Narrowing me down to one, huh? That’s a good and tough question, but I came to my answer pretty quickly.
Vary your paces!
For many recreational runners who want to get better, adding miles (specifically a long run) and adding in harder efforts in regular runs are the most likely way to go about it. This comes as no surprise because every runner knows they need to run longer and faster to get better, right?
Well … yes and no.
Running with bad pacing is a plague among competitive-recreational runners, and – I think – one of the major contributors to fatigue, injuries, burnout, and a lack of progression/improvement. It is true that running faster typically requires that one works on increasing speed and/or distance; however, the way that is increased and what one is doing on other runs is the most important piece!
Many runners just simply get out the door and run. And this is okay for the most part – if your goal is just general exercise or stress relief or friendship. A lot of runners go out and run the same pace whether they are running 2 miles or 6 miles. While maybe not ideal for training improvements, this is probably okay if you are not trying to get faster times. If using this method, most of us will self-select a “moderate” pace … one that makes us feel like we are getting a good workout. In effect, most of these miles would be run at a “tempo” speed vs. an “easy” workout, or somewhere in no man’s land in between. If you are already running “moderate” workouts most days/week, and you decide to get faster, you could be in trouble.
When you begin to add in any type of “workouts” to your training (i.e. long run, track work, tempo work, pace work, etc), you need to seriously examine what you are doing for that work out AND ALSO on your other running days. Quick exercise physiology lesson = running breaks down the body primarily in the form of small muscle tears and waste production; harder/faster running breaks down the body more in the same way; over time, the body repairs this tissue and clears that waste and makes it more resistant to tearing and more efficient at clearing waste products (aka stronger and more endurance). So a fast/hard workout actually doesn’t make you faster … the recovery from that fast/hard workout does.
And guess what you need for recovery??? Slower/easier running to allow those repairs to take place. And your base “moderate” workout is not going to cut it. Instead, your hard efforts and your “moderate” efforts will quickly start to add up leading to less recovery, more breakdown, and the need for your body to more quickly adapt or breakdown – neither of which are good outcomes.
Improved recovery also will lead to improved ability to complete hard workouts! If we spend our recovery time running at “moderate” levels, we will not have recovered enough in time for the next hard workout, which means we will have to back off or cut it short or not perform as well as we could have. Running somewhat fast all the time is not going to lead to you running faster on race day.
Real life example: For any effort 1 mile or above, I have a pace range that varies by 4 full minutes. That means that I will run my fastest run 4 mins faster than my slow recovery runs. And this isn’t just me. I read a short article (can’t remember where now) about an elite female 5k athlete who can run sub-15 mins for the event (better than 4:49 pace) who often runs slower than 7:40 pace on recovery/easy days – nearly a full 3 minutes slower. And I am confident that she will run even slower than that on some days.
A relatively popular method of training right now is the 80/20 method. There is a book by Matt Fitzgerald with that as the title. While I don’t specifically subscribe to that method, I do appreciate that it focuses on recovery and easy time being just that: recovery and easy time. This method recommends that 80% of your running time be done at slow non-taxing levels of training while 20% of your time can be spent on more intense workouts. In effect, it is recommended that you run easy or hard … not moderate.
So, how do you know whether this applies to you? If you answer yes to any of the questions below, it probably does;
* Are you out of breath on most of your runs?
* Is your “race pace” within 0-1.5 mins of the pace of most of your runs?
* Do you feel like you can’t recover from prior runs or workouts?
* Are you struggling to get faster even after adding workouts to your plan?
* Are you injured often?
* Do you make time for “workouts” but skimp on “easy/base” days?
* Do you struggle to complete “hard” days due to fatigue or heavy legs?
If you answered yes to any or most of those, it is likely that you have a pacing problem. And the first step to getting better … is admitting you have a pacing problem. Before you can get faster, you need to get slower. Slow down your easy/recovery runs and work harder on your hard runs. I recommend no more than 2 “hard/workout” days for anyone running 5 or less days/week (and typically only 1 “hard” day if 4 or less). If you are running 6+ days/week, 3 “workout” days is doable if you vary the type of workouts. And remember, your easy/recovery days are not the days you need to run well … it’s the workout days and race days that count!
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