I ran a progression run a couple weeks ago -- nothing new about that -- but I did it on the track, which brought back memories of a million hard tempo runs I ran last March. Coming off of Indoors last year, I was fired up about Heps and NCAAs, and I thought I had been missing something in my training, and that these were the key. John says that they’re certainly good workouts, but should only be done once every ten days or so, instead of up to three times a week as I was doing. By doing them on the track, I also lost sight of the true purpose of these workouts; instead, I was focussing on hitting splits, and if I was slower one week, I would work harder to try to make up for it.
I don’t normally take this approach, but it’s hard not to when working out on the track and you know exactly how fast you’re going. So when I went to work out on Sunday, I hit the lap-split button every lap, but I forced myself to avoid looking at my watch. A few times I couldn’t help it and looked down, and was very surprised by what I saw. First 3200 covered in 11:57. Halfway through, still not breaking 80. Last Spring, by contrast, I barely ever ran a mile over 5:20 during a tempo, and if I did, it was only the first mile. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little disheartened.
I’ve been working out at this effort level the last month, but it’s all been on the golf course, where I usually didn’t know how fast I was going and could just focus on feeling good and running the right effort. I’m confident now that I did the right workout on Sunday -- and I felt quite good, closing the last two miles in 5:10 and 4:50. If I tried, I could work out at the same pace as I did last March, but it wouldn’t be effective.
Training’s all about the “bigger picture”. We tend to look at everything in isolation; this workout versus last workout, this race versus last race. All that happens when you play this game is reduced confidence, because fitness never follows a linear path, and workouts can serve different purposes.
Think about it this way: if you took five days down, just running easy mileage, you would feel great running 10x400 with 1 minute rest on the sixth day. If you instead did that workout after just a day or two down, it would be a lot harder to run the same splits, or for the same effort, you would run slower splits. They’re no longer the exact same workout. This is a naive way to look at it, but it serves its purpose: workouts depend on all the other training you’re doing around it. Thus, there is no one-to-one correlation between single workouts and races. You could run the same workout as last year, and run a different time at your next race. You could run slower splits on the workout, and run a faster race than the year before. Or vice-versa. You can’t know, just looking at a single workout.
The takeaway is that it’s about training smart, not hard. Don’t fall into the mindset that you have to hit specific splits to run a certain time in a race. It doesn’t exactly work like that. What's "training smart", then? I don't think anyone has a complete answer. Easier to say what it's not, than what it is.