Brief Thoughts: Are hard workouts counterproductive?

Since my mission to write a set of comprehensive articles detailing the most common running injuries (the “Injury Series” here on RunningWritings) has morphed into a colossal undertaking, I’ve decided to break things up a bit with a new occasional, hopefully weekly series entitled “Brief Thoughts,” which I intend to be shorter, less-scientific musings on training and racing.  Today will be the first installment in that series.
Several world-class runners looking rather relaxed at the 2008 Olympics.  Photo:
One thing that’s been on my mind recently is how often, if ever, an experienced runner should do hard workouts.  This topic crossed my mind while reading this excellent thread on LetsRun, in which several sub-4 milers commented on how their workouts were going when they felt “ready” to break four minutes.
Sub-four miler “usedabe” writes:
There are a few different types of workouts that indicate the type of fitness needed for going under 4:00.
The ability to comfortably run 5-8 miles (true tempo effort) averaging under 5:00 pace is a great indicator of aerobic fitness. Can be one tempo run or long tempo intervals with short rest (like 3x3200 w/2:00 rest).

Something like 20x200 averaging 29.0 - 29.5ish with 200m rest (:50 - :55s) will show you've got good speed endurance.

Being able to go mid/low 50's for a 400m shows you've got the basic speed.

When asked about the “classic” 10x400m at mile pace w/ 60sec rest workout, he writes:
Never did it [10x400m] myself (and I don't think I could have done it if I tried), plenty of people claim it's a good indicator though. Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to run 'indicating' workouts since they tend to amount to a race effort when you could have just run a workout and gotten better - not just tested your fitness. Work on different areas of your overall fitness (aerobic, speed) and race like a madman.
Which is what got me thinking: if super-fit sub-four milers don’t need so many “hard” workouts, are they any good for anybody else? To me, “hard” denotes anything that approaches a race effort.  While some workouts, like 10x400m at mile pace with a minute recovery, are easily delineated as hard, others are not so clear.  The difficulty of an eight mile “tempo run,” for example, is entirely dependent on the effort at which it’s run.  And even the pace is not as informative as you might think—there’s a difference between pace and effort.  It’s very possible to run the right pace but the wrong effort.  I realize this is a controversial proposition, and sounds somewhat surprising coming from Mr. Science here.  But bear with me for a little while and I’ll promise not to tread too deeply into “zen of running” territory.  
Matters of economy
Distance running is essentially a matter of economy: how efficiently you can maintain a given pace.  While acknowledging the importance of metabolics (aerobic fitness, lactate tolerance, and the like), let’s put that aside for a second.  If two runners have equal oxygen delivery systems (heart, lungs, blood vessels) but differ in performance, the gap is best explained by differences in muscle recruitment, the second “half” of efficiency.  There are efficient and inefficient ways to run—if you don’t believe me, try bounding your way to a seven-minute mile! Now, bounding is an extreme example of an inefficient stride that consumes a large amount of energy per unit distance traveled, but you get the idea.  If you focus in training on covering ground in the most efficient way possible, your brain is going to pick up on that, and it will eventually transition into more efficient muscle recruitment at all paces. 
But I don’t think efficient running is entirely synonymous with any particular pace, as threshold training advocates might claim, so much as it is a state of mind, or perhaps an attitude.  For the same reasons a basketball player has a harder time hitting free-throws when the opposing team’s fans are jeering, a distance runner has a hard time maintaining an efficient stride when he (or she) has an aggressive mindset.  Picture running the same pace—say, six-minute miles—in two situations: 1) on a trail in a blissful forest and 2) on a busy highway in New Jersey.  For several reasons, the latter situation would feel as though it took a lot more effort to maintain the same pace than the former, even if the temperature, wind, and so on were all the same.  Physiologically speaking, the only way that can be is if the stressful environment contributed to poor efficiency! And that’s the crux of my argument: practicing running HARD, with an aggressive attitude (as opposed to fast with a relaxed attitude) reinforces an inefficient running style, which is undesirable in the grand scheme of training.  I don’t just mean that running aggressively uses more of some ethereal “mental energy,” I mean running hard and aggressively requires more real physical energy to maintain a given pace.  And the only way to become more efficient is to practice doing it.
Look at it another way: Most athletic high school boys can run 400m in less than 60 seconds, but only a handful have managed to string four in a row together.  Again, putting metabolics aside for a moment, the problem of running a four minute mile or a ten minute two-mile or an eighteen-minute 5k is not one of speed; it’s one of energetics—how do you “build” a runner capable of sustaining high speeds with good efficiency? To me, the answer is simple: practice running efficiently! This has to happen both at race-relevant speeds and at metabolically sustainable speeds too.  A 9:00 3k runner can’t efficiently sustain 3min kilometers for very long—if he hopes to become a 15:00 5k runner, he needs to practice two things: first, efficiently running 3:00/km pace, and second, running efficiently for long, continuous blocks of time.  To do this, he’d likely do short repeats with moderate recovery at the requisite pace, as well as continuous “tempo runs” or long repeats with short recovery at a fast-but-relaxed pace. 
Notice how neither of these conditions mentioned running hard.  Arthur Lydiard once said something along the lines of “the winner of the race is the one who runs the fastest, not the hardest.”  I’m fairly convinced that once you’ve reached a certain point, you are going to get diminishing returns from learning to run HARDER.  Learning to run hard is important, since younger runners need to get acquainted with the limits of their bodies, but once you’ve learned how to push yourself very hard (as virtually everyone has after a few years of competitive running), it can become a hindrance as much as a strength.  Being able to give an extremely hard effort on command can impede your ability to improve because it becomes very easy to run yourself into the ground.  And, again, just because you ran HARD doesn’t mean it was the right effort for the day.  Even though a 4:40 miler might hammer out ten 400s in 67 seconds with a minute recovery, it’s not bringing him any closer to a 4:30 mile from an efficiency standpoint because he isn’t practicing running that pace efficiently.  He’d probably do better to run those same 400s in 70 seconds (or do shorter repeats at 67-sec pace so the effort wouldn’t have to be so HARD).
Matters of metabolism 
Granted, we’ve set aside metabolics so far. Efficiency is only part of the whole picture.  And it’s a physiological reality that runners competing in middle distance races (as well as the steeple) have to endure high levels of lactate and acidity in their muscles during the final stages of their races.  So it’s unrealistic to expect a middle distance runner to be able to run well exclusively on short, quick repeats and relaxed moderate-intensity repeats and tempo runs.  Some amount of lengthy, tiring, high-speed repeats is needed to prepare for the race.  But even these workouts need not be the knee-grabbing, vomit-inducing variety.  As a long distance runner, I found that many of my best races came after I’d already done a handful of races and one or perhaps two workouts that I hammered—the rest being run at moderate intensities, always holding back a bit.  Races, of course, “count” as hard workouts, and are probably the most “race specific” you can get.  

