types of athletes – those who use a running program and those who go by feel.

Each approach has its pros and cons but the question is, which type of athlete gets better results?

Using a running program – different types and benefits

A pre-planned program relies on a number of key factors.

You need to use a running program that is aligned with your current capabilities and moves toward your training goals.

It needs to take into account how hard you can push yourself and how much recovery your body needs.

And that’s often where runners who use a running program can come undone.

It needs to estimate how much recovery time your body needs to bounce back after each session.

If it gets it wrong, even by a small margin, you gradually accrue more fatigue and your required recovery takes even longer.

Solo runner's legs in blue shoes during road run

The risk of accrued fatigue is much greater if you use a running program that hasn’t been designed specifically for you.

Worse still, online programs often apply generic formulae to the volume calculations, despite plenty of evidence that the 10% “rule” is ineffective and doesn’t provide any protection from injuries.

Many programs downloaded from the web are written by former Olympians and elite coaches.

So the chance of a mismatch is considerable, regardless of how motivating it feels to train like Kipchoge.

Interestingly some studies have found that runners who use a running program as prescribed are at more risk of certain types of injuries.

Benefits of a coach-designed custom running program

Hiring a qualified coach to design your program mitigates a lot of that risk.

Coaches will use approaches like easy training sessions and recovery weeks to reduce the chance of fatigue-related injury.

But a set-and-forget approach from a coach can have its downside as well.

It doesn’t adapt and adjust to how you’re feeling and any warning signs of building fatigue.

It’s also an expensive option, with a weekly fee based on the coach’s experience and involvement.

Running by feel without a program

The exact opposite of runners who use a running program are those who use the “gut feel” approach.

It’s where you lace up your shoes, ponder how you feel for the day and design each session on the fly.

This approach also has its pitfalls.

You may be feeling exceptionally good for reasons unrelated to training (for me, it’s watching Chariots of Fire for the 20th time).

Because you’re feeling good, you’ll go out and take on a session that doesn’t match your current capabilities.

You can also fall victim to the mojo roller coaster.

Some weeks you’re just not feeling it so training takes a backseat.

Although that sounds like good recovery time, too many low mojo weeks reduce your physical capacity and make it harder for you to safely build your training loads.

What’s the ideal approach to running training?

You need an approach that controls your steady build, provides recovery time when you need it most and allows you to listen to your body.

The ideal is to use a running program from a qualified coach who is in regular contact with you and designs a program specifically for you (no pre-fabricated template programs).

The process still relies on you giving honest feedback to your coach so having a great relationship with them is vital.

While that approach might be ideal, it’s also an expensive one.

For the self-managed runner

Let’s look at the ideal approach for the self-managed athlete.

You need to design and plan your sessions in advance so that they’re working towards your goal – you should use a running program, even if it’s a loose plan.

But you need to be able to adjust those sessions based on how your body (and mind) is feeling.

Session planning

The first change you can make is to plan your sessions with target brackets rather than specific numbers.

You’re not heading out for a 14k run, you’re heading out for a 10-16k run. If the mojo is high and the legs are good, you can crack out 16k.

But if it’s not your day, you can still get a worthwhile training session in without forcing the last few kms.

Additional or “bonus” sessions

Next, you need to plan some bonus sessions.

While your training week will have 3 or 4 core sessions for the week, you can add in some bonus days.

If your body is feeling great and you’re well recovered, your bonus might be an easy 8k cruise on the trails.

If you’re just feeling OK, your bonus might be a nice hilly walk with the dog.

If you’re really not feeling it, your bonus might be a swim, rest day or even a massage.

Listen to your body

Lastly, and this one comes from my Physio brain, don’t use rest days to hide from any pain that alters your running technique.

That’s an important distinction to make. 

Niggles are fine, sore muscles are fine – sometimes all they need is a little bit of extra recovery.

But if you’re experiencing pain that’s significant enough to change the way you move, taking a few days off is not going to fix the issue.

You’ll feel less pain because you’re not running but hiding from it is different from addressing it.

Typically one Physio visit is all it takes to identify the cause and fix it.