The usual retort is, “Well that’s easy for you to say…you’ve been running all your life.” They have a point.
There is a benefit to having run for many years, but I still find running to frequently be difficult, painful and boring when I approach it from the mindset of something I have to get through. Anyone who approaches running as a task to be accomplished before they can enjoy the rest of their day or evening will very quickly be disappointed that the runner’s high isn’t all its cracked up to be. For many runners this “have to” attitude can really turn a sport meant to free and exhilarating into a real drag.
At some point, a runner breaks from the cocoon of mindlessly plodding the same four miles of crushed granite to consider adding some variety to their schedule. Many begin to find that they enjoy the sport because they are challenged to stretch their perceived limits. They’ve experienced a few races, have gotten the racing bug and want to get faster or to make the miles go by more easily. This allows them to enjoy the process and not be in unbelievable pain throughout the event. But there is a real danger that these runners will find themselves working too hard to achieve their goals and fall into a period of staleness and eventually quit running altogether.
One of the easiest ways to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you is to really engrain the Hard/Easy Principle into your running life. The basic mantra is: Make your hard days hard and your easy days easy. But, it is more accurate to say, “Make your easy days, easy so you can make your hard days, hard.” This fundamental concept is one of the absolutely essential lynchpins of successful running.
Bill Dellinger, legendary track coach at the University of Oregon considered easy days as one of his principles of good training. As he says in his classic training tome, The Comprehensive Runner’s Training Book, “Variation is also achieved with the hard/easy training patterns: a period of intense or “hard” training followed by a period of recovery “easy” training…The recovery or rest periods are as important as the hard training periods, because the body is given a chance to adjust to the harder training.” Understanding this principle of recovery and easy days remaining easy is absolutely critical to a runner’s improvement in and enjoyment of running.
Easy Days Easy
Many runners were misguided in their junior high years by a coach wearing a pair of polyester shorts who screamed, “No pain; no gain!” You need to get over that experience. Sure, you’ve been conditioned to push, push, push, but you can’t expect to see any improvement without adding rest to your schedule. The human body adapts unbelievably well, when we allow it time to recuperate and recover. You just need to schedule the rest days in consistently and you’ll begin to see substantial improvement.
What is easy? You should be able to carry on a long conversation with a running partner or breathe relaxed and comfortably throughout the run. One critical mistake many runners make is to think that they need to pick the pace up as they near the end of a run in order to get maximum benefits from the run. This is counterproductive because you have taken an easy run and made it into a hard run. Just rest and relax on your easy days. This way you can earn the next days of easy running by having a quality hard day.
There are a few simple ways to ensure that you take it easy on your easy run days. One is to banish the watch altogether and run a course you know the distance of but do not need to know your pace. This way you aren’t tempted to look at your time on a set course. Another option is to wear a heart rate monitor and set the beeper to indicate when you are above a recovery heart rate for you. A more enjoyable alternative is to get out on a trail. Trail running requires you to slow down to maneuver over and through the various obstacles you encounter. Decide how much time you want to run and head out, once you reach half the desired time just turn around and retrace your route.
Now easy days do not mean OFF days. You still need to run in order to get the proper training adaptations and to encourage adequate muscle recovery and elasticity. Even if you are stiff and sore from your hard workouts, you still need to get these easy days in. Recovery is increased with blood flow and range of motion. You can further encourage recovery by stretching immediately after the easy run. The only reason you should skip an easy day is if you are sick or you already missed the run from the day before. Never “make up” a missed run unless you have checked it with your coach. Frequently, it is best to just skip it and move onto the workout planned for that day.
Hard Days Hard
If you have taken your easy day easy, then you should be recovered and ready to work hard on your hard days. This is where you will begin to see improvement in times and ease of effort. There are a variety of different training needs that should be considered when selecting what to do on your hard days. The four basic training zones include aerobic conditioning, anaerobic conditioning, aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity. For many runners, determining what to do on hard days is the most confusing aspect of training. I recommend that you choose a coach to help you determine when to do the appropriate workouts at the appropriate times. Just running “hard” won’t be terribly effective and will encourage overtraining and injury.
There are a few basics tenets that should be adhered to when running hard. The first is that hard training needs to work a variety of paces. Marathon goal pace, tempo pace, 10-K pace, 5-K pace and the like are all run at different paces but should all be considered hard. Even long runs should be considered as a hard day. Why? Because of the amount of time that you spend on your feet, the training load is very high and requires a day of recovery. This is what makes it a hard day.
A second consideration is to be sure that you know the purpose of the workout you are doing. Hard shouldn’t be indiscriminate. If the workout is designed to help you gain comfort at a certain pace then you need to define hard on this day as that specific pace you are trying to hold, no faster, no slower. If your workout goal is to develop a specific physiological adaptation, like tempo or lactate threshold runs, then running too slowly or too quickly will not encourage the appropriate adaptation.
The final tenet is that the hard day should be challenging, but accomplishable. If you find that you cannot finish the hard workout at the paces you have planned, then you need to assess why this is occurring. Are you sick and need a few days of recovery to get healthy? Are your training paces appropriate for your current fitness level? Is your training program progressing you at the right level at the right times?
If you still can’t determine why you cannot hit your paces after answering these questions then I bet you are guilty of running your easy days too hard. Just slow down on your easy day and see if you don’t begin to get an extra spring in your step. You’re also likely to find that you are significantly more motivated to tackle the hard days.