Why and how to run by effort: a primer

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


You don’t need a watch on race day if you practice running by effort in training

As anyone who is or has been coached by me knows, I usually target effort in workouts. I often assign workouts such as mile repeats at 10K effort or a tempo run at half marathon effort or 1/2 mile repeats at 5K effort. While some people naturally gravitate toward working in accordance to efforts, I think I drive others crazy. "What pace should I be running?" "Should this by my target pace or the pace I think I could run right now?" "I don’t know my 10K pace/effort."

As I usually do my best to explain, what I’m targeting is truly effort, not pace. I want them to become more independent, not as reliant on the watch or whatever other aid they may prefer and more reliant on themselves and their bodies’ responses to their efforts.

But why do I prefer to prescribe workouts by effort and not pace or some other parameter and how do you do a workout by effort?

Why do workouts by effort?

In my opinion, there are a lot of good reasons to focus on effort, not pace or some other parameter, but I’ll focus on a few key reasons.

Training by effort allows you to refine your ability to race by effort: Running by effort, whether in a training environment or a racing environment, is a skill. Just like all skills, it needs to be practiced. There are some race day skills that can only be developed on race day. For those we can develop in training, we should to the fullest of our ability.

But why race by effort?

Training and racing by effort allows you to better handle variables out of your control: You’ve trained through this brutal winter we’re having. You know what paces you’ve been running but, when the better weather of spring rolls around and your first race shows up on the schedule, what do those winter paces mean? Nothing. You know you’re more fit than those paces. Further, what if the race course is more or less hilly? What if it’s windy, unseasonably warm or you’re dealing with some other weather variable? Paces can lose a lot of meaning in many scenarios. However, if you know what the effort should feel like, that’s a constant you can rely on.

Running by effort removes your susceptibility to technical glitches: Batteries, especially for high tech devices, wear down rapidly. What happens if your GPS device battery dies on you? What happens if your GPS device doesn’t lock into satellites correctly? Everyone I have talked with about this has had at least one run where their paces and splits were all screwed up or their battery died on them. What do you do if race day is that day for you?

How do I do workouts by effort?

The idea is to think of the workout you’ve been prescribed and break it down into its components. Then, target each component to its corresponding segment of the first 1/2 to 2/3 of a race.

For example, if I saw 3×1 mile at 10K effort, that first mile should feel just like the first mile of a 10K, that time where you are definitely extending a good effort but you’re still feeling controlled, relaxed and smooth. The second should feel like the second or third miles of a 10K, that time where you’re working hard, you’re breathing hard but it’s still rhythmic and controlled and you’re settling into a tough but controlled pace. The final mile should feel like the third or fourth miles of a 10K, that time where you’re pushing pretty hard, challenging yourself, but you’re still under control, you still feel like you have some gas left in the tank for those last 2 miles. As I also mention often, I think almost every workout should be finished feeling like you could have done at least one more repeat if you had to. You may be simulating a race effort but you’re not racing. Save the feeling of the last mile or half mile of a race, that all out effort to reach the finish line as quickly as possible at all cost, for race day.

If I saw 8×1/4 mile at 5K effort, I’ d break it down to each repeat corresponding to its 1/4 mile segment of the first 2 miles of a 5K. For the first, I want to get out quick but be under control. For the second through the fourth, I want to work the pace but stay under control. For the final 4, I want to dig deep but feel like I have something left.

The most important part, though, is that I don’t want to get too caught up in my splits. I don’t want to target a pace. Maybe I’m tired from the past week’s training and my paces are a little off what I think I could run in a 5K race right now. That’s fine. I know what I’ll be capable of on fresh legs. What matters is I just simulated the effort I was targeting in this workout.

Give it a try next time you’re planning your workouts. Target a race effort and don’t worry about the splits, just aim for the effort. There will be a learning curve but getting on that curve in your workouts just might help you to a better result when race day arrives.

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