Anyone else have a ton of nice Dri-Fit t-shirts for road races they didn’t actually get to run?

For a lot of us, just getting to the starting line can be a huge challenge.

After trying to coach myself to a few races several years ago, I started to notice a frustrating pattern: I would feel really fit about 6 weeks prior to each race, and get excited about what that meant for how fast I’d be come race day. But about 2-3 weeks before every race, something would happen: I’d plateau, I’d get injured, or both. I’d notice that the same paces were getting harder to hold. Running took more effort and I didn’t feel as fluid. I’d get frustrated with myself and my body, convinced I had to stop being a wimp and just push through the planned workouts. Soon enough, something would hurt - often to the point of being forced to stop running temporarily.

How was it that I could be and feel so fit just a few weeks prior, then suddenly have everything fall apart? I was following my training plan perfectly, getting out there and working hard every day regardless of how I felt, oftentimes running faster than the prescribed paces.

Turns out, all of that was part of the problem.

I was stuck in a cycle of overtraining. Train really hard, get injured, miss race, get back to running, train really hard to get fast quickly again, get injured, on and on. Now, many things factor into overtraining, including but not limited to training intensity, volume, & frequency; recovery essentials (sleep, nutrition, nutrient timing), and daily life stressors. I want to focus on training intensity today.

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Training intensity refers to your effort level relative to your maximum. It’s often quantified in runners using percentage of maximum heart rate (% HR max) or rating of perceived exertion (RPE). I wasn’t using a heart rate monitor during this time, and just ran by feel - which ended up being an effort of 5-6/10 most days of the week, when I was really honest with myself. Ever since my college running days, I have a set pace in my head that should be my ‘easy pace’ - even though I haven’t been consistently training since then. This self-proclaimed ‘easy pace’ likely correlated to running above 80% of my maximum heart rate for the majority of my training…which is not a good place to be if your goal is longevity and improvement.

Chronic, moderately-high levels of stress (that 5-7/10 effort level in training) leads to burnout, overtraining, and injury. Now that I’m aware of it, I see this in a ton of runners - they want to push themselves every day in order to get better. We understand that we don’t need to go all-out every day, but we still end up running in this somewhat-hard zone that isn’t sustainable over time. More time needs to be spent in lower-intensity training - those efforts that are conversational, that you feel you could keep up for hours even if you’re only running for 45 minutes. This zone of effort has lots of benefits with low stress - it conditions your heart, helps with injury resistance, and leads to adaptations in the muscles that make you more efficient.

So how do we do this?

Start off by being very honest with yourself. What pace is actually “conversation pace” now? I had to ask myself if I was holding onto my former easy paces because of my pride? Since I had certain paces so entrenched in my mind and intertwined with my value as a runner, I opted to start using a heart rate monitor to control for intensity.

Heart rate training can be beneficial in scenarios like mine - it helped me control pace by setting a heart rate goal based on my estimated maximum heart rate (using data from a 5K race). Using heart rate and comparing that to my paces also shed light on how much I had been overreaching in past training cycles, leading to under-recovery and eventually injury.

Once you’ve established a true easy or conversational pace, most of your training should be done at that speed. Stephen Seiler, PhD, a scientist and researcher, studies and discusses elite endurance athletes’ training practices. His research has found that an 80-20 ratio of low to high intensity training provides good outcomes as far as balancing stress with recovery for improved performance. That is, that 80% of your training is done at that conversation-pace effort, with the remaining 20% at a high intensity that’s pretty uncomfortable.

What percentage of your training do you think is in the ‘pretty uncomfortable’ range?

Oftentimes, the runners with whom I work are running in this middle zone of discomfort, where they don’t fully realize the benefits of the lower zones or the higher zones because they’re stuck in the grind of this moderately-hard effort with poor recovery. At the same time, we don’t JUST want to do low-intensity training - we need harder runs or portions of runs sprinkled in appropriately to really see improvements.

No doubt, this can be difficult to self-manage - this is where a coach can be especially helpful. A run coach helps you stay controlled during your runs, and can also help navigate the aches & pains of running. Click below to work with me to get out of the injury cycle and perform at your best!