So, in sum, I’ve come to believe that hard workouts (again, defined as a race-level effort which would leave you grabbing your knees and gasping for air), while useful early on in a runner’s career, are of low or moderate importance in the experienced runner’s workout diet.  A 3k, 5k, or 10k runner probably only needs 1-2 races and 1-2 “hard” workouts before he or she is ready to run a top-flight race.  A middle distance runner may need a few more.  The bulk of training should be run at a relaxed effort, focusing on running fast without running hard, since this is the key to developing efficient movement at ALL speeds.  Efficiency is built both by practicing efficient running at race pace in shorter repeats and by practicing long, continuous runs and repeats and fast-but-not-hard efforts.    Finally, let me reiterate that relaxed does not mean slow, and that pace is not synonymous with effort
I realize that this is something of a controversial position, and some very prominent coaches are big proponents of very tough workouts.  Dathan Ritzenhein, for example, was rumored to unofficially break the American 10-milerecord during a tempo run in the fall of 2009.  But I’ll leave you with two quotes.  The first comes from my former college coach and the second from the world-famous Renato Canova:
“Speed comes from relaxation, not aggressiveness.  Lactic Acid is the result of aggressiveness, which is in direct conflict with Speed Development.” 
“The secret is to make in your mind possible what was not possible before.  The secret is to make easy what was difficult, instead to make difficult what really is easy.”
So, are hard workouts overrated? What do you think?

