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The Power Hour: Your Ultimate Race Prep Workout

The mechanical and neuromuscular adaptations for breakthroughs can be difficult to stimulate in a smart, intensity-controlled training plan. Sometimes, being “smart” is overrated. That’s where the Power Hour comes in.

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The great coach and writer Steve Magness recently tweeted a training philosophy poem:

Mostly easy,
occasionally hard,
vary it up,
and very seldom, go see God.

The Power Hour workout is one of those seldom-used divine training interventions. Its potential benefits and risks are tied to the complex interconnection between the brain and body, from the cellular level on up, and the adaptations that can only happen when every physiological system is pushed to the limit.

Or to put it another way: to go see God, sometimes you have to die a little. When I put a Power Hour in an athlete’s training plan, I’m saying: “You’re ready to risk a little bit of your soul for a whole lot of fitness.”

Power Hour Context

My co-coach Megan and I have gathered lots of data over the years on athletes of all levels. After we fed enough numbers into the machine, outcomes started to get more predictable with this general equation:

Output around lactate threshold (or aerobic threshold for long ultras) + fatigue resistance + specific adaptations to race terrain = a general approximation of current race potential.

Each of those variables includes inputs with event-specific weighting that make training theory really fun, particularly in very long races. But with adequate training data, we could use that equation to play a game: Predict That Race.

At dinner the night before big races, I’ll ask Megan: “How do you think your athlete will do?” Then, she’ll flip it and reverse it for the athletes I coach. Whoever is closest gets bragging rights, which in a marriage is like winning the Stanley Cup, a Golden Globe, and an AVN Adult Performer of the Year trophy all in one.

For races 100K and longer, the predictions are a bit less reliable, usually related to the random crap that can happen over 8+ hours on race day. But overall, the predictions are damn solid (I even did it once in an article, predicting Katie Asmuth and Drew Holmen would excel before they finished top 5 at the 2021 Western States 100, a year when the iRunFar Groupthink predictions had them 15th+). Megan usually wins though, because she is very smart and can be intimidatingly competitive about bragging rights.

Over time, we noticed one big problem. The results become much less predictable when an athlete hasn’t raced in more than 10 weeks.

Even if all of the fitness metrics are consistently proven in training, their manifestation on race day can splatter all over the graph without some of those seeing-God efforts. What’s that all about? After controlling for variables over time, our hypothesis is that the neuromuscular and mechanical demands of going VERY HARD are necessary even for races that might not be that intense. And that’s where The Power Hour comes in.

What is The Power Hour?

The Power Hour is something between a normal tempo run and a race simulation, starting moderate and ending hard, ideally over race-specific terrain.

It isn’t a unique concept–longer tempo efforts are a key part of training for almost all elite athletes, including Eliud Kipchoge (weekly progression long runs ending close to marathon effort) and Kilian Jornet (20K to 30K runs starting in Zone 3 and ending in Zone 4). But the Power Hour has a cool name and it’s simple to execute. Run up to the edge, give two middle fingers to intensity-controlled training, and base jump into the abyss.

Here is how I like to note the workout in training logs:

20 minutes, very easy warm-up, with a few strides, POWER HOUR (1 hour over race-specific terrain, starting moderate and ending hard), 10-20 minutes slow cool-down

Start with 15-25 minutes of an easy warm-up jog to fully activate the aerobic system, with a couple strides, too. Aim for race-specific terrain, with both uphills and downhills. Start moderate, as easy as marathon or 50K effort for advanced athletes, picking it up as you work into the session. Around 30 minutes, it’s time to let your freak flag fly. Push hard, likely around lactate threshold heart rate, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes by ending closer to all-out. Finish with a 10-20 minute easy cool-down, which can be just above walking pace.

What Are Some Alternatives to The Power Hour?

For very advanced athletes, it can be extended to 90 minutes or 2 hours, with a more gradual progression of effort. For beginner athletes, 30 minutes is plenty, pushing harder after 10 minutes.

What Are the Potential Benefits?

The primary Power Hour benefits involve the musculoskeletal system. No matter how many intervals an athlete does, there is unique loading that happens on tired legs with all caution thrown to the wind. I’ll sometimes finish a training race and think: What the hell did I just do? A half marathon can feel essentially the same as doing a workout of mile intervals, but stringing 13.1 of them in a row without recovery. The training prepares the body for those mechanical demands, but the Power Hour or a training race helps put it all together.

 

Run up to the edge, give two middle fingers to intensity-controlled training, and base jump into the abyss. 

