When I was training seriously the only wearable technology available was a stopwatch. In those pre-GPS days, I would estimate the distance I’d run by using a London A-Z and a ruler. Despite these rudimentary monitoring methods, I seemed to learn to ‘know’ when I was in good shape. Its difficult to explain how I ‘knew’, but there was just a certain feeling in the legs and running just seemed to ‘flow’. It was these feelings that informed decision-making with regards to goal-setting for upcoming races. Somehow, I just seemed to be able to sense if I was in pb shape or not.
It’s not just I who has experienced this phenomenon. In his autobiography, middle distance great Steve Ovett frequently talked of how he could intuitively interpret the signals his body was sending. At one point he says:
“I knew that if that session is achieved in a certain pattern, then it is a case of two plus two makes four… I know from how my body feels after that session that I am ready for a fast run. I can do a session through the woods without the benefit of a watch and still know that I am going well. Instinct… tells me I am in shape for something special”
“I believe part of my talent is an intuitive feeling about when I am ready to race… I know from experience and a certain feeling that I am capable of running really well”
“For many of my races I make what really is a last-minute decision… I do not plan a month in advance: it is almost day to day with me. I have been out on a training run, felt good and got back home to ring round and search for a race.”
This intuitive approach to training also seems relatively common. There are several examples, but my favourite two quotes come from 1988 Olympic 5000m and Multiple World cross country champion John Ngugi of Kenya, and multiple masters world record holder Derek Turnbull of New Zealand. Ngugi said that “when he felt like going fast, he did; and when he didn’t feel like it, he didn’t”, whilst Turnbull claimed “I don’t know about this aerobic business, I don’t train. I just run — when I feel, where I feel, how I feel.”
These anecdotes all sound very nice, but they also sound rather naïve. Surely a more rational ‘scientific’ approach would yield superior results? Just think of all the data on exercise it is now possible to collect to inform training and racing decisions. I’m not so sure. Think of the number of possible training sessions that can be devised as well as the number of ways in which they can be combined. Chess grand-master Gary Kasparov once said:
“The total number of possible different moves in a single game of chess is more than the number of seconds that have elapsed since the big bang created the Universe. Intuition is the defining quality of a great chess player.”
This makes perfect sense – imagine the computing power required to calculate the effects of all possible combinations of training sessions to try and work out what is optimal! However, even given the potential limitations of using a rational data driven approach, it can be hard to believe that basing decisions on whatever ‘feels’ right may be superior. I suspect that this is based on misunderstanding of how intuition is developed. It certainly isn’t just a case of doing whatever you fancy – it is far more subtle that that.
It seems as though intuition essentially relies on a process of pattern recognition and interpretation, a quality that can be developed if certain requirements are met. The most important is experience. This is not entirely surprising, as greater exposure to a situation provides more opportunities to recognise patterns that are important (or unimportant). The recognition of what is unimportant is probably at least as essential as what is important, especially in the context of potential data overload. This forms the basis for heuristic decision-making whereby an individual ignores most available data and focuses on a few key qualities of their environment to allow them to make ‘fast and frugal’, yet accurate, decisions. To go back to the earlier Steve Ovett quote (“I know from experience and a certain feeling that I am capable of running really well”), this was something he had picked up on. It is necessary to emphasise that when he wrote this, Ovett was an established senior athlete. Earlier in his career he required more specific coaching input from Harry Wilson.
Another key factor, besides experience, contributing to high quality intuition is emotional intelligence (because emotion precedes cognition, facilitating more rapid decision-making). Emotional intelligence represents a set of skills and behaviours which can also be developed though experience and exposure to certain situations.
I am sure that some (most?!) readers will disagree and prefer a more data driven approach (see – https://andrewrenfree.wordpress.com/2021/09/21/zen-the-art-of-running-or-why-im-am-old-romantic-at-heart/). However, those who prefer a more intuitive approach should be reassured that this is anything but simplistic and naïve, but rather a sophisticated approach to dealing with large volumes of complex data.