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

6 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts: Are hard workouts counterproductive?”

  1. Interesting assertion John. I know one of my former coaches would agree with you, and the other would probably disagree. As for me, my first exposure was to a style that advocated pushing the limits in workouts, so deep down I come from that school of thought, although in my later years I discovered that achieving top performances in racing does not stem from one-size-fits all training. I also know that if Pre read this he would be rolling over in his grave 🙂

  2. Really nice analysis, John. Thanks for this. I agree.

    It seems to me that a primary aspect of the art of training (and I am not so opposed to this being described as a bit of a 'zen' type of aspect) is gently bringing what was an aggressive pace into the frame of relaxed running. The tempo effort, described almost paradoxically as 'comfortably hard,' sits right on the border between aggressive and moderate pacing, and as we become expert runners, we learn to find that line and slowly work it faster and faster. I like this sort of 'efficiency' argument because it allows us to describe running, at least in part, as a learned skill rather than as a matter solely of improving certain physiological markers.

    This sort of thinking, running as skill, allows us to think both the mental aspect of racing and training and the physiological aspect simultaneously. Anyhow, thanks for the insightful post here, and the great work in general that you have done on this blog.

  3. I had my most successful season while finishing almost every workout feeling comfortably tired and not dead. As you said, I did 2 very difficult workouts, 6 mile threshold w/ 8x400 faster than 3k afterwards, and the "michigan" workout; both which left me laying on the ground wanting to die. The "quickest" workout I had completed was 3x 1600@ threshold, rest, 1000@v02 max. These workouts were 1-3 weeks before an enormous PR.
    My season then transitioned into very hard intervals, hammering 1000's and 800's. Although at times they were relaced, they were much harder than the workouts i had been doing prior to my PR. I didn't run within 30 seconds of the 8k PR for the rest of the season.
    Sorry for the life story-- it goes without saying that I agree with your philosophy. Thanks for putting it all in writing

  4. Great article, where my thinking has slowly been drifting all year - that and recovery.

    Though, just to clarify: the longer work (i.e not the speed work but the long continuous fast/relaxed) will not be at a fast pace (compared to race effort or speed training) - this would look like current tempo work, yes?

    In reading both this and your article on the always fun topic of threshold, how do you see both of these marrying if speed is much faster than your threshold for longer distances; for instance speed work at relaxed 3min/ks, but longer work done at 4min/ks, but all of it relaxed - is this the kind of work you are advocating?

  5. Yes, Callan, the long/continuous workouts that I like best are long tempo runs anywhere from 5-10mi at ~85% of 5k pace, or "aerobic threshold," and Kenyan-style "progression runs" of about as far, starting extremely slow and finishing a tad faster than anaerobic threshold (~92% of 5k). To reinforce the idea of "fast not hard," I tend to prefer keeping fast repeats short (and with long recovery), and long repeats at moderate speeds (and with short recovery).

    If we look at a hypothetical 4:40 miler (just for the sake of easy math), a speed workout I might prescribe for him might be 16x200m starting at 37, descending to 35 for the bulk of the workout, with the last few 200s at 34 or maybe 33.5 if he felt good. The recovery would be 200m jogged very easily (80-90sec). However, it's very possible for a 4:40 miler to do 16x200m in 33 seconds with a faster 200m jog recovery in 60sec. Only difference is that the second workout is much harder! Likewise, a long endurance type workout I might prescribe would be 6mi at 6:00/mi. And again, it's very possible for a runner of this fitness to run 6mi much faster. But in both cases, the harder version of the workout isn't conducive to learning how to go faster—because you're practicing running HARD, not fast!

    Hope that helps. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Oh, and for completeness I should add that the same applies to long interval workouts for aerobic fitness ("cruise intervals" or whatever you want to call them). Such a workout for our 4:40 miler might be 7x1000m in 3:31 with a 60sec walk/jog recovery. These workouts and speed workouts are the two types of intervals runners are most likely to "cheat" at—by that I mean run faster than they should!


Leave a Comment

Did you know I have a book? Check it out here!