Go ahead, run like a horse smelling the barn.
Most runners seldom or never do the neatly structured workouts presented in this series. Instead they jog. Even serious competitive runners jog most of the time. They may run tempo on Tuesday and hills on Friday, or intervals on Wednesday and fartlek on Saturday, but the rest of the time they’re jogging.
What is jogging? Usually it entails running a predetermined distance or duration at a steady, moderate pace. That pace is usually selected by feel. I believe that the “natural pace” runners fall into when jogging represents a compromise between the competing desires to feel comfortable during the run and to complete the run as quickly as possible. The product of this compromise is an effort that is neither easy nor hard.
The typical jog is not really done at a metronomically steady pace from start to finish, however. More often than not, the runner picks up the pace spontaneously toward the end. This is the classic phenomenon of the horse smelling the barn. What’s interesting about what I will henceforth refer to as the “fast finish” is that it usually does not feel any harder than the slower running preceding it, and not infrequently it actually feels better. How is this possible?
I’ll tell you how. Perceived exertion during exercise is determined not only by physiology (e.g. how fast your heart is beating), as is commonly assumed, but also by information received consciously. For example, it’s likely that you will feel better at a given level of fatigue when you are within sight of a race finish line than when you are just passing the halfway mark. The physiology is the same, but the information is different, so you feel different.
This is not just a speculation on my part, but has been proven scientifically. In my book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, I talk about a study conducted at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in which runners reported their subjective rating of perceived exertion (RPE) once each minute throughout a series of moderate-intensity treadmill runs. In one of these runs, they were told to run for 10 minutes, but at the end of 10 minutes they were told to run for another 10 minutes. There was a sudden spike in RPE in the 11th minute of this test. That is, when the runners’ expectations for the difficulty of the workout were thwarted, it suddenly felt more difficult. In the second run, the runners were told to run for 20 minutes at the same intensity. There was no spike in effort at any point in this second run, although it was in fact structurally identical to the first run. The only difference was that this second workout conformed to their expectations. The mere fact that the identical first workout was harder than expected made it actually harder.
So perception of effort is a matter of choice, to some degree, and that’s why runners tend to pick up the pace at the end of a jog. In the first half or three quarters of the run your brain will use perception of effort to discourage you from running too fast, to conserve energy and limit the stress of the workout. But once you pass the post office or the one-mile-to-go mark, your brain consciously registers that you’ve essentially made it home and there’s no harm in loosening the reigns and letting the horses run a bit. So you accelerate, and not only that, but you feel good doing it.
Many running experts discourage the fast finish because they don’t appreciate the role of the brain in regulating exercise performance. They believe every run should have a strict physiological rationale and that the runner should stick to that rationale from start to finish. They see the fast finish as a reckless breach of format that subjects the body to unnecessary stress.
I disagree. Your subconscious is smart. It wouldn’t make you feel like finishing fast if it was really a bad thing. The very reason your brain gives you the urge to finish fast is that it has calculated you can do so without undue strain. Forget what your heart rate monitor says. The fact that you feel good running fast from the post office to the end of your driveway is all the evidence you need that this little injection of play into your training is in fact good for you.
I think you should go ahead and allow yourself to finish fast whenever you feel like it. Start the acceleration whenever the urge strikes, whether it’s just after the turnaround point of an out-and-back or when you turn onto your block, and run at whatever pace feels right from there. Don’t go to the well—leave that for your tempos, hills, and intervals—just put out an effort that feels exhilaratingly challenging. A controlled fast finish will not leave you wasted for the next day’s structured high-intensity workout, and a habit of indulging in controlled fast finishes whenever you please will make you a little fitter over time by adding a bit of extra work—and fun—into your training.