Matt Long encourages us to stretch our thinking when planning your splits. To feel or not to feel, that is the question. 

It’s early Spring 1972. A University coach is walking round the track with a 21 year old who is being tipped by the American media to have the potential to do great things later that summer in the forthcoming Munich Olympics. The young collegiate star is anxious as he feels his track splits should be faster if he is to be able to make the US team by running well in the trials.

The wise 61 year old coach gently introduces him to two foundational concepts. Bill Bowerman turns to Steve Prefontaine and says, “Hey Pre, I want you to understand the difference between what I’m going to call ‘goal pace’ and ‘date pace’… It will help put your mind at rest”.

‘Goal pace’ and ‘Date Pace’

More than half a century later within any conversation that the now immortalised late coach and athlete will have had, the intertwined notions of ‘goal’ and ‘date’ pace remain as relevant as they were in the summer of ’72 before Prefontaine’s agonising 4th place over 5000m in Munich.

‘Goal pace’ is the easy one. Before his untimely death in 1975 as he was preparing an assault on the Montreal Olympics, ‘Pre’ would go on to run an American record of 13:21 in Helsinki in 1974.

Two years prior to this, he and Bowerman would have known that come the Olympic final on 10th September 1972, to stand a chance of Gold he would have to be running 400m repetitions at 64s per lap or faster to be able to take on the likes of Lasse Viren, Mohamed Gammoudi, Ian Stewart and Emiel Puttemans.

But in May 1972, Bowerman had calculated that ‘Pre’ had a ‘date’ pace of 66s per lap on those 12 x 400m repeats. He’d need to find an additional 2 seconds per lap over the next 4 months or so. So therein lies the difference between ‘date pace’ – the pace which one is capable of today and ‘goal pace’ – the pace which the athlete strives to attain.

Men’s 800m – chase for the line. Photo: Lindie Naughton

‘Run to Feel’ or ‘Run to Split’?

Whist Bowerman would have quantified the ‘date pace’ which Pre was capable of, some contemporary coaches would advocate putting the stopwatch to one side and encouraging the athlete to ‘run to feel’.

Indeed this more qualitatively based way of training, where appropriate, can be a great way of remaining faithful to Bowerman’s now well established notion of ‘date pace’.

Typically ‘running to feel’ can be achieved through telling an athlete ‘I want you to run this rep at your 5k race feel pace’ or ‘I want you to effect this tempo run at the pace you could keep up for one hour’.

With an athlete who may be young and/ or inexperienced over a greater spread of distances it may be worth thinking about running to a Borg scale of perceived exertion.

For example, ‘I want you to run this one at a 6 out of 10’. Either way ‘running to feel’ empowers the athlete rather than developing a reliance on the stopwatch, the latter of which is sometimes unattainable due to the time of year or physical condition of the said athlete. Even just the day in question.

The U18 girls 1500m at Dublin Juvenile Indoors. Photos: Lindie Naughton


The example of Prefontaine’s hypothetically situated conversation with Bowerman is significant because we framed it as occurring in early May. Early May, could be an ok time to run to ‘feel’ and not ‘split’ even on a track session but during a different point of the periodisation cycle- when looking at pre-competition and competition phases for example, running to ‘split’ some of the time is functional if not imperative.

That’s why we can put the stopwatch aside when running to’ feel’ but we never throw it away because we need to find the drawer its in when the time comes to run to ‘split’ to give us a precise indication of how close to ‘goal pace’ we are.

Exploding the binary

So we are left with sessions we may effect according to ‘feel’ on the one hand and those which must be effected according to ‘split’ on the other.

‘Is there a middle road?’, we may ask.

I believe there is. Why not combine running to ‘feel’ with running to ‘split’ in a single session?

Here’s an example I used with a Team England Masters athlete aiming for a half marathon, recently. They were aiming to run 78 minutes for 13.1 miles, which is approximately 6 minute miling.

Example session

2 miles in 12 mins (run to split)

3 mins passive recovery

4 x 5 mins @ differential (run to feel) off 90s jog recovery

Rep 1. 2.5 mins @ half marathon feel pace; 2.5 mins @ 10 mile feel pace.

Rep 2. 2 mins @ half marathon feel pace; 2 mins @ 10 mile feel pace; 60s @ 10k feel pace.

Rep 3. 2 mins @ 10k feel pace; 60s float; 2 mins @ 10k feel pace.

Rep 4. 2 mins @ 10 mile feel pace; 60s @ 5k feel pace; 2 mins @ 10 mile feel pace.

3 mins passive recovery

2 miles in 12 mins (run to split)


So we can see how the session above (which please consider is specific to the needs of one particular athlete) involves a ‘sandwich’ type approach. The two slices of bread at the top and the bottom of the session involve running to ‘split’ and the proverbial cheese and pickle in the middle allow the athlete to run to ‘feel’.

So why adopt this hybrid approach? Its as much psychological as it is physical. Two psychologists- Apter and Smith revolutionised thinking in the mid 1970s when they came up with what has become known as Reversal Theory.

One of the ideas behind the theory is that its good for people, including athletes, not to spend too much time in any one state of mind. People, athletes included, according to this duo, need to be shifted or ‘reversed’ (hence Reversal Theory) between one state of mind and another.

So more specifically running to ‘split’ makes the athlete goal focused or what they called ‘telic’. On the other hand, running to ‘feel’ makes athletes ‘process’ focussed. By running to both feel and time rather than measured distance and split the athlete can take the goal focussed pressure off themselves and listen to the kinaesthetic feedback of the body-

‘How is my breathing?; ‘Why do my legs feel heavy?’

This is so much harder to do when one is chasing the split of Bowerman’s ‘goal pace’. In a racing situation its healthy for athletes to constantly trigger their own reversals between ‘goal’ and ‘process’.

The masters athlete chasing the 1hr 18 min half marathon needs to make sure they are on track each mile at 6 min miling to attain their goal but in between they must take the pressure off and listen to their body or they will risk tensing up and early fatigue.

If it benefits athletes to adapt such a strategy in racing then when not build this interplay into training by having both run to ‘feel’ and run to ‘split’ components built into one single session?

In short an eclectic approach may be engendered as part of a postmodern approach to training rather than feeling that one has to choose between the binaries of the old industrial order inhabited by Bowerman and Prefontaine.

The above leaves us with several questions for self-reflection:

  1. In what ways are Bill Bowermans’ concepts of ‘goal pace’ and ‘date pace’ still relevant a quarter of a century after his passing?
  2. When might ‘date pace’ be best effected according to ‘feel’ rather than ‘split’?
  3. At what points of the periodisation cycle does running to ‘split’ rather than ‘feel’ become more important?
  4. When do I have the opportunity to run to both ‘split’ and ‘feel’ within a single session?

Matt Long has served as both a Great Britain Masters team manager and England team coach. He has worked with both a Masters and Junior world champion. He welcomes contact through