Let’s face it. Most athletes understand what it takes to succeed. It’s no secret, after all, that to advance your race readiness, you must put in substantial amounts of hard work. Yet don’t let this focus on hard work blind you to the crucial role easy days play in any training program.
It is important to distinguish between working hard during key training sessions and working hard during every training session. If there is one pitfall that many highly motivated athletes fall into, it is not respecting this distinction. This leads them into a “dead-end training zone” much to the detriment of their fitness progression.
By a dead-end training zone, I mean a training zone that is neither hard enough to produce a substantial training effect nor easy enough to allow for proper recovery between key workouts. This type of training devolves into that dreaded enemy of time-crunched athletes known as “junk miles” or “wasted workouts.”
To avoid the dead-end training zone, it is important to have a purpose for each training session. In addition, one must respect that purpose and adhere to the mantra of keeping the hard days hard and the easy days easy.
Keep in mind that fitness gains are achieved by applying an appropriate training stimulus and then backing off so the body can respond with a positive adaptation that leads to enhanced fitness. Around the middle of the twentieth century, Hungarian biologist Hans Selye termed this stress-response-adaptation process the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). The GAS along with the overload principle—which states that any new training gain requires a greater amount of training stress—form the basic foundation of training programs.
Yet what often gets lost in the application of these principles is the role recovery plays in the GAS. Although hard work in training is a necessary component of improved fitness (per the overload principle), hard work in and of itself is not sufficient. It must be accompanied by adequate recovery so that the body can positively adapt to the training stress by rebuilding stronger than before.
This is easy enough in theory to comprehend, but many ambitious athletes nevertheless fall into that pitfall of going hard every day or turning easy days into competitions with training partners. Even when training solo, it can sometimes be tempting to push the pace a bit on those recovery days when you are feeling good. “Why not?” you might think to yourself, “If I’m feeling good, I might as well push myself a bit since training gains come through hard work.”
What often happens, however, is that those easy workouts that morph into not-quite-so-easy workouts end up taking you into a dead-end zone where you are neither going fast enough to achieve a proper overload nor slow enough to allow for adequate recovery before your next hard session. These are the “junk miles” you want to avoid.
At best, you might carry a little extra fatigue into your next hard day. At worst, you might be unable to hit the training target in the next key workout due to inadequate recovery going into it. Instead of achieving the desired training effect to ratchet up your fitness level, you then need to wait until you are better recovered before trying again.
Remember, every workout has a purpose—including the easy days. The best way to ensure you are ready to work hard and get the most out of those key training sessions is to respect the easy workouts by keeping them easy.