Effort-Based Training…

A wise old Jedi Grand Master once said, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Yoda, while experienced in the ways of the Force, probably never tried his three-fingered hand at distance running. I’ve come to learn that sometimes, trying is just as important as doing. Sometimes, the effort is just as meaningful as the outcome. Sometimes, you can accomplish things even if you don’t succeed at them.

This translates to running in many ways, but in particular it connects to the system I employ as a coach, and the type of training I do with coach Marc Pelerin. 

A sample day, week or month of my training plan won’t be teeming with numbers and paces; rather, it will say things like BRP (basic run pace) or “Threshold Effort” or, only recently as we add speed into the mix, “ALL OUT” for sprints at the end of workouts. While those “types” of runs do suggest certain paces or time equivalents, I’ve come to learn that with any training plan, the athlete and the coach need to have some flexibility. Rarely have I had to skip something as scheduled…in fact, I’ve only taken 4 days off from running TOTAL since 6/17/2013 – two on purpose in July 2014 (after over 400 consecutive days and prior to the start of my new plan); one due to a migraine on 12/25/14 (Christmas, of all days) and one very recently on 2/6/15 simply because I just couldn’t/didn’t get a run in during a busy day. I can usually rebound quickly from one day to the next! 

 Why am I able to run so often, run pretty steady and serious mileage (50+ mpw on average) and PR so frequently? Because I have learned that training based on effort, not pace works for me. I’m not that “fancy” about it either. No heart rate monitor to guide me; just feel. If you do have a good GPS watch with HRM, the new ones (Especially the Garmins) “learn” you and give you a 5-zone training effect measurement after your runs. What a world we live in! Personally, I look at training as having 5 gears, like a manual transmission – which I don’t know how to drive, but I’ve played a LOT of video games…so I know how & when to shift gears, at least, I understand how it works…

1st and 5th gear – Not used very often. Think about it – as a runner, how often are you idling or coasting? How often do you “redline”? To paraphrase Jimmy Eat World, it just takes some time, in the middle everything will be just fine. Stay “in the middle” kids…just try your best…try everything you can… 

2nd gear – this is the easy-feeling stuff. I would define “easy” as “Just like it sounds. Easy. Easy effort, easy breathing, feel good before, during and after. Whether it is a run, x-train or OYO day, easy means easy. That doesn’t mean slow, either. It means easy.” (This would be somewhere around 60-75% effort if you had to estimate it) 

3rd gear is probably where I live and breathe. This is anywhere from BRP to medium efforts, tempos, etc. Something like  “‘just hard enough to make it worth the effort’ – or ‘nothing you can’t recover from in about a day.’ Your body is just the right amount of tired after; your breathing is ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ during the run and the end comes right when you want it to. You’re not laboring to finish but you’re happy it’s over.” (A good number to think of is 65-85% effort for these days) 

4th gear is saved for “special occasions” and you do this when you have to or when you need to. 4th gear isn’t always “hard” but it is always “hard enough.” “These are hard efforts, with required paces and specific instructions. A hard effort hurts (at least a little) and you are happy when it’s over – you might even have to fight through that last mile, rep, or minute. These might take 24-36 hours to recover from; even 48 hours sometimes; any more than that and you went too hard.” (This is like 85-95% – if you can measure that) 

What don’t you see? Numbers really below 50% or above 95%. C’mon. How slow would a runner have to be going to be giving 50% effort? I’m not a math teacher, but I’d think for someone who runs 8:00 per mile normally, 50% effort would be 12:00 per mile, right? You’d fall over. And when I run 95-100% effort, I have to stop at the end. That’s an all out 100m or 200m sprint for me. Me no likey. Those hurt. As mentioned before, if there are five gears, or “training zones” here’s how they break down (according to Garmin, at least – as a proud @NJGarminRunner I’m using their system as my example!)

So why effort, not time? Simple, silly! I don’t want to “overreach” nor do I really want to make “minor” gains, though I know a PR by a second is still a PR” – I want to maintain, improve or HIGHLY improve from day-to-day. Aside from all that “muscle memory” mumbo-jumbo, there’s only so much to gain from forcing your body to work at a level harder than it is comfortable working at. Doing reps in the gym to the point of failure is a technique, for sure. It’s a coaching style for some. Not for me. That’s when injuries happen. 

Back to the car analogy, if you drive your car with the “pedal to the metal” all the time, sure you’ll go fast BUT you’ll also burn out your engine pretty quickly AND pretty significantly. I don’t want to do that.

Think about it this way – especially if I’m your coach – The more recovery time it takes after a run or workout, the longer it will take to do the next one. And the next one. And the next one. If you have a limited schedule and can only run 2 days a week, awesome. You can wreck your body on Wednesday, take two days off to recover, try to jog on Saturday to see how your legs feel, destroy a long run Sunday, take Monday off because you ran yourself into the ground the day before and then hopefully you can do an easy run Tuesday again before the next workout. (If you aren’t fluent in sarcasm – I am; I teach high schoolers – that was not a real suggestion. But people do train that way!) 

So what do I do? I run easy when it says to run easy. Does that mean I always run slowly? No. Some days, an easy run is 7:15 pace and I am floating with every step. Some days, it feels hard to run 8:30 pace. I always TRY to make sure the effort matches the requirements for the day. Of course, there are days you have to dig in your heels and suck it up. Some days, coach says to do 400s at 5K pace and you suck it up and it hurts. Some days, he says 1000s at Threshold effort, and you know you are giving it a good attempt, and your body is working at 90% effort but your times are off. Those are the days you are happy you trust yourself enough to know that working harder just to run a little faster would put you in debt. (There are also a few “tricks” I have learned to balance effort, pace and time. But you’ll have to wait for those…or “hire” me as a coach. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and you can make any workout benefit you if you plan it properly. Even when you are tired!)  

Bottom line? Running is an investment, not a gamble. There’s always a risk factor involved BUT you want to control the amount of risks you take. Will you do a rep too fast sometimes? Of course. Will you kick too early in a race? I can almost guarantee it. But what I can truly guarantee you is that if you learn from the process, you’ll get stronger over time; you’ll sustain your peak longer (or keep climbing and never look back) and you’ll be able to train better and more consistently. And you can take THAT to the bank!


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