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Usually when it comes to coaching methodology, I am a lot like The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Take it easy, relax, recover with this White Russian cocktail (replacing the milk with a scoop of vanilla protein powder). I don’t want athletes to harsh the buzz of good feelings from consistent training. Sometimes, though, it’s necessary for things to get intense. That’s where this article comes in.
Most workouts should be repeatable. I often give the prompt: “Think smooth and sustainable.” Or “find flow.” “Comfortably purposeful.” “Peeing yourself OK, but avoid anything more if possible.”
But rules are made to be broken, which is also what I say about covert sampling at the Whole Foods hot bar. Going hard and pushing deep into a well of pain has a time and place. That time is now …
Controlled workouts can improve aerobic efficiency and running economy by avoiding anaerobic, fast-twitch stimuli, while also reducing injury rates and making the grind more psychologically sustainable. It takes many bricks to build a wall, so don’t take the risk of knocking down the wall for one extra-large brick. Think build-up, rather than break-down.
But rules are made to be broken, which is also what I say about covert sampling at the Whole Foods hot bar. Going hard and pushing deep into a well of pain has a time and place. That time is now and that place is Trail Runner magazine.
Possible Justifications for Very Hard Workouts in Moderation
Why should some workouts be so hard that peeing yourself is just the start? There are a few possible reasons, so pick your poison. It could be related to the idea of supercompensation—extremely difficult stimuli that cause break-down and bounce-back cycles that exceed what you might predict from a linear adaptation model. That bounce-back could be related to hormonal changes, genetic expression, or even something extra interesting like adult stem-cell activity.
Supercompensation stimuli generally are helpful a few times in a training cycle, but vary by the coaching system and terminology. That may be a reason that training races are often so important to subsequent breakthroughs. Coach Renato Canova’s block workouts (two workouts in one day) are my favorite example of supercompensation principles in action.
Maybe it’s related to more traditional adaptation models. If some aerobic/musculoskeletal stress is good, you know what’s better? A LOT OF IT. This is the same logic I use at the Whole Foods hot bar.
Here’s how I put it all of those elements together: part of the justification of doing very hard workouts or training races may be the difficulty itself. Your brain and body can essentially have their light-bulb moments: “Oh! I see! I will not die the next time I push this hard? Good to know, you can carry on.”
Or perhaps it’s neuromuscular. Let’s simplify it here and call it the central governor, though in practice it’s probably a mix of a bunch of things. The central governor theory has the main premise that the brain controls how we perceive fatigue, particularly in hard efforts. (See this 2012 article in Frontiers of Physiology, by Tim Noakes for more on the complex topic of the central-governor theory, this 2019 literature review in Sports Medicine disputing the findings of the central governor theory, and Alex Hutchinson’s fantastic book Endure for a deep dive on the topic of fatigue and performance).
Here’s how I put all of those elements together: part of the justification of doing very hard workouts or training races may be the difficulty itself. Your brain and body can essentially have their light-bulb moments: “Oh! I see! I will not die the next time I push this hard? Good to know, you can carry on.”
No matter what the justification, if the first time you push your absolute limits is on race day, you may not end up finding your limits at all. It would be like gathering up lots of bricks from smart training but forgetting to bind them together into a sturdy wall.
These workouts are designed to suck. That way, future workouts and races will suck less.
Some Ground Rules
Do a warm-up and cool-down of 15 to 30 minutes of easy running. Only do these types of workouts when relatively fit, with a big base. Training races can accomplish the same purpose, and, if you’re racing, you can probably skip these types of very hard workouts (or do them at a more relaxed effort).
Make sure you have plenty of recovery before and after, ideally with two very easy or rest days on either end. Separate the hardest workouts and training races by at least two weeks, but more like a month, with more sustainable workouts in between.
Finally, these are just the go-to workouts for the athletes I coach—the types they’d get with a mid-week workout in a 75-minute block rather than a long run. Some long run ideas are here, some other mountain running-specific ideas here. There’s no magic in the specific details, so find what works for you. Let’s do this!
5 x 3 minute hills hard with run down recovery, 15 to 30 minutes moderately hard on tired legs
This is the go-to workout that I think can work for most athletes. Three minutes can seem like an eternity, that’s for sure. Many athletes will get close to their maximum heart rate on the last couple hills, and you can probably guess what that feels like. What is NOT GOOD? Darn it, Ken Jennings, this isn’t Jeopardy and you need to put down the buzzer. But you’re correct for $2000 and the Daily Double.
How: On the hills, aim for an average grade of 6 to 8 percent, a moderate incline that lets you optimize power output without form breaking down. At the top, you can put your hands on your knees for a second before running down normally. Finish the last two with an extra-hard push. After the final interval, run down and work into a relaxed tempo.
