Posted by Steve Magness
As runners we take pride on pushing through pain and testing our limits. It is essentially what the sport is about. However, there seems to be a finite number of times that we can dig as deep as we can and pull out all the stops. Obviously on race day is one of the particular times when we try and give everything that we possibly can, but what about during practice? Obviously hard workouts are required, but I'm not talking about any old hard workout, I'm talking about those workouts done at maximum effort where you are completely done afterwords.
From my experience, there are several different schools of thought of how hard workouts should be. On one extreme you have coaches who say that workouts should be under control and you should save the race for race day. Others take the opposite approach and say that workouts are used for callusing and that you should work use hard workouts to mimic what you would feel on race day. What’s the correct answer? How often should we give that extra 2% during practice to take it from a hard workout to an extremely hard workout?
This has always been an interesting question that I often ponder. In my own running and coaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that there needs to be a balance between having workouts be hard but not to the point of you killing yourself, and those in which you go to the well. The good coaches figure out the correct balance. My High school coach used to call them “see god days,” because when we were finished we’d be laying on the track, delirious and would probably see god. As athletes, we’d often joke that it was a church day because we were going to see god. The key was that these workouts were very rare and at specific times of the season, such as the last one or two big workouts 2-4 weeks out from our peak race.
It’s a delicate balance. If you err too much on the side of going to the well, athletes eventually fizzle out as it taxes them too much physiologically and psychologically. If you err too much on the side of caution and never let an athlete test themselves, you don’t get as big of a supercompensation effect. They never test their limits and never learn how to do so. Deciding when and how often to go to the well depends on several factors.
1. The age and training history
It’s just my opinion, but I think younger athletes should err on the side of caution. At the early HS level for example, most runners aren’t good at reading their bodies. The good ones push push push, and really need someone to hold them back. For HS, the goal is to set up training so that they win the majority of there workouts, meaning that they walk away feeling like they worked hard but it was manageable.
Similarly, the amount of training the athlete has plays a large role. Those with a larger base off which to work off seem to handle very taxing workouts much better than those with less of a training background.
2. The amount of races
With my High School runners in the past, we did very few going to the well workouts. For the most part the workouts were under control and while challenging the athletes had a little left at the end. One of the major reasons for this is that they raced every single week for weeks on end due to the HS schedule. It would be counterproductive to go to the well in a workout when they had so many races and little recovery time in between. On the other hand, pro’s often do slightly more going to the well workouts. Why? Because there racing schedule is far less. They often need to test themselves in practice. For example, many elite marathoners do a very hard and long marathon paced run several weeks out from the marathon.
3. Individual response and recoverability
This is perhaps the most important factor. You have to know your athletes and how they respond. Some athletes can hit it hard in training and bounce back amazingly fast. They can handle week after week of hard work with little sign of overtraining. On the other hand, some athletes take a very long time to bounce back from going to the well. Perhaps there hormonal response is increased to a higher level, they tax there Central Nervous System to a higher degree, or they simply use more nervous energy to get prepared for a big workout. With American runners, they often rely on a lot of adrenaline or stress hormones to get them fired up and through a very tough session. Whatever the reason, it seems to knock some people down more than others. Be aware of this and plan accordingly. For these types of athletes, it’s important to include more recovery before and after workouts or races in which you go to the well.
This goes along with the last point, but how an athlete psychologically approaches very hard workouts is important. Renato Canova likes to make the point that Americans use a lot of nervous energy in preperation for very hard workouts, while Africans tend not to. They don't get stressed over the workout, and this allows them to do more hard workouts and recover from them faster. Thus how an athlete approaches a workout is important. Does he look forward to it and stay fairly relaxed, or is he a nervous wreck or somewhere in between? While psychologically dealing with hard workouts is a different topic, knowing how the athlete deals with it is important in knowing how many times you can really push him to the edge.
There is no exact answer to how many times we should “see god” during a season, but if you consider some of the above factors you’re more likely to find that delicate balance. In coaching HS runners, for the majority I tend to save it for 1 or 2 key sessions where they really get after it due to the amount of races they have. Those sessions are generally 2-4 weeks out from the peak race when I know they are really in good shape and are going to nail a session. Often times it’s for confidence as much as a training effect. If you hold them back slightly for the majority of the training, then let them rip during a workout they are often surprised how quick they can go. When seen in the big picture, I think it's important to set up the workouts so that they "win" the majority of them. It's my job as a coach to give them just enough so that they are challenged, but not so much that they are overwhelmed. As the training progresses, they can handle slightly more each time without going over the edge. So in my opinion, fitness seems to be gained by doing hard workouts that are taxing but not over the edge. You then top this off with a few workouts where you go to the well and that is like putting the cherry on top.
What’s your take? How many times do you or your athletes go to the well in a season?