Going to the well and seeing God:

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.

4. Psychology
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?


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    1. Fitz on October 20, 2010 at 4:38 pm

      Interesting article Steve. In high school, I'd say 75% of our workouts during indoor/track season were designed to have runners "see God." In college that might have dropped to around 50% of our workouts even during the season when we were racing every week.

      Now that I'm training myself, I only do them before peak races. There are many reasons to limit these types of workouts (like you mentioned), but for me, it's an injury issue.

    2. David Csonka on October 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm

      That would make Crossfit types quite a "religious" bunch, eh?

      Sometimes I wonder what we'll see 20 years from now, the result of many average athletes pushing the limits every single day.

    3. Anonymous on October 21, 2010 at 1:55 am

      Just noticed on Ritz's blog something of this nature: http://dathanritzenhein.competitor.com/2010/10/16/plans-change/. He states that: I know they [his upcoming workouts] will be hard because Alberto told me a few weeks ago, “I am going to run you until you are dead in every workout from now on. If we’re going to try and beat Geb we need to do some good s**t!”

    4. Andrew on October 21, 2010 at 10:02 am

      Back in high school (1980s), I did all my hard workouts (and races) "seeing God" – I thought that was what I was supposed to do. The coaches were impressed with my effort, but it really wore me out – it would sometimes take two weeks to recover from a hard workout. That doesn't work when you are racing weekly plus doing a workout or two. Your comments on the efforts affecting the CNS likely fits me. I didn't very fast in high school – not well enough to run in college.

      In college, I ran on my own (after a year on the cycling team), just doing easy long runs all of the time because that's what I enjoyed (love exploring). I got up to 20 miles a day in singles almost surprisingly quickly and easily, but I also started out at 60+ miles/week in high school (on my own, starting in summer before the coaches could tell me what to do). When I cut it back down to about 90 miles a week and added a tempo run a week, suddenly I was flying compared to high school. I started out being extremely gentle, 36-38 min for 6 miles. Within a couple of weeks, I could do controlled 6 mile tempos in 34 min. I started varying the effort a bit, one week going gentle, other weeks going moderate, and very rarely really hard. I was in the 32 min 6 mile tempo range when I took a break for the summer. I started back up where I left in the fall, and quickly got to the point where sometimes 6 miles in 32 min felt really easy. I eventually did few of my 6 milers as time trials in the 29 min range, but even then they were controlled. I didn't have the sensation of hurt or seeing god, more the thoughts of how do I move even faster since this isn't hurting? This kind of training really worked for me – one controlled 6 mile tempo run per week, with the rest of my running consisting of a lot of distance at slower than 7:40 pace.

      After college, I tried following a training program from a book for a sub-30 10,000 – hey, just follow directions, and you'll get the desired result, right? I'm good a following directions. It was interval intensive, with target times to hit. Like my running in high school, I never felt really good, and I broke down maybe a couple of months in. I'm not convinced it was related to my training, but around this time period, I got what appeared to be chronic fatique syndrome. I recovered, but it took two years.

      So, it took me about 7 years for me to really learn my lesson on how not to train myself. I guess I could have used the guidance of a good coach!

    5. Amby Burfoot on October 21, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      Steve: This is pretty much the ultimate topic–how should we train to improve?–that has been going around for centuries, and maybe still will be going around a long time forward. You didn't mention genes (and after epigenetics, I don't blame you), though No. 3 "individual response" is close. I suspect the time will come, not in my lifetime, when training is adjusted to the athletes's DNA. Until then, I think the Seiler, Foster et al group has the best take on how much to train hard–not very often, maybe 15 percent of the time. And even that should be periodized to off-season and peak-season training. Amby Burfoot

    6. Anonymous on October 27, 2010 at 8:00 pm

      Can you talk to me about the science of heart rate training?

      Some guys say running in the 70% to 80% MHR is best to improve, like:

      But others say that 70% to 80% is to avoid and it is only junk miles; one should run below 70% or over 80% MHR, like:

      What does science say??
      Thanks ahead,


    7. Anonymous on February 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      i've always run at about 80-85 percent for workouts, and that's always worked for me, sure some parts of workouts, like 100's or 50's should be all out cause they're short but i've never been injured from a workout, and have improved nicely over the season, and have never worn myself down
      unlike this one girl at my school who always
      goes 110% and kills herself doing so, always hyperventilating at the end of a workout, it hurts just to look at it
      so yea, always 80-85, sometimes 100 with me

      -cody r.

    8. Mark E. on April 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      interesting stuff

    9. Mike on June 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm

      Wow! I guess that's why I played baseball through college. Baseball training was never that tough. I do run now just to stay in shape. I couldn't imagine running til I was "seeing God." http://baseballinstructionalvideos.net

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