You cannot read too many articles on training over the past 30-plus years without coming across the “hard-easy” concept. In principle, it is quite easy to explain – run hard some days and follow those days with easy days. Unfortunately, there is more to it than that. In this article I want to address some aspects that are often not mentioned in articles or easily overlooked by athletes.
Indeed, it is critically important to vary between harder and easier workout days. This is a major reason why the average jogger does not improve readily. They do the same effort, same distance day in and day out. Your harder workouts break your muscles down. During the easy days that follow your body rebuilds the tissue damage that has been done. In fact it over compensates and re-builds it stronger than before. That is the training effect and how we get “into shape”. So, the workouts themselves do not directly make us stronger. Instead, we need to allow our bodies recovery time to get stronger.
When this concept first came out, everyone thought you ran hard one day followed by an easy day, followed by a hard day followed by an easy day, etc. And you did this pretty much throughout the season. The thing I have learned over the years not only from the research, but from my own experience is that this is actually a complete misunderstanding of this principle.
First, let’s define “hard” and “easy” workouts. A hard workout is any quality run (speed work, hill work, tempo run), or run that is about a third or more longer than your normal run (your long run). Easy runs constitute slower, shorter runs. An easy run is typically slower than your marathon pace. However, there is a subjective component to them. It should “feel” easy. If it doesn’t, then you are undoubtedly running too fast. Easy days can also be your complete rest days or cross-training days.
As for cross-training, beware, if you train intensely in your other activities (bike, swim, Tae Kwan Do) there may be a cumulative affect. Hard-easy is not just a sport specific principle. You will need to learn what you can do and on what days. It may be easier to put two disciplines’ hard days on the same day.
The next consideration, beyond the individual responses to hard workouts is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is the soreness that settles in up to 12-48 hours after a hard workout. Soreness is caused by microscopic tears in the muscles (not lactic acid build up). Usually soreness begins to subside during the following couple days. Soreness that lasts longer than 3-4 days is an indication that you over did it! Rethink your workouts!
A word on soreness is warranted. Soreness, when getting into shape, is a normal thing – within reason. You need to learn to differentiate these sensations in your muscles if you intend staying healthy. I don’t know that I can explain in words the types of soreness you can experience. But here are some guidelines.
- Sharp/stabbing pain is not good – stop. (The exception here might be a side stitch… work it out.)
- Pain that increases as you run is not good – stop. You are doing more damage to yourself.
- Any pain that is sufficient to alter your running form is not good – stop.
- Dull aches, general soreness and tightness are not bad. They should go away with warm-ups and stretches or a couple easy days.
- Discomfort (notice the word I choose) that diminishes over the course of a run is ok.
- Tightness that goes away during the run, is ok. If you remain tight but not sore, don’t do a high intensity workout. You might want to do easy jogging. It will flush your muscles and get you more prepared for your next run.
When considering all this it may be better for you to do two hard workouts in a row and take more easy days. On the other hand, you may need several easy days before you run another hard workout. As you develop as a runner you should find you can tolerate more hard days. Early in the season you may not be able to tolerate as much. As you age, you may find you need more easy days.
Let’s look at me as one example:
During my college years, I could run two very hard workouts in a row without much thought. I then would take two easier days. I could repeat this pattern pretty well. Other times, I would take three easy days before two hard days. I also found that if I ran hard in the evening one day, that the following morning I was ready to go again. Of course, this actually makes sense! Usually, there was less than 12 hours between the workouts. So, little if any soreness had settled in from the first hard workout.
Fast forward to today. My recuperative abilities are not the same. (Neither is my condition!) I find that after one hard workout I need 2-3 easy days and. And, if it is a really intense workout, sometimes I’m done for the rest of the week. However, I still find that if I run hard one evening, and get up in the morning for a run, I can go pretty well again. In fact, through experimentation, I found that if I wait until later that second day to run, I am not going to do well at all. Yes, those extra hours of “rest” make it worse! That is in fact DOMS at work!
There is one other aspect to hard-easy that I need to touch on. Hard-easy also applies to macro-cycles (weeks and months) and not just micro-cycles (day-to-day). Every 5-8 weeks (and usually 6 weeks) you need to schedule an easy week. Reduce your mileage (by about 30% for that week) and type of quality runs. This allows recovery and full adaptation to your conditioning (i.e. rebuilding). During the year, be sure to have low-mileage and fewer quality-run months. This would typically be your off-season or recovery periods after marathons. How much recovery you need again will vary. But we all need it.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, I believe we are each an “experiment of one”. We can apply sound principles to everyone, but it is in the listening to our bodies that helps us tailor those principles. Run hard. Run easy. Have fun.