Regardless of our individual experience level, the first several weeks of marathon training is generally all about finding and running at a ‘comfortable pace’.
In the past, we’ve talked about Long Slow Distance (‘LSD’) Runs being run at a ‘conversational’ pace; and we’ve talked about weekday runs as ‘Pacing Runs’--which may be at the pace we comfortably run our LSDs, or may be slightly faster or slower than LSDs.
Throughout my coaching career, I’ve come across many runners who want to run every workout at the same pace, never deviating. I’ve heard athletes say “I really only feel comfortable running at one pace, so why do I need to run faster or slower on some days?” Others say they’re going to run their race at a certain pace and need to practice by running all their training runs at that pace to build consistency.
Research shows that our bodies adapt when training. Adaptation means that as fitness improves, further athletic improvement develops by modifying our workouts and changing the pace at which we train. Alternating easy days and hard days improves our fitness and strengthens our bodies (and our minds) - enabling the body to adjust to the positive stresses of marathon training.
There is no universal definition of a ‘hard’ or and ‘easy’ workout. These are relative terms based upon our individual fitness levels and response to training. A hard or easy workout is defined by how hard or easy the workout is for the individual. Yet, the theories set forth below are the same regardless of how fast or slow we run.
For most of us, the definition or the 'feeling' of hard and easy changes throughout the season. As fitness improves, we find that we are able to run faster or breathe easier than we were in the first few weeks of training; or, we may find that if we suffer an overuse injury, that we must slow our pace per mile in training.
If we train ‘hard’ all the time, the risk of injury increases due to the aggregate stress of training and, perhaps, overtraining without providing the necessary recovery time for our bodies to heal and to replenish spent glycogen and other energy stores. To counter this risk, easy running days, rest days and cross training days are built into your training schedule allowing your body to recover from harder workouts. Cross training days allow for aerobic activity, but no pounding on our joints and running muscles. ‘Easy’ running days help build endurance while reducing some of the ‘pounding’ absorbed by our bodies on harder running days. Rest days allow more recovery time.
On the other hand, if we run at only an ‘easy’ pace in training or on race day, we are always working the same muscles at the same level. Running all training runs at an ‘easy’ pace makes us as susceptible to overuse injuries as running ‘hard’ all the time--as the lack of variation often overworks the same muscle groups with the same stress levels on each run.
Moreover, if we run at only a single ‘comfortable’ pace we are less likely to ever learn and know our capabilities. We don’t magically get faster unless we run faster on some of our workouts—working our cardiovascular system and our muscles differently.
“Net-net”--it’s the same theory, whether running hard or easy—to maximize training effectiveness, “mix it up.”
So “mix it up’… a variety of workouts strengthens our bodies and our minds with the added benefits of reducing risk of injury, and making us a little faster. Even one or two variable workouts each week helps with performance on race day. These workouts are not meant to leave you drained, but to add a little spice into training. Think of it as adding a chili pepper into a meal for a change of pace.
“Good form will carry you through”®