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Training Tips: Avoid ‘Overcooking’ Your Workouts

No day should be super hard, and no day should be exceptionally easy.

No day should be super hard, and no day should be exceptionally easy.

As an athlete, you know that workout days are supposed to be taxing, and you typically have a pace assignment to follow. So even if things don’t always go as planned, hitting the target effort zone is typically straightforward.

Correspondingly, as a coach, especially the coach of a team, it can be easy to see when your athletes are red-lining on their hard days, since you’re usually watching. Whether you’re a runner or merely someone who watches one on the Internet, however, it’s not as easy to know for sure that you are your charges are backing off sufficiently on recovery days, when individual runners are typically left to their own devices and instructions often consist of nothing more helpful than “run easy” or “stay in control.”

The point of this is not merely to remind you to treat not only your hard sessions but also your recovery runs as scheduled workouts in their own right; you’ve surely heard some version of this before. It’s that you might need some real help to do it, and if you’re a coach, you might not know when the sort of efforts that allow real recovery are not happening. Heart rate monitors are a useful tool in this regard, but they’re not foolproof, and if you’re coaching a team, good luck outfitting one or two dozen athletes with their own HRMs and expecting individuals to fragment from the main group if the signal to do so arises.

None of this is to say that you should overemphasize being mellow. Obviously, the more running you can do at a pace geared toward your main event, the better off you’ll be. But running yourself stale or injured isn’t just counterproductive to your goals; it’s plain demoralizing. It’s physically and mentally odious to be athletically incompetent. Clearly, it’s to your advantage to stay on the sunny side of the stress-recovery horizon.

Jason Drake, who coaches the distance runners at the University of Washington, jokes that if his teams could perfectly solve the stress-versus-recovery equation, they’d win NCAAs in cross-country every year.

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“We don’t necessarily subscribe to the hard/easy method,” Drake said. “The reality is that for the most part, doing more running at a quicker pace typically has better results. But if you break, then you get zero results.”

Drake said that on hard days, if someone starts getting a little out of control, the coaches simply stop him or her.

“I’ve found over the years that the single biggest danger in terms of injuries is overcooking the workouts,” he said. “If you let your athletes get out of control, they will eventually break. They’re like racehorses, and you need to pull back on the reins all the time.”

After a hard session, Drake imposes a litmus test: “I always ask them, ‘Could you do the same workout again tomorrow?'”

As for runs in between the workouts, Drake’s runners use an online log to track their weekly runs, and he gets automatic e-mails when he’s flagged a particular athlete he feels needs special attention. He says the system, which includes runners’ subjective input as well as hard data, is an enormous help, although compliance is a frequent issue.

“We do have a run or two a week I might classify as a true easy recovery day,” Drake adds. “Saturday [the day before the long run] is always easy. I tell them to run ‘JD pace’—I’m slow, so they all get the idea.”

He said that the coaches might have younger athletes take another day easier because it’s safe assume they’re running a little too hard on other days.

The main idea here, which is especially pertinent in a team situation wherein every runner has a common goal in a single competitive season, is clear enough: Try to spread your workload effort as evenly as you can throughout the week. No day should be super hard, and no day should be exceptionally easy. This invariably means adjusting on the fly, all the time, and never treating a workout schedule as ironclad—wisdom that runners from working-stiff, mid-pack marathoners to elite athletes have difficulty internalizing, being over-planners by nature.

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For example, say you do intervals on a Tuesday and have a medium-long run on Wednesday. If you overdo it on Tuesday, Wednesday becomes a recovery day by obligation, meaning that you have to cut either the distance or the pace to compensate. Ideally, by running within yourself in the interval session and doing the medium-long run at a decent clip, you maximize the combined benefit of both workouts.

“Really, it just takes constant communication with your athletes, with logs, meetings, watching them run, talking after runs, and listening to others in the group,” Drake said. “Constant reminders to stay within themselves are necessary, and 9 out of 10 freshmen still mess it up. I wish it was as simple as heart rates, or putting a shock collar on them so that if they exceed a certain speed limit they get a little zap. But eventually, through trial and error, they get it. And then they get really good.”