There are two extremes that we are urged to avoid in training – going too hard and going too easy. If we go too hard, or go hard too often, something is going to break. If we go too easy, or go easy too often, we simply will not grow, and may even lose some ground in strength and fitness.
And there is a third extreme that we are urged to avoid – working out in that middle zone between those two extremes, training with no variation too much of the time.
The point is that we need to have each in the exercise diet, in proportion to the kind of strength we need to build.
Working in the hard zone is difficult because we immediate face an intensifying urge to quit. It is extremely uncomfortable. Most people need to train with others, or train under a coach, or at least have a training plan that assigns hard workouts so that they can get some external pressure to do the necessary hard work their fitness goal requires.
The middle zone is really seductive. In that zone it’s just hard enough to feel a some resistance, which makes us feel like we are really working, and leaves us feeling nicely tired and satisfied that we’ve been productive with our time. But the workout was not so hard that we had to exert great will-power to make ourselves do it, or to keep going until the end.
But strangely enough, the easy zone can be really difficult to stay in too, when it’s time to work there. It takes a different kind of will-power to make ourselves go slow and easy, against the internal and external expectations we may feel to speed things up.
Take It Easy On Easy Days
That’s where I am finding my greater challenge right now. Currently in training, I am focused on building strength to accomplish a solo, self-supported, 12+ hour run at higher-elevation. Though I want to maintain some base level of swimming fitness, I have limited time and energy each week. I have to give my best energy to my training runs and I need to rest enough to recovery from those. Swimming needs to support this goal and not compete with it. So now I swim maybe two times per week and these need to be used as active recovery exercise from my runs on the other four days.
Often I get in the pool and after warm up, I feel that wonderful urge to increase the intensity of my swim, because it really feels good during and satisfying afterward to do longer or harder swim sets. But this winter, even while my running mileage and intensity was suppose to be lower, I found that I was still swimming too hard, not recovering enough, not ready for my next run practice, because I had not allowed my cardio-vascular system to rest and refresh enough on the day between. Now it is spring and my assigned running mileage and intensity is gradually increasing. I have to exercise even more restraint in the pool to find that fine line between getting good stimulation for my base level of swim fitness and strength while not raising my heart rate too much, or for too long, so that I can recover from it within a few hours.
But out on the road, it is even more challenging for me to go easy on the easy-run days, or to stay slower on the long-slow days.
Sometimes I feel impatience, just wanting to get through the assigned distance sooner. Sometimes I feel external pressure, from having other runners pass me while I am going so slow. Sometimes I just feel more energetic and want to let it flow into faster or more aggressive movements.
Going Slow Requires Maturity
I have to practice mindfulness in running slowly. I have to stay in the moment, not counting the miles or minutes until I finish. I have to keep attention in each step, keeping them small, light, and quick, maintaining best form in a more compact pattern. I have to stay on the very fine edge of falling forward with minimal lean – doing this at slowest speed is much more difficult than doing it at fastest speed. I have to monitor my breath, keeping it completely nasal, and see that my effort stays low enough that breathing through the nose feels easy. This is where a heart rate monitor is most useful to me, to confirm when I’ve lost form or restraint.
There’s no question in my mind that I am going to have to make myself keep working hard on that 12+ hour mountain run when I face that intensifying urge to quit. I am going to have to make myself keep going under stress later, so I am quite motivated to impose hard work on myself in my training plan now. But I am also convinced that it is in the best interest of my longevity as a runner to practice this restraint on the easy or slow days, with as much conviction as I practice pushing on the harder days. And, I understand that there are important physiological adaptations that take place because of easy and long-slow runs that will help me be even more comfortable under the stress of that long event. So, I know I’ve got to do those easy and slow runs with the same kind of excellence I expect of myself on the hard ones.
We might say that being able to make ourselves go hard when its time to go hard, is one aspect of athletic maturity. But we might also say it is an equally important feature of athletic maturity to be able to make ourselves go easy when it is time to go easy. We need to be strong and mature at both extremes.