I previously wrote about the easy part of the hard-easy pattern of training. Here are some issues I’ll address regarding the hard part of training.
How hard is hard? How much is too much? What are the effects on your body from hard workouts? What else impacts what “hard” is?
Hard can be subjective. For some people, breathing hard or breaking a sweat is a hard workout to them. Hard workouts can come by way of pace, distance, terrain and season.
A hard “quality” (pace) workout can best be defined variably by researchers as faster than 15k race pace – or about 10 seconds per mile slower than your 10k pace - or faster. For the most part it will be between 5k and 10k pace for distance runners. It will certainly include paces faster than that during peaking periods. Middle distance runners (800/mile) will predominantly run paces closer to their race pace and faster. (This of course makes sense – how much help will lots of reps at 5k pace help someone who races at the mile?)
Long runs are hard workouts – even at a slow pace due to the damage done to muscle cells. “Long” is relative - it is dependent on your average weekly mileage and workout history. Generally, runs over an hour can be considered long runs for many people. Scientifically, runs of more than 9 miles yield a dramatic increase in cell damage. Immune system dysfunction (repressed endocrine response, impaired Natural Killer cells, impaired neutrophil functioning, reduced neurotransmitters, depressed immune function) is found regularly with runs over an hour thirty minutes. It takes up to 4 weeks to recover at the cellular level from a 20 mile run. This is why you not only do not need long runs every weekend for conditioning, it is bad for your overall health.
Terrain can introduce an unexpected “hard” run. If you are unaccustomed to trails or a hilly course, going on a 45 minute run might leave you quite sore. With a regular diet of these kinds of terrain you will adapt and eventually the effects will be mitigated. It may no longer “count” as a hard workout.
As mentioned in the “easy” post, the pattern of hard-easy (H-E) is as varied as there are people. Some runners will be able to tolerate a couple hard days then take a break (H-H-E-E). Others may be more fragile so the hard day frequency is decreased (H-E-E-E-H). This is where your training logs are important – for you and your coach.
Finally, “hard” is cyclic. You should schedule an easy week (25-30% reduction in your miles) every 4-8 weeks (research indicates 6 weeks… my experience indicates some variability). It is difficult to maintain a high level of training year round. Plan on an “off” season. This doesn’t mean doing nothing. But, you should greatly reduce your mileage, vary your workout routine as well as; infuse it with some faster paced short intervals; do more cross-training; so some unstructured Fartlek (aka speedplay) runs. Spice it up. This is time to recover mentally and physically. This can also be that recovery time after your big marathon. Take a month – you deserve it. And remember, you can greatly reduce your training mileage and running frequency if you keep a fast interval workout without losing your conditioning!
I would be remiss if I did not also mention that overall life stress effects what “hard” is. So, hard one day may mean very hard on another day for the same workout. It’s a message to you to take an “easy” one.
The keys to improvement in your condition involve stressing your body – breaking it down (hard days) with recovery days (easy). The error that so many new runners make is to run the same course, same distance in the same effort day after day and week after week and month after month. They often wonder why they don’t “improve”. On the flip side, there are over-motivated (yes there is such a thing) runners who think if they could just do more they will improve. These runners wonder why they get injured, have performance plateaus, get sick often, and always feel “beat up” or take extended periods to recover from races.
Hard-Easy is an essential concept to your running progress. It is both science and art. Now, go review your training over the past months and see where you stand.