fitness · running · training

They’re All Good Runs: A Case for Autoregulation

When you go out for a run or ride, how do you decide how long you will go, how hard, or how fast? Less time lifting weights these days has meant more time running for me, and I’m approaching it a new way–I’m using autoregulation to determine my goals for each outing. For any activity, autoregulation is allowing data from the experience in the moment to determine your outcomes for that event.

Choose your datapoint. Autoregulation does not mean “go for as long as you feel like.” I’m not just running until it doesn’t seem fun anymore. Honestly, for me, the first mile has always been rough, with my body telling me all about how I’m making it do something it isn’t well-designed to do. It can take even longer for my breathing to even out. If I were to use these cues to tell me when I’m done, I’d never run more than half a mile.

What I have learned, though, is that while I may sound like a freight train as I puff down the middle of the road, my pace can remain pretty steady. I start my runs these days around an 11-12 min/mile pace. If I get feeling really loose, maybe if there’s some downhill bits or someone annoys me and I get a surge of adrenaline, I can speed up for a while to perhaps 9:30-10 min/miles.

So, that’s the datapoint I use to autoregulate my runs; I check my pace. As long as I’m running faster than a 13 minute/mile, I keep running. And when I see my pace drop below 13 minutes/mile for a couple checks, I’m done. Usually, my pace drops off really fast. Sometimes that happens after a shorter run, maybe 1.5 miles, sometimes it takes longer. However long I go, I know I’ve gone a distance that challenges me without overdoing it and without cutting myself short.

Choose your route. Obviously, a potential downside to this method is ending up some distance from home and needing to walk quite a ways back. Until my distances become consistently longer, I’m keeping pretty close to home. I started my runs as loops around the perimeter of a beautiful, historic cemetery a few blocks from our house. I can run one loop, about three quarters of a mile, or any distance longer than that without ever being more than a few blocks from home. As I’ve gotten stronger, to mix it up, I also run through the neighborhood along a 3-mile loop. If I can only run one side of the loop, I’m still only a little over a mile from home, which is a nice walk to cool down with.

Celebrate each run. I think the best part of this strategy for me is that it’s reduced the stress of feeling like I need to accomplish something specific on my runs. When I first got back into it at the start of Stay Home Save Lives in March, I gave myself the “add 10% to the distance” rule and tried to adhere to it week to week. It was fine at first, but then, maybe 5 or 6 weeks into it, I hit a wall. I couldn’t run further. I’d try to push through it, and my stomach would start to roil, my legs would ache, my heart rate would spike, and my pace would slow down to slower than if I’d been walking. It felt bad, and I didn’t feel successful.

When I started to give myself permission to just run until my body said stop, the distances run to run varied more, but each run felt better. I didn’t push myself to having a sour stomach all day. My hip didn’t ache for the next week. I had energy for my lifting the following day. It was better. And after a while, the distances started to tick upwards again. It isn’t linear. Every run isn’t further than the run before it. But the trend is slowly becoming longer and longer, and there are moments when it really feels good again to be running. That is why I’m out there in the first place–I want it to feel good, I want to feel good.

This week, I ran just over three miles for the first time in years. There were periods during that run that it actually felt easy. I’ve always laughed at the advice to keep it at a “conversational” pace. Running and conversation have never been in the cards for me. However, for a block here and there, I think I COULD have had a conversation! When I checked my pace, I was surprised to note that I hadn’t slowed down, I was still trucking along around 11 min/mile. So I kept running.

Autoregulation has been a welcome tool for me to enhance my running endurance during these challenging times. It allows me to listen to my body; it gives me a goal that I can pursue without judgement. It has taken away a stressor (externally derived goals) while still allowing me to challenge myself and improve over time. I am so grateful that I can run, and now I am really enjoying it again.

Photo description: Feet in grey and orange running shoes, ascending concrete stairs.

Your turn, dear reader: How do you decide when you’ve gone far enough? Do you predetermine distances or use autoregulation to decide how far to go? I’d love to hear from you.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found ignoring her ragged breathing, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

3 thoughts on “They’re All Good Runs: A Case for Autoregulation

  1. This really resonates with me, Marjorie! Because right now my usual regular club rides are not possible, I’ve been exploring the contours of solo riding much more than is normal for me in summer. First thing I’ve noticed is that I go lesser distances. Whereas at the height of summer I’m usually doing at least one, if not two, 100+km rides per week with the club, now I restrict my long rides to around 80km. I realize that if I’m not in a group, I AM NEVER DRAFTING. All the riding is me; there’s little enforced rest at the back of the pack, and I’m not usually riding a conversational pace (which is the pace at the back of the pack in most 8+ groups rides). So I’ve had to adjust my expectations: I remember that the work of 80km alone is more than equal the work of 100+km in a group. I also remember that the wear and tear on my quads, hamstrings, glutei and hip flexors is much more alone, so it’s in my best interest for a good recovery not to push it.

    Just last night I was thinking about this on a ride. I pick a target in my region that’s about 20-30km from my house; I look forward to reaching it. Then, depending on how I feel, I might go the short or the long way home. (It also helps that “home” is always the downhill portion of the ride for me. So much for living in a glacier bowl!) Because I’m alone, I get to choose! I often go with my gut: as with Tracy’s intuitive eating, I find that when I get to a junction/choice point, I let my unconscious self direct the turn. Usually it works out really well.

    Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad that you can relate to it, Kim! I can completely see how riding alone would require changes in how you approach longer rides. And I agree, it connects to intuitive eating very well. For me, the challenge was figuring out what to listen to–since it always takes a while for it to feel good, I have to ignore my own feedback a while before I know if it’s actually a limit or just me slowly warming up. Your notion of a junction point makes total sense in that context. It gives you a minimum that you can just mosy along to before you have to make a decision. It sounds like you’ve found a way to ride that allows you to really take care of yourself. That’s great!

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