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The Perks of Going Unplugged During Your Workout

Randi Berez

Your tech gadget can tell you how hard, fast, or far you're going during a workout with the precision of a drill sergeant, so why would you ever sweat without it? Because science says there's value in flying solo sometimes and learning to sense your intensity and training capacity. "We already know a lot about our bodies, thanks to fitness tech," says Greg McMillan, an exercise physiologist and the founder of McMillan Running online coaching. "When you understand the link between how you feel and how you perform on top of that, you'll always be able to get the most out of your body." (Are You Addicted to Your iPhone?)

For starters, listening to your body's signals is legit: Research from the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse confirms that the old-school talk test is an accurate gauge of your effort during cardio. Go at a pace at which you can speak only in choppy sentences and you're in the moderate zone, or 50 to 65 percent of your maximum effort. (If you can speak in full sentences, you're below it; if you're breathless, you're above it.) Also, asking yourself a simple "How do I feel?" can better reflect how you're responding to training than an objective measure, such as heart rate, can, according to a recent review of studies in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. "By analyzing the findings of 56 studies that included both subjective and objective measures, we found that subjective measures were better at reflecting how well an athlete was responding to training," says lead author Anna Saw, who suggests jotting down how a workout makes you feel, along with your other stats. (Did you know Most Free Fitness Apps Don't Even Meet Physical Activity Guidelines?)

Tapping into the subjective—your breath and how tired your muscles are—helps you track progress and determine where you're leveling off, so you know when to push your boundaries. (More later on how that can translate into big fitness gains.)

The problem is, many people exercise in a dissociative state, intentionally distracting themselves so they can ignore the discomfort and hang on until the end of the session, says Jo Zimmerman, a kinesiology lecturer at the University of Maryland. We've all been guilty of it, cranking a playlist to forget how heavy your legs feel during a third set of squats or the homestretch of a long run. But it can be smarter to enter an associative state; that is, one in which you listen to your body so you're better able to focus all your effort on powering through a workout or backing off a bit if needed, Zimmerman says.

Getting into the associative zone boils down to two things, McMillan notes: Maintaining a sense of your effort level and deciding how you dish out your energy across a workout. "No objective measure can tap into how much effort is actually available to us on any given day," he says. "So checking in with your body will help you evaluate how best to distribute it."

To become more attuned to your body during exercise and to how much power it has in the tank, McMillan recommends trying an unplugged workout once a week. Use his tips below to tweak your routine and you'll build the right focus to kill it even when you are fully wired. (P.S. Your Cell Phone Is Ruining Your Downtime.)

For a Steady Run

Ditch your device and stick to a go-to route so you know your usual pace for that distance, and try to run it in the same or a faster time. Because you're going by feel, a clock or a GPS won't dictate your pace, and you may actually blow by your past marks, McMillan says. Think about the quality of the run, he adds. Maintain a steady stride (and use these 10 tips to improve your running technique). Depending on your intensity, your breathing should range from conversational to moderate huffing and puffing, but you should never feel as if you can't get a few words out. If your breathing gets out of control or your pace is erratic, your body is telling you it's beat and that it's time to pull back on your speed a bit.

For Interval Workouts

Let your breath be your coach during these short but intense bursts. During the pushes, you shouldn't be able to speak more than one or two words, and your tempo will definitely start to taper toward the end. (If it doesn't, go harder!) But it's the recovery interval that really matters here, McMillan emphasizes, because recovering quickly allows you to perform at a higher level on the next all-out set. Your breathing should return to a conversational state, but not at a totally relaxed level. Give the heart rate test a try: Lightly press your index and middle fingers on the inside of the opposite wrist, count the heartbeats you feel in 15 seconds, and multiply them by four to get your beats per minute (bpm). To get the most out of your body, you want your heart rate to return to 120 to 140 bpm before starting your next interval, McMillan says. The result? You'll be able to kick your speed up a notch, making each sprint set ultra-effective.

For strength circuits

If you're used to doing your circuits strapped to a heart rate monitor, examining how your breath sounds and muscles feel will help you find your body's natural-strength threshold, so you can then push it. Your muscles should feel engaged and capable, and your breathing should return to a somewhat relaxed rate while you rest between sets. But during lifts where you're doing as many reps as possible in one minute, you should feel your breathing get so heavy that you can speak only a word or two at a time, McMillan says. If your form starts to break down, dial back the weight to avoid injury. (And try these Strange Ways to Make Strength Training Feel Easier.) He recommends using the one-two rep test: In your final set, you should feel as if you're barely able to do the final one to two reps with good form. If you have more juice left in your muscles, try another, shorter round with slightly heavier weights.

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