Coach Cal takes a look at the old adage of ‘Listening to your body’. It’s something runners are often told to do. But what does it actually mean and how can you get better at it? 

In our latest blog article, Gavin discussed some of the approaches to training that are typically adopted by Kenyan athletes, and why these should (or, in some cases should not) be implemented into the training routines of competitive runners of all levels. You can find that article here.

In this article, I will follow on from Gavin’s thoughts by discussing how my own approach to training has been influenced by my experiences of running in Kenya.

There is no correct way of training to be the best runner you can be, all we have to do is compare the programs of some of the top athletes in the world to see that. Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s approach to training is vastly different to Timothy Cheruiyot’s, yet I am confident the pair will finish within a few strides of each other in this year’s Olympic 1500m final. The same can be said for numerous others who have reached the top of their game but swear by different methods and subtleties that underpin their training. From the point of view of an athlete and a coach, it is not about seeing who is right and who is wrong, it is about seeing what works best for the individual (in this case me). Even now, after 15+ years of competitive running, I am still learning from athletes and coaches around me who adopt different training styles. Plus, as Gavin alludes to, learning from others is not always about seeing what they do and how you could do the same, it can also mean seeing what they are not doing, or what is missing from their routine.

Listen to your body
The first thing Gavin mentioned that runners would do well to learn from the Kenyan’s is to listen to your body. Actually, not simply listen to it, but to understand what it is trying to tell you. This is something I want to go a little bit deeper into here.  It was during my first training camp in Kenya that I really understood what ‘listen to your body’ actually means. It is a term that gets thrown around a lot and I believe that without further context the phrase alone could inhibit athletes in their training.

On the surface, ‘listen to your body’ often comes across as ‘if you are tired, have a rest’, or shorten your workout, or take an easy day. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Running is a sport in which you have to put your body under physical stress in order to create the stimulus needed for adaptation and improvement. If you want to be the best runner you can be, it means training most days, and to put it bluntly, that makes you tired. ‘Listen to your body’ does not mean stop, it means be aware of your limitations and the effects of pushing those limitations. Some athletes may be extremely good at doing high volume weeks on very tired legs, and this may actually benefit them and make them a better runner. Other athletes may benefit from reducing the mileage or reducing the intensity, continuing with a high mileage program on tired legs may not be the best way for them to progress. Tiredness does not always mean you need to rest or reduce the training, but you need to be aware of the signals and what those signals mean for you personally.

It is this that many of the top Kenyan runners have mastered. They are very in tune with the signals they get from their bodies and they are extremely aware of the consequences of their training. They know when they can and should push themselves (even when they feel tired or unmotivated) and they know when to ease off and reduce the training load. There is no set algorithm of ‘do you feel tired, yes, then rest, or no, then push harder’. That is not listening to your body. Rather, it is about figuring out what variables you can and should change in your training according to the signals and feelings you are getting from your body, and the consequences these changes will have as a result. It takes time and experience, but there are a few simple things you can do to help yourself learn:

  • Occasionally run without a watch. If you have a loop you know is roughly 5 miles for example, then do some of your easy runs around that loop without your watch. You know you have done 5 miles, but you don’t know your exact time or pace. It forces you to run according to your feeling rather than the pace you think you should be running at. You can do this with hard workouts too.
  • Get a coach. While getting to know your body and your limits in terms of training is entirely personal and learned mainly through experience, an experienced coach is someone who has worked with numerous athletes of varying abilities and may even be someone who was/is an athlete themselves. They won’t be able to tell you exactly how you will respond to certain stimuli without first getting to know you, but they will be able to help you understand the signals you are getting from your body better and help you figure out the best course of action based on those signals.
  • Try different things. In your early stages of training to be a better runner the only way to get to know how you best deal with certain signals is to experiment. Figure out how you respond to rest days, easy days, hard days, increased mileage, decreased mileage, by doing it and assessing how you perform. Don’t chop and change too much – you need to give your training a chance, but if one thing doesn’t appear to be working, try something else. Or if one thing does work, that does not mean that something else might work even better! Don’t be afraid to try different approaches and see what works best for you.

