By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Let’s face it, for many ultrarunners have been feeling stuck in a rut over the last several weeks. You might be getting bored of the same loops, running by yourself, and slipping your mask on and off as you pass other runners. And all that has been in an effort for what payoff, exactly? Many races have been cancelled and the remaining 2020 racing calendar is ambiguous, at best. Some athletes have been able to apply motivational band-aids through a patchwork of virtual races, self-concocted challenges and backyard explorations. These solutions are nice stop gaps, but the fact of the matter is that the novelty of these will eventually wear off.
As I’ve written about in the last several weeks, the real key to avoiding this stalemate in your training is to have a clear WHY, to ADAPT to the situation, and to play the long game. However, I realize that these three concepts are esoteric and take time to cultivate. The reward is worth the effort and the athletes I work with who are grounded in these concepts have not skipped much of a beat. If you are still trying to flesh out exactly what these mean for you, I encourage you to continue on that path. Those things should take time to process and develop. At the same time, there is a here and now that needs to be addressed, so let me offer up ONE workout you can do that will make a difference.
First, pick at time
If you are reading this article on Tuesday morning trying to distract yourself from your first work-related task of the day, put your coffee down and go to your calendar immediately. Find a 60-minute period of time you have open TODAY and set yourself an appointment to run. That’s all you need to do, pick a time, set it aside. Don’t get caught up in what you are going to do during that run. Do not pass go. Don’t even read the next sentence before you go and make that appointment for yourself. It’s OK, I’ll wait…..
Finished now? Great!
Now, do this workout
I will let you in on a little secret. If your training has been lackluster, sporadic and haphazard, your long-term training architecture does not mean squat. In any normal universe, I put copious amounts of time into planning an athlete’s long range plan, each individual week, and their daily workout structure. For these athletes, improvement is hard to come by so the details matter. If you have been consistent with training, the structure of the overall season, individual months, weeks and workouts makes a difference. But for many, consistency is now out the window and so is the need for any complicated (yet effective) architecture. If you are in the latter group, I am going to propose a much simpler, yet effective workout to place in that one-hour time slot you just set aside.
I guarantee you won’t need pencil, paper, training log or automated timer to remember what to do. I’m not even going to prescribe pace, a heart rate range, RPE target or any of the like for this particular workout. None of those detail matters right now so I’d rather not overcomplicate the whole ordeal. So, here’s your workout for today:
Step 1- Run easy for 10 minutes
Step 2- Run hard for 20 minutes
Step 3- Run easy for 10 minutes
That’s it. No overly contrived warm up consisting of strides, drills, dynamic stretching, neuromuscular activation routines or psychological framing. No complicated interval structure with float recovery periods or variable interval lengths to keep track of. No target pace, heart rate or RPE intensity ranges. Any shoe in your running quiver will do the trick. You don’t need to pack your hydration vest and you certainly don’t need a post workout protein shake. Skip all that nonsense and just run easy, run hard and run easy again.
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Why this workout? Don’t think about it. If you are stuck in a rut, you need to act more and think less. It’s not going to make a difference if you are 2.1947% below your VO2 max heart rate range or if your warm-up consisted of 5 strides instead of 6. Normally that nuance is (debatably) important. But you are not in a normal time right now. So, just do it. Run, make some of it hard, then build off of that.
Why this simple workout works
The reality is that this workout strikes a balance between challenge and accessibility. From a physiological standpoint, the timeframe for the hard part is short enough that you can and likely will run harder than your lactate threshold (most athletes can run for about 60 minutes at an intensity around their lactate threshold) and contains enough volume (20 minutes) at that intensity to elicit some positive response. If you are lacking peak fitness, are pre-fatigued from a run the day before, or just recovering from your all-night Netflix binge, that’s fine. You’ll just run a bit slower for the hard part. It will still yield improvement irrespective of your circumstances. Psychologically, it’s enough of a challenge to provide motivation, and upon completion you will have done enough work to reward yourself with a sense of satisfaction.
The workout is intentionally designed to be accessible. I guarantee you can carve out 60 minutes today, which is more than enough for the 40 minutes of running plus time to change, shower and get on with the day. While the warm up might seem compressed compared to your normal rituals, the fact of the matter is a shorter warm up is likely to get your body just as prepared for a hard effort (Barranco-Gil et al. 2020; McGowan et al. 2015; Zoudros, et al. 2017). Similarly, the cool down is thoughtfully compressed into a time frame that will allow you mentally transition from the harder task at hand back and back to reality without a moment of waste. If you are worried about lactic acid pooling in your legs, next day soreness or an increased chance of injury as a result of your condensed cool down, don’t fret. Those are all myths. In fact, you probably don’t need a cool down at all. Finally, you can do this on any type of terrain, uphill, flats, trail or road. It’s a true dealer’s choice.
Is the workout magic? No. Should you do this workout every day in lieu of smart training structure? Absolutely not. But particularly in these times, simple yet imprecise workouts that are good trump more precise workouts that might yield better results but are less likely to be completed. So set some time aside, go out there and get something done!
Barranco-Gil D, Alejo LB, Valenzuela PL, et al. Warming Up Before a 20-Minute Endurance Effort: Is It Really Worth It? [published online ahead of print, 2020 Mar 17]. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;1‐7. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2019-0554
McGowan CJ, Pyne DB, Thompson KG, Rattray B. Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications. Sports Med. 2015;45(11):1523‐1546. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0376-x
Van Hooren B, Peake JM. Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response. Sports Med. 2018;48(7):1575‐1595. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-0916-2
Zourdos MC, Bazyler CD, Jo E, et al. Impact of a Submaximal Warm-Up on Endurance Performance in Highly Trained and Competitive Male Runners. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2017;88(1):114‐119. doi:10.1080/02701367.2016.1224294