hard workout first

Which Comes First: Hardest or Easiest Workouts?


By Jason Koop
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

When I first met my wife, Liz, she was training for the Durango Half, her first half-marathon. Like many before her and since, she had picked up one of Jeff Galloway’s books on running. She had dutifully started her training with a single mile, then two, then three, etc., and was excited for race day. It turned out Galloway, who’s training methods famously focus on a run:walk ratio, was appearing at a book signing in Durango around the event. Wanting to impress this beautiful woman I’d only known for about two weeks, we went to Durango and I introduced her to the author of the training plan she’d been using. He was warm and gracious as she told him how much she loved the training, even as she told him, “I do everything but the walking parts.” That’s like telling Gordon Ramsay you like everything but his food.

It was certainly not the first time Jeff had talked to a novice runner who had fallen in love with the workload part of his program and dismissed the recovery part. Thankfully for Liz, and many beginners, the volume of workload was low enough that doing all of the running and none of the walking didn’t lead to injury. Instead, the progression of workload (one mile, then two miles, then three miles, etc.) was enough to cause adaptation and improve fitness. And that works well for beginners, but only for a little while.

Beginner habits aren’t for experienced runners

The common way beginner training plans work is to start with short or easier training sessions, then add more time or intensity in subsequent workouts. The notion is that if you can run one mile this week, then your body will adapt and be able to run two miles next week, then three the following, etc. This also gets applied to interval workouts. This week you can do six hill repeats, so next week you can do seven, and the week after you can do eight. The term for this is ‘progressive overload. In the beginning, progressive overload works, but almost by definition, ultramarathon runners are not untrained or novice athletes.

Do the Hardest Workouts First

As an ultramarathon athlete, you are better off completing your hardest workouts (like the 8 hill repeat workout mentioned above) when you are most rested, and then backing off the volume of workload (like the 6 hill repeat workout mentioned above) as you accumulate fatigue over time. For instance, let’s say you are working on pace at lactate threshold with 10-minute TempoRun intervals, and with your current fitness you can five 10-minute intervals at 7:00min/mile pace. The first workout of your training block should be 5 x 10-minute TempoRun at 7:00min/mile pace. As you go through the training phase, the specific workload for each workout should gradually go down.

What “Do the Hardest Workout First” Looks Like

Four weeks of an athlete’s training plan are described below. The highlighted days define the block of interval training they have scheduled.

Week 1-

  • Monday- Rest day
  • Tuesday- 1:45 Endurance Run with 5X10 min Tempo, 5 min RBI
  • Wednesday- 2:00 Endurance Run
  • Thursday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Friday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Saturday- 2:30 Endurance Run with 5X10 min Tempo, 5 min RBI
  • Sunday- 3:00 Endurance Run

Week 2-

  • Monday- Rest day
  • Tuesday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Wednesday- 1:45 Endurance Run with 4X10 min Tempo, 5 min RBI
  • Thursday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Friday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Saturday- 2:30 Endurance Run with 4X8 min Tempo, 4 min RBI
  • Sunday- 3:30 Endurance Run

Week 3-

  • Monday- Rest day
  • Tuesday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Wednesday- 1:45 Endurance Run with 4X8 min Tempo, 4 min RBI
  • Thursday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Friday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Saturday- 2:30 Endurance Run with 3X8 min Tempo, 4 min RBI
  • Sunday- 4:00 Endurance Run

Week 4-

  • Monday- Rest day
  • Tuesday- 60 min Recovery Run
  • Wednesday- 60 min Recovery run
  • Thursday- 60 min Recovery Run
  • Friday- New phase begins

The figure below illustrates how the above training plan appears in WKO4+. Using TrainingPeaks software and terminology, the pink line is “Acute Training Load”, or more commony referred to as ‘fatigue’. The higher the pink line, the more fatigued you are. The blue line is “Chronic Training Load”, or more commonly referred to as fitness. The higher the blue line, the more fit you are.

(For more on Acute and Chronic Training Load, go see this excellent article).

hardest workout first

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Weekly minutes at TempoRun intensity decline from 100 minutes the first week to 72 and then 56 minutes. The rest of the weekly workouts stay relatively constant week to week, with a little time added to the weekly long run. Yet, despite performing fewer minutes of hard interval work each week, the trendline of the athlete’s acute training load gradually increases. Chronic training load, or fitness, also increases over that the period.

Note, doing the hardest workout first is not a license to smash yourself over the head with some ridiculously hard workout that leaves you groveling at the side of the trail and takes a whole week to recover from. But, being an experienced athlete (or if you are working with an experienced coach) you should generally know what you are capable of in any single workout. When starting a phase, I usually have my athletes aim for something that is ~80-90% of what they can do maximally. In the above example, that means they could do 5X12 min Tempo at the same pace/intensity, but it would wipe them out for a whole week.

What about working through fatigue?

Take the training program above and flip it around. You’d start with 56 minutes of TempoRun, and then build to 72 minutes. To finish off your training block you would then tackle 100 minutes at TempoRun at the end of the phase. Now think to yourself, ‘is there actually any improvement that is realized from week one to week two and from week two to week three?’ The answer is no. For experienced athletes, improvements take weeks to realize, not days. From week one to week two to week three, there is no improvement. You only realize improvement after a rest phase.

When athletes apply this type of progressive workload training model they end up with the hardest and/or longest workouts when they are most fatigued. This is a huge problem and mistake many athletes and coaches make. It can be a costly mistake as well as doing the hardest workout last can be a source of overfatigue and injury.

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What You Should Do

Look at your training plan as it currently sits. Ask yourself these questions-

  • Where is (are) the hardest workouts(s)
  • When will I be the freshest (or most rested)?
  • When will I be the most fatigued?

We ask these three questions more than any others when we review training plans at CTS. In fact, our coaches know if they can’t immediately answer all three of these, to the dog house they go.

If the answers to question one and two are the same, you are good to go. If the answers to one and three are the same then I am sorry to say ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

Fortunately, the fix is easy. The concept of “do the hardest efforts first” applies within weeks, months, and sometimes entire phases of training.

  • Within a week: If you do back-to-back long runs, position that two-day block after a 2-3 period of rest.
  • Within a block: As with the example above, do the highest volume of workload early in the block when you are the most fresh.

Comments 10

  1. Pingback: Jason Koop's Top 3 Most Effective Ultramarathon Training Tips - CTS

  2. Pingback: How Block Training Can Help or Hurt Ultramarathon Training - Jason Koop

  3. Is this the same concept you use with cycling as well? If so, would it be more specific for the type of riding or races that I am training for?

  4. Thanks for the article – I’m wondering if this is unique to runners or if you see this as applicable to ultra distance cycling as well. My training plans for cycling have my harder workouts later in the cycle, not first. My first one back from a rest block are shorter intervals (same power zone) than the end.

  5. I would say you come back starting slowly, and then build up as you get stronger. Once you are back in shape, then you follow the above with hardest after rest. Do not be over eager. You will go back to injured state. The biggest problem with runners is that they do not listen.

    1. I just went through this with my CTS coach.

      She was very careful that I rehab in a way that didn’t “refresh” the injury. I was off for 2 1/2 months with a foot injury. Once I was cleared to run, the workouts were light with lots of walking.

      Once she and I were comfortable that the injury was completely healed, she began adding more training load.

      Her continuous refrain was “go easy!” But now that the foot is whole again, the process described above is happening.

      If you’re not already working with a CTS coach, I would HIGHLY recommend it.

    2. Warren is right. If you are coming off an injury or layoff, you can get away with some sort of gradual progressive overload. But the more fit you are, the more that strategy will be ineffective

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