(Coach Cal, leading a session in Iten Kenya)

Mentality towards hard workouts

Another thing that struck me from running with groups of Kenyan athletes is that no one ever seemed either really happy, or really disappointed with their training sessions. The reason I noticed that is because here in the UK, any time I speak to someone either at or immediately after a hard session, it seems they are either devastated with their workout and it could not have been worse, or ecstatic and it was the best session of their life. But in Kenya it seemed to be more of a case of ‘job done’. This may not sound like a big deal, but this is something that has really had a positive impact on my training. Becoming very emotionally attached to your workouts can become mentally draining. Overthinking the quality of your session, comparing it to previous workouts, comparing it to training sessions other people have done, all have little to no positive impact on your training.

Since returning from Kenya, I try to think of all my sessions as another step towards becoming a better runner, regardless of how ‘successful’ it may have been. Providing I get the work done, train at the right effort level and recover well, then that is a tick in the box and on to the next one. I rarely get frustrated with splits, or angry if I couldn’t hit the times my coach prescribed me. I know that my training performance naturally fluctuates a little and that I won’t always run my best training sessions, but as long as I get the work done, I consider that a success. The accumulation of hundreds of good training sessions is far more powerful than a few amazing ones scattered with a few terrible ones and this is absolutely how most Kenyan runners see it. Every week, they get their training ticked off, job done, miles in the bank, onto the next. Nothing special, nothing disastrous, just good, emotionally stable workouts.

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Relaxed running

I will keep this part brief as I’ve previously written an article about relaxed running which goes into more detail on the subject, you can find the article here on the Kenya Experience site.

To summarise, I learned from running with the Kenyans that running in a relaxed way is not something you can just do by telling yourself to do it. If you want to be able to stay relaxed during a race then you must practice running in a relaxed way during training. The best Kenyan runners will rarely if ever, be seen losing their form and ‘tensing up’ during a race. This is partly because there is an emphasis on running this way during their training sessions.

Taking the program as gospel

One thing that Gavin didn’t mention in his last article that I took back from my first training camp in Kenya was the ability to not take my training program as a word for word document of what I must do. Again, with listening to and understanding your body comes alterations and changes to the program, sometimes on a day to day basis. All good coaches recognise that, and so if you have been given a program by an experienced coach and on one day you do less than what the program specified (or more than what the program specified) due to certain feedback you were getting from your body, then that is not a negative thing. If you recognised that you needed something different than what was written on the program, that shows a true understanding of your training needs and should be encouraged.

Of course, if you are consistently doing something wildly different to what is written on the program then questions need to be asked and something needs to change. But in general, even the best coaches cannot predict exactly how you will feel in 2 weeks’ time or even in a few days’ time, and so small changes to the program here and there based on your feeling is not something you should view negatively. This is not to say you should not trust your coach and trust that they know what is best for your training; they will still have a plan and will still be (I hope) guiding you in the right direction with training sessions that are designed specifically to make you a better runner, but occasionally, some last-minute adjustments may be needed.

This is not necessarily something I learned from Kenyan athletes on an individual basis (since many of them don’t have a specific program in the first place), but rather from the overall and general approach to training that most Kenyan runners seem to have. Myself, Gavin and coach Hugo go deeper into this topic in our Conversations About Running Podcast which you can listen to here.

Thanks for reading and I hope you find this a useful insight that may have a positive effect on your training. If you would like to experience training in Kenya first-hand and see if your, visit our Kenya Exprience webpage for more information on how you can do exactly that.

Thanks for Reading,

Coach Cal,

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About the Author

Callum Jones is an engineering master’s graduate of the University of Bristol and middle-distance runner who has spent long periods of time training in Kenya.  He began working for the Kenya Experience in October 2017.

“I’ve been an aspiring distance runner for the last 10 years and worked hard to improve my times year after year.  Training in Iten was an incredible experience for me, it really took my running and love for the sport to a new level and opened my eyes to a whole new mentality towards training. Working for Kenya Experience is fantastic as I can offer my knowledge of the sport and insight into the Kenyan running culture with our guests.”