It’s not always about how hard and fast you can go in a workout.
In the vocabulary of a runner, patience is a dirty word. Runners always want to run faster, run more miles, and crush their personal bests, and they want it now. To be more accurate, they wanted it yesterday.
I know I felt this way before I donned my coaching cap. I wasn’t satisfied with a workout unless I needed to be carried off the track and was forced to spend the rest of the day passed out on the couch. That was dedication. Surely, this is what it took to be the best runner I could be.
Unfortunately, this mindset couldn’t be more wrong.
Not only did this way of thinking impact my short-term goals, thanks to all-too-frequent injuries and bouts of overtraining, but as you’ll learn in this article, it likely affected my long-term progress as well.
As I’ve matured as a runner and changed my perspective on training as a coach, I’ve come to fully appreciate and value the art of patience. This shift in mindset wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Hopefully, with the help of some hard, scientific data and a sprinkling of anecdotal evidence, this article can accelerate your maturation as a runner and help you achieve your goals.
Finish A Workout Feeling Like You Could Have Done More
This is a phrase you’ll hear from any running coach worth his or her salt. As elite coach Jay Johnson espouses to his athletes, “you should be able to say after every one of your workouts that you could have done one more repeat, one more segment or one more mile.”
Coach Jay doesn’t just pay this rule lip service. He’s known for cutting workouts short when an athlete looks like they’re over that edge. It’s one of the reasons his athletes continue to perform and improve consistently, year after year.
Now, thanks to recent research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, we have the scientific data to prove what good coaches have known for so many years. Patience pays off. (Side note: thank you to Alex Hutchinson for first alerting me to this study through his blog.)
In this study, one group of athletes performed a series of workouts at near maximum intensity for 12 weeks. The researchers then had another group perform the same type of workouts (same repeat distance and same amount of rest) at a much more moderate intensity.
The high intensity group improved rapidly, recording an increase in VO2 max that was 30 percent higher than the moderate group after three weeks.
That doesn’t seem to support our theory that patience pays off, does it?
Luckily, the researchers went a step further and recorded changes to VO2 max for six, nine and 12 weeks under the same training methodology. This is where the results get truly interesting.
After nine weeks, the high intensity group’s improvements in VO2 max were only 10 percent greater than the moderate group. More importantly, after nine weeks, the high intensity group stopped improving and after 12 weeks showed the same level of improvement to VO2 max as the moderate group.
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Clearly, this research shows that while you’ll see rapid improvements from running workouts as hard as you can in the first few weeks, this improvement curve will level off and running at moderate intensity levels will produce equal, if not better, long-term results.
Of course, like all studies, this research has its flaws. Mainly, both groups performed the same workouts for 12 weeks, which means the same stimulus was being applied with each session. However, I’d also point out that when training for a 5k or a marathon for 12 weeks, the workouts won’t vary much. Sure, the workouts will look different — 12 x 400 meters at 3k pace versus 6 x 800 meters at 5k pace, for example — but you’re still training the same energy system.
Regardless, the data supports what good coaches have known for years: Consistent, moderate workouts will trump a few weeks of hard, gut-busting workouts every time.
But I Want To Improve Faster
Of course, looking at that data, most runners would still choose the high intensity approach. If the end result after 12 weeks is the same, why not make the fitness gains faster the first three to six week?
Not covered in this particular research study was the impact of injuries and overtraining on potential improvement curve and long-term progress.
It’s not surprising, and it’s been supported by numerous research studies and anecdotal examples, that increased intensity is correlated with higher injury risk. Meaning, the harder (faster) you train, the more likely it is you’ll get injured.
The problem I encounter with many runners who try to work out too hard is the injury cycle, which inhibits long-term progress because for every two steps forward, you take one step back.
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Using a similar graph to the one provided in the research study, let’s examine the long-term consequences of always pushing your workouts as hard as you can versus running moderate and always feeling like you could have done more.
While the actual improvement data in the graph at the top of this page is fictional, it is based off the data from the actual study representing the improvement curve. The difference is that I’ve extended the training period to 10 months and factored in injuries and potential overtraining. This graph accurately represents my experience with trying to run every workout as hard as I could and the vast data I’ve collected working as a coach for the past eight years.
As you can see, the high intensity runner speeds out of the gait and is far ahead of the moderate intensity runner after a few weeks. However, it doesn’t take long before the high intensity runner suffers his or her first injury and is set back a week or two. No worries, though: With just a few weeks of high intensity training, he or she is back ahead of the slow-plodding, moderate-intensity runner. However, this cycle continues to repeat itself until the high-intensity runner is far behind the consentient, steady performer.
More importantly, after 42 weeks, the high-intensity runner is at a point that he or she can no longer make up the difference in fitness simply by training hard for a few weeks. The runner will continue to struggle to reach his or her potential until he or she finally learns to run workouts at a moderate level and train at his or her current level of fitness.
Don’t be the high intensity runner. Learn from the mistakes of countless runners before you, the research and scientific data, and the wisdom of coaches who know their stuff.