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Re-Thinking The Hard-Easy Myth

Article By: Jack Farrell
Retired boys & girls cross country coach,
Thousand Oaks High School, Thousand Oaks, CA

One of the more enduring tenets of training for distance and middle-distance runners is the hard-easy approach. If there is anything approaching a given, this principle is it. In fact, it's been extrapolated to hard-easy weeks and many other ingenious applications. My guess is that the principle is borrowed from the sport of weight-lifting where it has a long and storied past, and where it certainly makes a good deal of sense. In laymen's terms, you tear down a muscle group with vigorous work and skip a day before you repeat that kind of intensity. During the rest, or recovery day, the body compensates by rebuilding the muscles. The theory is that the body will, in time, over-compensate, making the muscles stronger and capable of greater work. It seems only logical that the muscle groups inolved in running can profit from just such an approach. I spent a good many years working with young runners and assigning killer work-outs followed by easy recovery runs. For the last five years I have tried to use a radically different principle and have been very encouraged by the results. I now question the wisdom of the hard-easy approach as it applies to distance runner.

A good number of my runners got fairly fast using the hard-easy approach, as did the teams they were on. However, we all accept the fact that just about any training approach that stresses the organism will produce encouraging results, provided at least three factors come into play: 1) the coach believes in what he is doing, 2) the athlete believes in what he is doing, and 3) the athlete actually does it. What we are all in search of is the optimum way to produce results. Most coaches believe that there has got to be a better way to do it and that is a primary motivation for reading research articles and going to clinics. I took two years off from coaching in 1989 and 1990. During that period, I re-thought a number of the approaches I had used over the years. One result had troubled me. The athletes using the hard-easy approach seemed to run too hard on the hard day (far in excess of the stress of an actual meet) and then were relatively "trashed" on recovery day. Oftentimes I observed an athlete in more discomfort on the easy day than on the hard day. I began to question the deliberate disparity in these training sessions. Most of what we are attempting to accomplish with distance runners is in the area of cardio-pulmonary development, rather than leg muscle strength. Training sessions develop an athlete's oxygen uptake and that, more than anything, is the primary reason for the sometimes dramatic drops in race performances. Is a hard-easy approach the best way to develop oxygen uptake? Is it even relevant to the increase that needs to take place?

A breakthrough in thinking for me occurred one day when running with an adult friend of mine. We had been talking training when he suddenly simplified it all for me. He said, "You know it all comes down to frequency, intensity and duration." I'm sure he'd read that somewhere, but I had never seen it put that simply. I subsequently decided to fuse those three components of training with the idea that everything should be kept in balance. I would abandon, as much as possible, the hard-easy approach.

I experimented for a few months with my own running right before I returned to coaching in December of 1990. When I took over at the end of the cross country season and began an off-season program in preparation for track, I put the following program into place and have used it ever since.

A Balanced Approach to Distance Training

1. The three components of distance training would, as much as possible, be kept in balance.

a. Frequency How often an athlete trains
b. Intensity How hard an athlete trains
c. Duration How long (time), or how far (distance) an athlete trains

2. Once these three factors were set for a given runner, he would keep them constant for 30 training sessions (approximately a month). For virtually all runners, the frequency was set as daily and the intensity level was the comfort zone. Veteran runners began at either 4 or 5 miles a day. Novice runners started at 2 or 3 miles a day. Usually the girls ran one mile less than the boys.

3. Over-rest has just as negative an impact on development as over-training; it violates the principle of balance. Thus, if an athlete is going to run 42 miles a week, I would rather he runs 6 miles a day every day than 7 miles a day and take a day off. Not all my runners are able to do this, so I reward streaks with certificates, medals and plaques (at 30, 60, 90 days, 6 months and a year). Most of my runners are not able to put together streaks that surpass about 60 days, but that is a significant chunk of consecutive training days for a high school athlete (it can almost take an athlete through a complete cross country season).

4. Variety is achieved by selecting different courses which can be run forward and reverse. Virtually all of our courses have variations in distance from 2 to 9 miles.

5. The effect of this training is to make every day as close to the same intensity (effort) level as every other day. There are no really hard days. But there are also no rest or recovery days. Over a period of time, a runner should feel very nearly the same almost all the time.

6. The goal of this training is to lower the comfort zone, that is the pace at which an athlete can run gradually longer distances at a steadily decreasing pace. Theoretically, a runner beginning in June with 4 miles a day running comfortably at 7:30 pace should, by the end of the summer, be running about 6 miles a day at about 6:30 pace. His intenstiy level should have varied only marginally, however, his fitness level should have improved dramaticaly.

7. The most important training, even during track season, takes place on the roads. It is absolutely essential to supervise the road work, to time various segments and, at least occasionally, to have the athletes time the entire run to figure training pace. At the same time, runnrs must be continually reminded to run comfortably. When you first begin a program like this, and every time you bring in new and less experienced runners, there is a tendency to race the training runs and compete against themselves or each other, on set courses. This will not produce the desired result as, ironically, it does not seem to lower the comfort zone or produce significantly faster racing.

8. We do tamper with the principle of balance a couple of times a week as a concession to older training techniques which worked. We do a long run on Monday, however, it is only 1 mile beyond the average daily training distance. I experimented briefly, with one runner, going 2 miles beyond the daily average, but abandoned it almost immediately. One mile has worked very well for us and does not seriously jeopardize balance. Also, during cross country we do course repetitions, with timed rest for our varsity runners, during mid-week (on Wednesday when our only competition is Saturday and on Tuesday when we run Thursday and/or Saturday). The course repetitions are spliced into the daily run. We do distance runs the way basketball players do lay-ups. There are no days where we simply run course repetitions, or hill training, or track work, and then go in. There's a distance run every day. It is usually abbreviated so that the combination of this run and the repetition work does not exceed the average daily distance by more than 1 mile.

