Since Bill Bowerman popularized the idea of alternating days in which we do a hard workout and follow it up with a recovery day of, runners have fallen in love with the back and forth nature of intervals and then going for a distance run in the subsequent days. It’s no wonder that this strategy has stuck around as it follows perfectly with how the body adapts by applying a hard stressor and then takes a few days to absorb that stimuli and translate that work into a useable adaptation. However, in creating this two-tiered system of hard and easy are we missing something in between?
If we were to go to any high school or college program and observe their easy days, it would likely consist of a run, perhaps followed by a few strides and if they were extra ambitious perhaps some strength or core work afterwards. That’s become the basic norm for most American programs. It’s the kind of system I was used to when I came out of college and moved across the country to train with 3:46 miler Alan Webb and his coach, Scott Razcko. When I got there, my eyes were opened to a much different “recovery” day.
Instead, I encountered what I’d call an in-between day; not too hard, not too easy, in goldilocks terms. We might start with a quick dynamic warm up before getting in our standard 9 mile run. But instead of being done with the day, a session of short 60m accelerations at near max speeds with some plyometrics afterwards might be what’s called for. On another day, we might end with two sets of 200,150,120m at faster than mile pace to keep the legs sharp and get some pop back in our legs. All of this was done with the knowledge of a hard workout on our horizon the next day.
As I ventured into coaching professional runners, I too have taken advantage of these
With my own athletes, I’ve started implementing these moderate days one to two times per week depending on the level of the athlete. When we are trying to work on pure speed development, we etiher tack on a few 60m accelerations at the track or4 to 8 uphill sprints that take about 8 seconds to complete. On the flip side, if we are trying to keep our legs fresh and bouncy by getting away from the typical slog of a normal run, we might throw in 6x30sec surges at around 5k pace with 2 minutes easy into the middle of the run. Lastly, if we’re trying to keep the aerobic system primed and ready, tacking on a gradual pickup the last 1-2 miles works well.
The key to these in between workouts is doing just enough so that we get a training stimulus, but not so much that it became a hard days work and fatigue is created. By getting away from the polarized hard and easy paradigm, you might just be able to take your performance to another level without adding any more grueling workouts to the program.
Surges: Add 6-10x 30sec pick-ups at around 10k effort with 90sec easy.
Speed Development: In the middle of your run, insert 4-6x short hill sprints or 60m accelerations reaching near top speed. This will be taxing neuromuscularly but not that taxing from a global fatigue standpoint.
Strength: Add a strength circuit before or after an easy run. At Arkansas, John McDonnell utilized strength circuits followed up with an easy 8-10 miler for years. He figured it allowed his athletes to get in some easy to moderate aerobic work on tired/fatigued legs.
Pick-Ups in Long Runs: Take an easy long run and add in some surges to learn how to change rhythms while tired or get a moderate aerobic stimulus by gradually pressing down the pace over the last 1-3 miles. Just enough to get a stimulus but not so much to be a
Small spices of workouts- Instead of a full blown workout, try 50% of a normal workout. You can repeat these frequently during the season as a way to maintain fitness without causing too much fatigue. Something like 6-8x200s at 5k to mile pace is an example. Or 10 minutes of tempo work with some strides or surges afterwards. Just something to keep the body reminded of what it’s like to run fast or get your heart rate up.