Often times during training and racing, we find ourselves faced with a decision – do I keep pushing myself to go harder or do I ease up and slow down. This is not an easy decision for anyone, no matter how fast you are. Even competitive athletes struggle internally with this decision. However, the difference is that highly successful athletes learn techniques and train themselves to get through it. Easier said than done, but a skill virtually anyone can learn. It simply takes a dedicated, consistent approach to training, much like anything else. There are no shortcuts - If you want to be good at it, you have to practice it.
What I mean is that you don’t just decide one day to go out there and run as hard as you can for as long as you can, only to do the same thing tomorrow, but for an extra minute, mile, etc until you are satisfied. You wouldn’t take that same approach with mileage, right? RIGHT?!?!? You also wouldn't just show up on the starting line, having never practiced what you are planning to do in a race. Of course not!
Enter the key concept of progressive adaptation. A progressive approach is one in which you slowly build upon a foundation by applying a little stress, and then backing off, only to build again soon. As with your weekly mileage, hopefully you follow a similar approach of slowly building up mileage for a few weeks, holding at that level for another week or two, and then taking a recovery week to back off, followed by a return to building. Taking that same concept and applying it to learning how to push through the pain (both physically and mentally), you should incorporate workouts designed to simulate pushing through the specific type of pain you'll experience in the race you are training for.
Most well informed marathoners should be familiar with marathon simulation workouts in which you teach your body to become efficient at running marathon pace and knowing what it feels like. These are commonly long runs (and to a lesser extent tempo runs) where a significant portion of the workout is comprised of marathon paced miles (ie 18 miles of 3 x 5 mi at marathon pace, with 1 mi recovery between each set). It also happens to work pretty effectively at the mental games you’ll play with yourself late in a race as you try to focus on nailing goal pace and not slowing down. So in other words, you kill two birds with one stone by working both the mental and the physical at the same time.
In the case of a marathon, the goal of marathon paced running is to become comfortable being slightly uncomfortable. Note: Workout like these are NOT designed for you go as hard as you can go over the given workout distance. That would defeat the purpose of the workout, which is specificity. Of course, this approach changes slightly when you change the race distance. Training for a ½ marathon or a 10 mile race? To be more race specific, you'd need to get more comfortable being moderately uncomfortable, otherwise referred generically as moderately hard. In these types of workouts, you are more likely to have key sessions through hard tempo runs and long runs. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Regardless of the distance, the progressive approach to your training physically and mentally remains the same. The example of 3 x 5 mi at marathon pace isn’t something you would just jump into. If you tried something like that at the beginning of a training cycle, you’d likely end up with less confidence, rather than more, and/or injured as a result of “a case of the too’s” – too much, too soon, too hard. With a progressive approach, you place together the building blocks over time. It is only at the peak of training for a marathon, after you have done all the incremental steps of building up your physical and mental game, where you would attempt such a workout. So how do you get to that point? Here are a few thoughts on the ways to progress through more challenging workouts:
- Fartlek – Yea it’s a funny word, but it is what I consider the first building block. You simply run fast when you feel like it. No pressure to run for “x” minutes or distance. Baby steps first.
- On/Off segments – Starting with something as simple as repeated sets of 1 minute hard/2 minute easy throughout the middle of a medium distance run. As you build from this, you can flip the set to be 2 minutes hard/1 minute easy, ultimately building to longer segments like 5 minutes hard/1 minute easy. Note: Hard in these cases is relative to the distance you are training for –the shorter the race, the harder you’d run during each segment.
- Longer repeats with easy jog recoveries – Hard running segments are now starting to get a bit longer, but by doing repeats with easy running between sets, you still get the “break”. Often times, you’ll find you can do more volume at a hard effort with the break, rather than simply making it a single extended tempo session. For endurance races, this can start as 1 mile repeats and build up (depending on the race distance you are training for) into sets of 3-5 mile repeats. For something like a 5k runner, you might start with ¼ mi repeats, building up to 5 x 1k at 5k pace.
- Tempo – Now is when we start getting into what most runners are familiar with. Tempo runs are longer stretches of runs that are done in a single set. For example, a 4 mile tempo run at 10k pace. 4 miles of running at 10k effort takes a pretty large amount of focus, at nearly 66% of the distance. Getting to this step too soon might make achieving the goal paces and maintaining the focus of running that hard for that long a bit challenging.
However, the reality is that most people jump right into the long tempo run variety without the buildup and find it is difficult. It’s harder on the body and the mind, which can have a lasting impact on your ability to train for a given race. You want workouts to give you confidence, not take it away. A confident runner is a race ready runner and one who will not try to do stupid things or change their planned runs just because they need to “test” themselves. A runner who builds confidence over a progressive approach will peak at the right time close to the race, not 4-6 weeks before a race due to going straight to the hardest workouts. And lastly, a runner who employs a progressive approach is much more likely to remain healthy throughout their training cycle. So not only are they peaked and ready to race, they are healthy enough to perform up to their potential on race day. And ultimately, that’s the place you want to be when you’re standing on the start line.