9. Racing is part of training. It is a mistake to think of the races as something different. In addition to being competition it is also a regular training day that's speed-oriented. It is the most difficult day to keep the average daily mileage in effect, especially for runners entered in the last race. Everyone always wants to pile on the bus and leave as soon as possible after this race. It takes some discipline on the part of coach and athletes to tack a small warm-down run onto that final race.

10. All distance runners basically run at the same gait regardless of pace. If you want to check this, count an athlete's strides as he runs a slow-warm up mile, then recount when he's running his usual pace on the roads, check again when he's running a repetition at race pace. You'll find that he's always striding at about 170-190 strides per minute. Exercise Physiologist Jack Daniels showed us an easy way to do this at a camp I attended a few summers ago. Count just one arm swing for 15 seconds. You'll find that in most runners it's about 22-23, regardless of how fast they are running. The significance of all this is that, as we lower our pace (let's say from 7 minutes per mile to 6 minutes per mile), we are not really turning the stride over faster, we are just bounding further with each stride. Stride length is the variable here, not stride frequency.

The factors which come into play in increasing stride length are leg strength, flexibility and oxygen uptake. The most important of these factors is the amount of oxygen the athlete can process. We've learned that lowering the comfort zone over time, keeping all other variables in balance, has the greatest impact on oxygen uptake. As our athletes move from 7-8 minute pace down to 6 minute pace and below, they are running with gradually longer strides, but with the same effort. Most of our athletes can race at about 1 minute or more per mile under their comfort zone. A varsity boys team, for instance, which can train comfortably at 6 minute pace, would be a formidable one indeed.

11. High school runners are still novices in the sport. The most we have asked is 8 miles per day on average. Once a runner reaches that plateau, he will stay there for the remainder of the season. Usually we start that runner back at 5 miles per day in the off-season, go gradually back up the ladder (30 training days at a time) and attempt to lower the comfort zone still further. What we have found over the years with our runners is that the pace in the comfort zone does drop over the 30 training sessions. When we adjust the duration (add a mile) there is usually no problem during the first week to week and a half. It's as if they could have always been running the longer distance. Sometime during the second week, 2 or 3 uncomfortable, flat runs will string together. Most of our runners simply tough it through. By the end of the second week the athletes are running comfortably again and the pace continues to drop even further. By the end of the second month, the pace at 6 miles per day is probably faster than at the end of the previous month at 5 miles per day. And the athlete is still running comfortably.

12. No one training session has that much significance; it's the mosaic--how the training is strung together. It's that one day as related to all the days that surround it.

I'd like to offer the example of just one athlete as anecdotal evidence. When I came back to coaching, Erik Spayde was a senior. He had just finished a cross country season where he had run 16:07 at Mt. SAC. He had finished 10th in the Ventura County Championships and 8th in the Marmonte League Finals, leading his team to a 7th place finish in an 8-team league. I started Erik at 5 miles per day and he ran comfortably at about 7 minutes per mile. He increased his mileage to 6 in January and 7 in February. He remained on 7 miles per day the remainder of the season, running 8 miles each Monday. His pace dropped to 6 minutes per mile about mid-season and even below near the championship meets. I recorded some interior miles on some of his runs at 5:30. He would run a 5 miler before each track session in about 29 minutes during the CIF meets. Erik lowered his 1600 time from 4:29 to 4:12.91. He had never broken 10 minutes for 3200, but went on to run 9:14.78. He had run 2:00 for 800 meters as a junior and lowered that time to 1:56.6. From 8th in the League in cross country, he became a double league champion in track in both the 1600 and 3200, a league which also had Jeff Wilson of Newbury Park (runner-up in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships the next year), Ryan Wilson of Agoura (and Arkansas), Fernando Mendoza of Channel Islands, as well as others. There were obviously a myriad of factors contributing to Erik's rise to prominence. However, I was so encouraged by what I saw in his training, and others I worked with that spring, that I have stayed with the same basic program I described above.

Thousand Oaks had boy's teams which won sectional championships on three occasions using the hard-easy approach ('80, '84, '86). Our best team time at Mt. SAC was 79:24, which was about 15th on the all-time list. The state meet in California did not commence until 1987. Using the balanced approach since 1991, Thousand Oaks has won 3 more sectional championships ('92, '93, '94) and two state championships ('93, '94). Those three years produced national rankings of 6th, 3rd and 2nd. The 1993 team set a state meet record of 78:58 at Woodward Park and scored a low 23 points in the state finals. The 1994 team broke the course record at Mt. SAC for a team time of 77:56, held by the 1993 squad, by running 77:09 (a 15:26 average). In the 1995 season, in her fourth year utilizing these training principles, Kim Mortensen won the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship in 17:12. During the 1996 track season Kim was able to post nation-leading times of 4:44.9 for 1600, 9:15.89 for 3000, and 9:48.59 for 3200, a new National Interscholastic Record. Kim spent most of her sophomore and junior years running comfortably at 7:00 pace. Occasionally she would drop her pace to around 6:45. By her senior cross country season, her comfort zone had dropped to 6:20 pace on the roads and dropped further to 5:55 pace during the latter half of the track season.

Obviously, not every athlete experienced anything like this success, but Kim typified the rationale behind the program. She looked about the same every day in practice. She stayed healthy and raced very consistently and at the very top of the sport.

There are a multiplicity of factors that play a part in the growth of an elite runner. However, the training sessions were no small part of the larger picture. At this point in time, I plan to continue applying these principles in the training of future athletes.

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