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Run the Spirit, Not the Letter of Your Workouts

Don’t sabotage the purpose of a workout by trying to nail the numbers. Here's how to trust and adjust to maximize each workout's purpose.

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Consider the following workout: 6 x 800 meters in 3:13 with 200-meter jog recoveries. How important is it that the runner for whom this session was designed complete all six repetitions in 3:13? How important is it that the runner complete even one rep in 3:13?

If your answer was not at all, you are correct!

Every planned run has a purpose. The numbers that provide the workout’s structure — distance, duration, paces, target times, and so forth — are intended to facilitate the fulfillment of its purpose. But those numbers are not themselves the purpose. In other words, the true purpose of a run, be it a recovery run or a complex interval workout, is never to nail the exact numbers. A run can and very often must deviate from the prescribed numbers to fulfill its intended purpose.

Mistaking the Letter for the Spirit

In sum: There’s a difference between the spirit and the letter of any given run. Too often, runners lose sight of this important truth, mistaking the letter for the spirit, and they suffer the consequences. As a coach, I find myself often having to remind athletes to distinguish the letter from the spirit of a given training session.

Let’s return to the example we started with. Suppose you are the runner for whom this workout was prescribed, and although the target time of 3:13 per 800 seems appropriate in relation to your current fitness level, the first rep — which you complete in 3:13.82 — feels unexpectedly hard.

Determined to stick to the letter of the workout, and now braced for a sufferfest, you grit your teeth and complete the second rep in 3:13.02, but you’re deep in oxygen debt and decide to walk the first part of the recovery (for which, mercifully, there is no target time). After the third rep (3:13.77), you have to walk even longer, and by the final rep you’re so gassed that even an all-out, race-level effort yields only a failing time of 3:14.63.

On paper, this looks like a well-executed workout. Five out of six reps were on target and the one that wasn’t fell only slightly short of the mark. But, in fact, it was a poorly executed workout. A session of this type is not intended to be a 10-out-of-10 effort. Very few training runs should be that hard. Going too deep into the well for the sake of sticking to the letter of a run is disruptive to the overall training process, generating excess fatigue that exerts a domino effect on subsequent training.

It’s worth pointing out also that active recoveries are important contributors to interval sessions like the one I’ve described and shouldn’t be gamed for the sake of staying on pace in the main work bouts. The benefits of a high-intensity interval workout come not just from running fast within these work bouts but also from challenging your body to recover quickly between them while still moving.

woman running without looking at watch
Photo: Getty Images

Time Target, Not Test

A target time or pace is nothing more than an educated guess about how fast a runner should run in a given run in order to get the desired training effect. It is the furthest thing in the world from the make-or-break numerical standards we see in things like state bar exams and the military physical fitness test. Sometimes the target is right on the money, coinciding perfectly with the pace or intensity that actually maximizes the intended benefit of the run. Other times the target is slightly off the mark or even way off, for reasons ranging from bad guesswork on the part of the coach to the runner just not “having it” that day.

In these cases, failing to hit the target does not represent failure for the workout. Quite the contrary: The runner will have succeeded in perfectly hitting the spirit of the workout if she or he intentionally chooses to miss the targeted times, after initially aiming for the target, discovering that it doesn’t feel right, and making an adjustment. The only true failure in any run is failure to adhere to its spirit.

I would be remiss not to mention that in some instances, adhering to the spirit of a run demands that you exceed the target. Suppose, for example, you are assigned a workout comprising three, 3-mile efforts at half-marathon pace, and your current projected half-marathon pace is 7:16 per mile. But it so happens that you are on the cusp of a fitness breakthrough, destined to average 7:04 per mile in your next 13.1-miler, and when you get into the workout you can feel this bump in fitness. The target pace seems absurdly easy, and so fulfilling the intended purpose of the workout requires that you speed up a little.

All Spirit, No Letter

It’s not only key workouts that have a spirit you need to adhere to in executing them. Every run has — or at least should have — a specific purpose that is encoded into, yet distinct from, the numbers that give it form.

Even your bread-and-butter easy runs have a purpose, which varies depending on their context. At the beginning of a training cycle, they serve to build aerobic fitness and musculoskeletal durability and to prepare your body to tolerate the challenging workouts and heavier training loads to come. During periods of peak training, the purpose of easy runs shifts to maintaining aerobic fitness and durability without interfering with the key workouts they stand between.

Most runners run most of their easy runs too hard, exceeding the ventilatory threshold (VT), which is the physiological boundary between low and moderate intensity, and aligns with the fastest pace at which you can speak comfortably in complete sentences. A would-be easy run that is performed just slightly above this threshold is significantly more stressful to the nervous system than one that is done just below it, creating a greater recovery burden. To do an easy run above the VT, therefore, is to fail to fulfill the spirit of the run.

I encourage runners to do their easy runs at whatever pace at or below the VT feels most comfortable on a given day, a pace that can vary wildly from one day to the next, based on fatigue levels and other factors. This gives you the freedom to go a little faster when you feel great, while ensuring that, on those days when you feel kind of flat, you don’t unnecessarily hinder your recovery from preceding hard training. It also requires that you dispense with target paces altogether in easy runs. In other words, easy runs should be all spirit and no letter (beyond a planned distance or duration).

Trust and Adjust

The bottom line is that the spirit of a run always trumps its letter in importance. The numbers assigned to each run represent a best effort to encode its purpose, but it will often transpire that, in the process of executing a run, it becomes apparent that the spirit and the letter don’t match. In these cases, the right move is to trust your body, check your emotions, and adjust the session as necessary to ensure its intended purpose is fulfilled.

Is it possible to assign the wrong purpose to a run? You bet it is! For example, the correct purpose of many long runs is to extend a runners’ range. The distance (or duration) and intensity assigned to it should take the runner one step forward in their endurance development, because it’s not possible to take multiple steps at a time. A long run that is designed to take a runner to the point of complete exhaustion is a long run planned in the wrong spirit. But planning is a topic unto itself, which I will have to tackle another time.