I first discovered running’s biggest paradox the year after graduating high school. As a fully committed track runner aspiring to make a name for myself on the national circuit, I’d come to terms with what came with the job – early mornings, tough training and living the training life as per Steve Prefontaine quotes. To say that I worked hard was an understatement. Eventually though, my hard training was not helping me elevate my game; instead, I was simply going through the motions and my form really stagnated. I started doubting whether my training was even hard enough when I compared what I was doing with the documented training logs of the likes of Seb Coe. I concluded that, in order to rise above my performance plateau, I would need to work even harder. I was always taught that running was a metaphor for life – you get out what you put in. At the time I understood this to mean that the harder you train, the better you become. I soon came to realise that this wasn’t true, and that sometimes you have to deliberately put in less effort into something to become better.
“We’ve lost the notion of smart work at the expense of hard work, which almost always gets confused with more work” – Peak Performance Book by Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness
We live in a day and age that glorifies the image of ‘hard work’, which is why it’s no surprise that when it comes to training, we fall short of smart work. In fact, for the more dedicated athletes, excessive, non-purposeful, too frequent hard work (usually coupled with poor recovery) is a common downfall, as it was for me. We send ourselves chasing fatigue rather than improvement and too often urge ourselves to use training sessions to test our fitness, rather than to build our fitness. So despite our intent to be better, we may very well be fueling our shortcomings instead.
I believe that when most seasoned runners fall short of smart training, it’s not due to a lack of knowledge in training, but rather a lack of guidance in effectively applying this knowledge. For instance, we’re always taught the importance of not overdoing it in training, or the importance of rest, but we’re never really taught what these intangible things should look like within a program or how they should be applied. How hard should hard be? 85% effort? 95%? How frequent should these efforts be? When should you go with the “no pain, no gain” attitude and when should you shut it off?
So let us begin to make sense of this and talk a little about using and moderating hard work in a way that complements smart work. To do this, it’s best to turn towards something I like to call the cumulative growth mindset which doesn’t look at how hard you can train today or this week, but rather this month, the next 3 months or the next 9 months. To do this, your work needs to be sustainable and consistent. And you need patience.
Let’s assume that on average John does 12 sessions per month (separated by easy/recovery days, of course). It would be far more useful if of the 12 sessions, 8 were pretty good (but not amazing) and 4 were average, than if 6 were absolutely amazing, but 6 were terrible. Of course this opens up a whole new debate on what defines a good or bad session, but the point being that the net effect of John frequently getting sessions ‘kinda right’ is far more powerful than him hitting a session equivalent of a homerun but with the cost of also having very bad sessions.
An effective way in getting sessions ‘kinda right’ often, is by making them hard enough to be outside of your comfort-zone, but yet not too hard that you’re too physically or psychologically taxed to put out a session of similar effort and quality again a few days later. I like to think of this balance between hard but not too hard, to be a training sweet-spot, something whereby if 10 is your absolutely max effort, you’re putting out around an 8.5 effort. Even the current men’s marathon world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, is said to very rarely push himself beyond 90% of his max effort in training as he performs his workouts in a similar sweet spot.
Such 8.5/10 sessions, or your equivalent of a sweet spot session, provides a great balance between the degree of challenge and the degree of attainability of a session. Because of this, performing the bulk of your sessions at this sweet-spot is a great way to be consistent in the very thing that allows you to improve. Deviating from this sweet-spot every now and then for the occasional really hard workout is also natural, but ideally reserved for when it’s actually needed.
“There were guys who would stick with or beat me in training, but when it came to racing I would be streets ahead. After the race they would always say ‘wow you are good at racing’ but they had it wrong – I was good at training. They had no clue and would often empty the tank in training which I never did. I saved that for the races.” – Steve Moneghetti
Another key factor to consider is whether your exertion in a session aligns with the session’s purpose. The most basic perspective to look at this is from that of intensity and volume. Lactate threshold sessions, for instance, are mostly about maintaining a particular intensity and adjusting the volume is what can make it harder or easier. But say instead of adjusting the volume, you adjust the intensity by running faster, you’d then be shifting the essence of the session away from the threshold and changing the stimulus. Therefore working harder by running faster than what’s called for is not necessarily a good thing.
Generally, running sessions proceed in one of four ways: 1) the intensity becomes progressively harder the further into the workout you get, 2) the intensity/efforts fluctuates throughout, 3) you remain more or less in a steady state for the duration of the volume, or 4) you start at a high intensity and simply hold on. I want to briefly address number 4, as although it’s very useful, it’s by far the most used and abused means of performing a session. If you had to perform a session this way, regardless of what the session actually is, the basis of going out hard and hanging on will more than likely make it a very tough session – one of those outside of that sweet-spot we spoke about earlier. These types of workouts are obviously sometimes needed, however it becomes an issue when performed too often, or in circumstances it shouldn’t be performed.
Let’s say from a practical standpoint you want to improve your running economy at faster velocities. Would you want to run a 10x400m session completely as per (4), whereby you’re just merely holding onto the goal pace? Probably not, as you’re not smooth or relaxed, which is the very thing you should be trying to teach your body. Conversely, if your sessions purpose is to improve its lactate tolerance, teaching your body to run through or buffer acidosis (lactate build-up, well kind of), then the same session executed in the same manner could be desirable. It’s a matter of negotiating your effort so that the session is executed in a manner which fits its intended purpose.
So if improved performance is what you’re after and what you value, consider smarter, more purposeful work before harder work. Sure, you might improve for a while if every session you go out and hammer yourself, especially if you’re new to running. However, if you’re trying to go to the moon and back every time you lace up your shoes, know this: it is just unnecessary and counter-productive. Train, don’t strain.