I wrote a piece a couple of days ago called “Why do the Tough Get Going?” in which I was giving some advice to one of my athletes who had struggled in a series of recent workouts. I related to her in an e-mail later the story that I will tell you later and her reaction was a little surprising to me: “even people at your level have tough workouts? I thought only beginners struggled.” That’s what I want to look at today.
In that earlier piece, I talked about the fact that the most beneficial parts of our training workouts are the hard parts — the last few miles in which we really suffer. This is true, because it is the response to that challenge that drives the body and mind to prepare for new and tougher challenges that will come later. What I want to make clear today is that this applies at every level, from the newest runner to the most experienced professional athlete. It may happen in different ways, but the tough parts are always there, no matter what the experience level of the athlete.
The way that we bring on the suffering — the tough parts — scale with the level of experience. Someone just starting out might have a tough time running for two minutes, four times in a workout. For that person, this might represent a really difficult thing to do and will drive the body into a need for recovery and adaptation.
A first time marathon runner might struggle in the last two miles of their 12, 14, 16 and 18 mile runs, each one after the other. And each time they may think “why isn’t this getting any easier?” In truth, it is getting easier as they likely wouldn’t have finished that 18 mile run at all had they not done their 12, 14 and 16 mile runs first. Each run just feels “hard”, because as they “get out to the end of their distance” as I like to say, the difficult part kicks in. The “end of their distance” keeps moving out as the season progresses, but as we near it each week we get hit with new waves of struggle and hard effort.
A more advanced runner might run 16-20 miles every weekend and this might not phase her. Here her difficulty may be in increasing the pace progressively over the last few miles of the run or running a time-trial two-mile effort at the end of an 18 mile run. Or more simply, their tough workouts may not come in their distance workouts at all, but in shorter tempo runs and track workouts that really punish them in other ways.
And even our best professionals and Olympians struggle in their workouts too. I recall talking to one of our top Olympic athletes that described days when he was “totally wasted” and in which he just had to take breaks because the pace was so punishing. I recall reading recently about a professional Ironman athlete doing a 20 x 1,000M on the track AFTER riding a 140KM time-trial. That’s going to hurt, I don’t care who you are.
The story that I related to my athlete this weekend as an illustration of this point goes something like this: on Saturday I had planned to run 22.5 miles off-road. The course was an out and back 11 1/4 mile course. The first five miles went up hill and then the next six went downhill. Well, I ran that six miles down hill way too fast — pushing the pace down close to my race pace. When I turned around I then had to drag myself back up those six miles, slowing by almost two minutes per mile. To make things worse, I dropped a couple of gel packs somewhere along the trail and ran out of fuel with eight miles to go. I ended up walking a few of the up hills and really had to push to get through that run. I’m happy to say that I did it, but it was a major struggle to complete.
My point here is that the struggle never goes away. Whether beginner or advanced, all the way up through the most elite levels, there is always going to be a “hard” component of our marathon training. If you are committed to this path, then it will never be an easy journey. Once the path becomes easy, we are no longer growing and challenging ourselves. As you reflect on your struggles, know that the struggles may never stop and that it is through the struggle that we become better athletes.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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