Effort Based Running

“Run this next repeat at 75%!” “Run your strides at 75%,” extols a local running coach. Each runner picks some pace. The coach then yells out, “I told not 75% not 80%!”

These runners have no clue what she is talking about. They just try to “look” like they are going at a pace that won’t get them singled out for running too hard or too easy.

I find it amusing to hear coaches misuse effort-based training approaches. What exactly does this coach mean? It’s like a multiple choice test.

  1. 75% of your all out sprint speed
  2. 75% of your lactate threshold speed
  3. 75% of your vVO2max speed
  4. 75% of your goal race pace
  5. All of the above
  6. None of the above

There is a case for effort-based running. There have even been some studies that showed some runners are indeed able to regulate their running speeds by effort equally well as actual measured vVO2max or lactate thresholds. And to sometimes run “how one feels” can be good to avoid going too hard on those easy days. You force yourself, regardless of pace to slow down and make your run a true recovery run. As well, you can use the effort basis to push yourself. Sometimes you will benefit by not watching the watch! Go “hard” and maybe you surprise yourself at what you are capable of. Often runners constrain themselves to what are called “comfort zones” and don’t push and explore that next level. By staying in your comfort zone you are prone to plateauing or becoming stale in your running.

Properly employed an effort-based training system works. Mihaly Igloi famed Hungarian coach trained his athletes – Olympic and world record holders using training effort terms like – easy swing, swing tempo, fresh swing, hard swing, fresh speed, etc. This is an effort based scale. He believed that the different efforts exercised the various muscle groups and muscle fibers and that it allowed the athlete to explore limits without being limited by a watch and splits. However, he was keenly in tune with his runners and observed them closely noticing changes in their form and then adjusted workout efforts and curtailed workouts accordingly. His athletes knew exactly what he wanted when an effort was prescribed for the day’s workout. It was not subjective. (Laszlo Tabori and Johnny Gray were among his athletes. This information comes from a lecture at the USATF Podium Project by Johnny Gray.)

Here’s one way to think of an effort-based scale like this when doing effort based workouts:

1 – Very easy almost no effort at all. Might barely break a sweat.

2 – Easy effort, might think of this as your warm-up jog effort.

3 – Easy run effort, more than a jog but still very controlled and comfortable.

4 – Running with sufficient effort that you need to focus a bit in staying with it so you don’t drift off and slow down.

5 – Solid run with a good effort. Have plenty left in you but know you have run hard enough to feel it.

6 – Strong run that you have to push a bit to maintain your pace. This might equate to the kind of effort a marathoner puts in on a goal paced workout.

7 – Very strong effort that requires diligence in maintaining the effort. Definitely know you have had a very good workout at the end.

8 – Very hard workout effort. Sustained and powerful output from start to finish. It might be the kind of effort we use on the track for mile to 5K paced repeats more or less.

9 – Nearly all out. Extremely intense workout. Used often for high end quality workouts. Perhaps almost a time trial effort.

10 – All out effort. Straining for every inch, every second. Nothing left at the end.

I do believe in using such a scale sometimes though it most certainly is not my preference due to the misuse and difficulty in conveying the scale to runners. Here are my guidelines:

  1. Novice runners more often will not benefit from this approach. Too often all runs “seem” hard when you start out. So the scale is pretty meaningless.
  2. It does not replace “real” pace runs. You do have to run at specified paces to have a sound training program.
  3. Use the effort scale for easy days to be sure it’s easy!
  4. Use the effort scale for time trials – which should be run at ALMOST all out but not – perhaps a 9.5 level of exertion. (Funny how sometimes better times are attained from relaxing that little bit and not pushing to 10!)
  5. Use the effort scale to explore your limits on those special days. It gets you out of your comfort zone and allows you to explore that next level of performance.
  6. If most of your runs “feel” like 6+ then your training program is a problem. Properly designed, your efforts should vary day to day and week to week.
  7. Use the effort scale for surges on various runs to “shake things up” a bit without having too much structure and attention to actual pace.

So, unlike the coach yelling out arbitrary, unstructured comments of “run at 75%” you can use an effort system which is instructive and based in sound training principles.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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