 

For short races, it’s a specific stimulus to the demands of race day. For marathons and ultras, it adds mechanical resilience that goes beyond the demands of the race, which may prevent the accumulation of some of the chronic fatigue that can stack up over many miles of lower-level breakdown.

RELATED: 8 Of The Hardest Empty-The-Tank Hill Workouts

Aerobically, the magic of the Power Hour is the duration. To finish the session strongly, an athlete has to pace easier than critical velocity/power, so the primary input is from the aerobic system. Imagine it like one of those health bars from Mortal Kombat. The Power Hour starts with a full green bar, and ends with an aerobic fatality. An athlete can respawn with some aerobic supercompensation.

But perhaps the most important adaptation is for the nervous system. In these articles, I talk constantly about controlling intensity in training to support long-term aerobic growth and health. That aligns with Norwegian training, Canova-based systems, and most elite training practices.

However, performance potential is not a simple equation, as we learned in our dinner table game, Predict That Race. Where things get really complicated is how the brain and nervous system mediate performance, a weakly understood area that is difficult to measure in a lab. Whether you call it the Central Governor or something else, you sometimes need to enter deep into the pain cave.

You might even feel a bit of panic when you first enter the pain cave. What’s happening? I can’t see? THIS IS UNCOMFORTABLE! But go into the cave with intention, and the brain might have a liberating realization. It’s not an abyss of sorrow. It’s just a room like any other, where it’s usually smart to keep the lights off to save energy. Turn them on with the Power Hour, see there is nothing to fear, and you may notice that it’s a bit more comfortable next time.

What Are the Potential Problems?

Each of those benefits has a flip side of sadness. Any stimulus that accrues outsized musculoskeletal benefits is pushing the body close to its breaking point. There’s a reason that long, hard tempos are not a weekly workout for most athletes–the only start line they’d be guaranteed to reach would involve the starting hum of an MRI machine.

Aerobically, the workout is so hard that athletes will exceed lactate threshold heart rate for substantial portions on uphills and near the finish. In moderation, that’s fine. But done excessively, it could erode the base aerobic adaptations that fuel all performance.

And with the nervous system, the quickest ticket to burnout or overtraining syndrome is throwing all of that cortisol and breakdown into the body at once and not letting it clear. After a hard session like the Power Hour, recovery demands skyrocket, before falling back to baseline over the coming days. It’s key to let that stress recede with easy running. Extreme stress has a long tail, and if those tails stack up, an athlete can find themselves pushing harder than ever and getting slower and slower before they crumble into dust.

Who Should Consider The Power Hour?

At max settings, the Power Hour is best for athletes who aren’t racing consistently. I like athletes to do one HARD, seeing-God effort every 4-6 weeks, so that’s a good timeline to think about for this session or one like it.

For advanced, high-volume athletes or athletes who race a lot, longer tempos serve similar aerobic and musculoskeletal purposes, but with less of the nervous system necessity. As a result, the same workout done a notch or two easier can be a more consistent part of training, particularly within long runs as a tempo. If you fall into that group, long tempos every 2-3 weeks can lead to major aerobic adaptations. In those workouts, you don’t want to see God, but it’s OK to experience ASMR from an angel. That’s similar to what Kipchoge does, where most long runs start easy and end moderately hard.

RELATED: 3-Minute Mountain Legs

That being said, we all need to be careful when impersonating superheroes. Ironman can fly, but most people will have different results when they strap themselves to a rocket.

When Should The Power Hour Be Timed Within a Training Cycle?

If it’s being used to prepare for a race, it’s ideal 14-24 days before. The short end of that range would be for high-volume athletes who absorb stress rapidly, using it to kickstart a taper of intensity. The long end of the range is better for ultras and lower volume athletes.

For the overall fitness benefits, it can be anytime within a build cycle for an athlete who has developed their aerobic system with easy running and speed through consistent workouts. Max efforts should be reserved for key training days with easy running or rest for a few days on either side of the session. More moderate tempo efforts can be placed within long runs every few weeks, with some extending up to 90 minutes or 2 hours for advanced athletes.

We coach some athletes who say these long, hard tempos are their favorite workouts. They could have told me that Jeffrey Dahmer had some good ideas and I’d be less concerned. But here’s an interesting data point–most of those athletes are also absolute killers on race day.

My guess at an explanation: they have made friends with pain, so races are parties. There is a lot to learn on the other side of the edge.

Just remember: practice caution with these wildly hard workouts. Seeing God every now and then in training can be a transcendent growth experience. But seeing God all the time might just mean you’re dead.

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.