With Optimal Effort, Optimal Gains

Thu, 27 Oct. 2011 - 3:53 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Frequently we have examined in this publication the importance of an exertion-based training regimen. Nevertheless, in preparation for race day we understandably but all too often find ourselves measuring our readiness with objective goals like mileage per week and per workout, as well as pace during workouts. But training should be approached with three goals in mind: minimizing the shock to the system a new workout regimen inevitably causes, maximizing our adaptation to the established regimen over a period of weeks, and avoiding severe exhaustion—which leads to injury, illness, or, to return to the inevitable realm of objective measure, poor race performance.

Adaptive training is the process of getting our workout effort just right—both within each workout and in terms of the overarching energy of a three-month regimen—to maximize performance gains on race day. This goal is met with an exertion focus, not a performance focus, during a training period. There are metabolic repercussions whenever our pace and mileage are inappropriate for the amount of energy we have. Remember that adaptation is occurring as long as our performance capacity improves without injury, illness, or exhaustion.

To better understand this, it’s necessary to look at the concept of proficiency. This is a sense of your ability to do a workout as measured on the following scale: unable, ineffective, passably able, effective, fully able.

Just as pushing against exhaustion will lead to compromised racing performance down the road, the other extreme, an overwhelming eagerness on the day of a given workout, may indicate the need for a training adjustment too. Realize that feeling right is not the same thing as feeling good. Flying along when you have abundant energy feels good—but is it right for the workout, for the larger objective of adaptation at goal-pace on race day? You aren’t supposed to have abundant energy when your larger plan is to only allow yourself ample energy for each major workout. This plan maximizes adaptation. Yet finding the balance between not doing enough to maximize adaptation and doing too much to invite premature exhaustion is tricky business.

It is unlikely that a single bout of overeagerness in the middle of a 13-week regimen is indicative of a gross miscalculation in your training plan. The overeagerness is more likely attributable to greater adaptation. It’s therefore important to fight the urge to burn up the road, pushing heart rate past where it ought to be as established by previous workouts. Remind yourself that this is a training day, not the race itself. Save your energy for the race. On the other hand, if your running proficiency is consistently in the upper reaches of eagerness to run, you may not be pushing hard enough in your workouts to maximize adaptation.

Take the case of one runner, John, who began a 13-week training regimen with a passably able proficiency at his tempo workout. A few weeks after that, he knew he could do it effectively. On week seven, there was no doubt in his mind that he could do the tempo workout, and he went into that day’s training feeling eager to do it. He therefore pushed the pace under his established tempo pace of 6:30 per mile. Later, he was forced to take an unplanned day off due to a sore Achilles tendon. He wondered whether he had pushed too hard. He was unusually tired from this workout and for one week after, his lack of energy negatively affected his other workouts.

In the eighth week, John felt ready to do the tempo workout, but he didn’t run as fast as he had the week before. Concerned about his ability, he pushed hard to maintain what he came to view as his new pace: sub-6:30. During the next few weeks, he continued to add exertion to maintain pace, in response to what he felt to be dwindling energy. By week 11, after an extended 72-hour recovery, he ran a very hard/ready workout to achieve the pace from four weeks earlier, which was hard/eager. During his taper period over the following two weeks, John contracted a severe cold and his race day performance suffered.

The bottom line is that no endurance athlete can expect to maintain a high level of adaptation indefinitely. What is common and normal is to enjoy a peak workout such as John’s week seven, followed by workouts that are not as eager or fast but nevertheless reflect greatly improved adaptation as compared to the early weeks of the regimen. Pushing against exhaustion is a mistake. This never improves performance capacity. Exertion is the adaptive stimulus, not pace. John would have benefited from a slower pace for week eight, with the same heart rate as week seven.

Finally, remember that there is a certain period of adjustment and experiment at the start of a new regimen before your workout heart rates, perceived exertions, and/or paces can be optimally established. Every workout is designed to build one of five abilities: stamina, power, tempo, speed, and endurance. Each requires a uniquely planned exertion structure you’ll need to keep in mind as you begin the regimen and for each subsequent week of it.

(5K and 10K Training by Brian Clarke, 2006, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, pp. 69-79)

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® April / May 2007 • Volume 25, Number 3)


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