There’s a good chance you’ll actually feel relatively strong at first (possibly due to the extreme neuromuscular stimulus altering perceived exertion temporarily), but soon your legs should feel weak for the output. That’s usually something to avoid since low output, high effort is the reverse of improving running economy. However, now it’s the whole point. Grind it out and celebrate by cursing repeatedly.
You can replace the post-hills tempo with flat-ground intervals or strides as well, particularly early in a training cycle, to avoid running too inefficiently as you build fitness.
When: This workout has preceded many great races, including 21 days before Drew Holmen’s recent win at the Bandera 100K. Ten to 17 days out from a key effort is ideal for most trail athletes. You can just do the three-minute hills if closer to a race or in the middle of a tougher training cycle.
8 to 10 x 3 minutes fast with 1 to 2 minutes easy recovery, 3 minutes easy, 6 x 30 second semi-steep hills hard with 90 seconds easy recovery
When marathon record-holder Eliud Kipchoge’s training (or an approximation of some things he may or may not have done, depending on who you ask) was released, the schedule included a steady diet of 3-minute intervals. There is some research that three minutes is a sweet spot for development of critical power. I have seen that it’s just a good place for most athletes to develop speed without having fatigue lead to significant slowing.
How: On the intervals, think something around 10K effort to start (a bit easier if you’re very advanced, more effort if you’re just starting out). As you work into the intervals, you have permission to start pushing. By the end, there is only one option. Put on some Britney and work, [friend]. On the 30-second hills to finish, the main goal is to feel and accept discomfort.
When: This workout is a big effort that can fit into almost any training cycle, even for road and track races. Only do it when your running economy is relatively well-developed (not near the beginning of a training cycle) to avoid reinforcing bad habits or causing injury. You can also do these a bit more often at a slightly more relaxed effort throughout.
30 minute moderately hard tempo with uphills and downhills (very hard finish), 2 minutes easy, 4 to 6 x 90 second hills hard with run down recovery
There is an art to holding a tough effort when every fiber in your being would be happy stopping. I think we sometimes gloss over what that actually feels like when we write about running. From the comfort of my writing futon, it’s just numbers. 30 minutes. That’s a single episode of Parks and Recreation. No big deal.
WRONG. In practice, when every neuron is screaming at you, it’s really hard to respond kindly. “Hey, neurons, I love you, and we’re good.” That’s where this workout comes in.
How: On the tempo, start relaxed, as if you’re running a half-marathon or so. As you go, pick it up until the last 10 minutes are digging deep. Ideally, the tempo has some uphills and downhills to add some extra stress. Steep downs at this effort are especially important to practice if your race has downhills, since the eccentric contractions and biomechanical demands are not something you might get in normal training. But you could do this sort of effort on a long uphill grade (or treadmill) for a less musculoskeletally taxing option.
The 90 second hills are bonus, just to remind your brain and body that even when you think you have nothing left, there are usually a few more drops at the bottom of your soul.
When: These hard tempo workouts should be very sporadic in training, ideally once every four to six weeks for most athletes. You can also substitute a “Power Hour” if you have the time and mental will. Training races are another great option.
10/8/6/4/2 minute hills moderately hard with run down steady after each, finishing the last 2 intervals all out
I almost wrote this article with just three workouts before deciding that it needed “The Hill Beast.” This is the workout for skyrunners, developed with two-time Golden Trail Series finalist and top coach Meg Mackenzie. It gets you comfortable with that feeling that is unique to steep races: redlining, bombing down then redlining again. And again. And again. Really, it sucks.
How: On relatively steep trails, run up focused on smooth form. When your brain wants you to slow down, don’t. When you want to walk, try to avoid it until it’s impossible not to. Here’s where the magic happens, though. When you get to the end of the interval, turn around and let your body flow down, not pushing hard but not holding back.
On each hill, you’ll lose a little bit of power—there’s a chance that your six-minute hill may even be slower than your 10-minute hill, and that’s OK. Pace doesn’t matter anymore. Pace was a concern in the beforetimes. All there is now is discomfort. Finish the last two with 30-second pushes to the edge so you can see the great beyond and live to tell the tale.
When: For Meg, this workout is a staple 10 days before big races. If your training involves less steep downhill running, give it more time to make sure it doesn’t cause too much soreness.
Most motivated runners could benefit from going a bit easier, including in workouts. But that sustainable approach only works for maximizing performance potential if it’s accompanied by some very hard efforts to prepare for racing.
As Britney would say, work [friend]. Do that, and you’ll be ready to play on race day.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.