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Posted: July 10, 2005
Science of Sport: Knowing When to Stop Your Workouts
The Running Research News Weekly Training Update - Issue # 45, July 9, 2005
I really felt it this morning! I had run very well for 70 minutes, cruising easily on forest trails, soaring up hills, gliding on the downslopes - with no traffic or other runners to thwart my 5:45-A.-M. progress. As I rounded the last corner leading to my house, with just a half-block to go, the urge suddenly became extremely strong: I wanted to keep going! My energy level had soared, and I felt very economical and powerful. I wanted to accelerate down the street, blast across the neighborhood park, and hook up with the nearby river trail for three to four more miles of hard running.
Instead, I fed my dogs, and I'm glad I did it.
Recently, I read a report about a running club whose members were very accomplished runners. The club coach was away on a trip, and so it fell to the runners themselves to decide upon the weekly workout. The most-experienced athletes cast their votes for 10 X 1000, at 10-K intensity and with short (~ one-minute) recoveries, as the session du jour, and the less-experienced harriers, not wanting to look like wimps, decided to go along.
The results were predictable. Many of the developing runners were "cooked" after 5 X 1000, kept trying, and were then dismayed to see their splits go south. They quit after six to seven work intervals.
Of course, the quitting was not particularly uplifting for their self-esteem. They watched the most-advanced runners keep churning out the 1000s and wondered why they had "failed" to keep going.
The top-level people finished all 10 intervals, but they, too, had a problem. Their legs were also "cooked", and the quality workouts planned for two days later were either completed at lower-than-expected intensities or had to be postponed for some future date.
The abrupt stop to my morning run and this club experience cause me to recall my boyhood in Sioux City, Iowa, when I always knew when to quit. True, I had some help from this revolving earth of ours. On summer nights, as dusk settled in and crickets cried, our communal baseball became more and more difficult to see. A line drive (or fastball) that whizzed by the face unseen was one reliable signal to stop. Another was the disappearance of the green-stained ball into tall outfield grass, with little hope of discovery until morning. But also - I possessed a very natural sense of when I had "had enough." Fatigue was a kind of strange but protective companion, reminding me that it was time to change activity and slow down a bit. I listened, because I hadn't yet learned how to drive myself past my own protective mechanisms.
The great coach Jack Daniels once said that runners should stop their high-quality workouts when they are feeling great, not when they have pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion, and I believe that this is terrific advice. While Jack's dictum might seem obvious, it is nonetheless true that too-many runners (and other athletes) pile excessive amounts of work into their high-quality sessions - and are very afraid to stop workouts "too soon" - when they are still feeling energetic and great. When workouts drive every last bit of bounce out of runners' legs, the probability that they will be truly recovered and ready for their next quality sessions diminishes greatly, and thus the intensity of subsequent workouts tends to fall unproductively.
There is also an unfortunate psychological change which can take place. When an athlete knows that his/her workout is going to be a prolonged "killer", he/she tends to focus on the (desired) end of the workout, instead of the most-important middle. Concentration is lost, and thus coordination, economy, and even speed fly out the window. In addition, a "taint" - an overall feeling of dread for upcoming workouts - gradually expands its grip on the athlete's mind. In short, training is no longer fun, and athletes who are not excited and who are without passion rarely perform at their highest-possible levels.
Because of such considerations, I stopped this morning, remembering that my ball had already rolled far into the tall grass. Five hours later, as I write this article, my legs feel great: they are sending me signals that they will be ready for another good workout tomorrow morning, and that of course is exactly what I want. Sometimes wimping out is a wonderful thing.
Training should be progressive, involving small-but-steady, incremental gains in fitness in response to well-planned and reasonable workouts. It should not be a process of annihilating oneself with overly heavy workouts - and then hoping for the best. Trust yourself, and trust the quality of the workouts you have designed: They will ultimately send you to your highest level of fitness, "even" when you consistently stop the sessions when you are feeling great.
One final note: We still have a couple of spaces available at our Malibu Running Camp, scheduled for July 19-24. To learn more about the camp and find out what happened at our June session, please go to http://www.maliburunningcamp.com If you would like to attend, please call 517-371-4897 or send an e-mail note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With very kindest regards,
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