Runners say funny things. I have heard this refrain so many times: but I’m not in shape enough to run hard. On the surface it sounds so logical. If you aren’t in shape then how can you push and if you push won’t you get injured?
This is that wonderful land of half-truths that many runners fall into. At any point in training if you run “too” hard or “too” far you will invite injury or certainly excessive aches and pains combined with prolonged recovery. That would never be advisable. And that could happen at any point of training – beginning or not. But more often than not what I see is reticence to push. Period. The fall out is that true complete conditioning is delayed as result.
A solid training program should integrate many paces from day one. It should not involve jogging at the same pace day after day and gradually increasing miles week after week leading to some magical day or date on the calendar to run something faster. This is a primary reason why novice runners often do not progress; seasoned runners take forever to get back in shape; and it takes so long for the seasonal-runner to get back to where they were when they left off the previous season.
Quality paced running should be integrated from week one in a training program. Of course it is tailored to the capacities of the individual. A novice runner may start with running 3-4 x 100 meter “strides” with a brief walking rest after each rep; while a seasoned athlete may do a pretty standard 8×400 at their 5K pace with 1:00 rest between their reps. Others might work some variable paced (Fartlek/Speedplay) into their schedule once a week. But, be creative. There are numerous workouts to accomplish this – and they don’t have to be on a track.
The integration of modest quality running from week one of training manages to improve conditioning FASTER than just doing blind easy miles. It also begins to train the neuromuscular system to “fire” at faster rates – it trains your muscles and nerves to run fast. And it improves many of the dimensions of training (VO2max, vVO2max, lactate threshold) faster than doing solely slow running. The final benefit for experienced runners is that with modest quality workouts between your racing seasons you will maintain far more of that hard-earned conditioning from your racing season! Why would anyone want to return to complete out-of-shape out-of-season conditioning just to start over at the beginning again?
During post-racing season recovery it’s good to drop your mileage (#2 predictor of injuries), drop your frequency of running (fewer days per week), drop your really long run (that beats up your legs) and maintain a quality run (or two even) of some kind each week. Some cool research shows you can drop your mileage to less than 1/3 your usual mileage [i.e. 45 down to 15 miles per week] and maintain conditioning with some quality running integrated. All the while… recovering.
Now, if you enjoy the process of jogging around for months trying to regain conditioning – go for it. If the thought something to the effect of – “I sure wish I didn’t have to start over each year” or “It’s taking so long to get in shape” – ever crossed your mind then be reassured, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is antiquated thinking to add in some faster training at some mythical date down the road.