How hard should your hard workouts actually be?

Most of us have come across a workout that tells us to ‘run hard’ for a prescribed length of time and wondered what, exactly, a hard effort constitutes. Is it a sprint? 5K pace? A half marathon pace? Should it just feel tough? All of these efforts can seem hard given enough duration. Many runners now follow the general rule of 80/20, but how hard should that 20 per cent actually be?

Like most great running (and life) questions, the answer falls somewhere firmly in the ‘it depends’ realm. Performance coach and author Steve Magness points to philosopher Nassim Taleb’s barbell strategy of economics when he explains that we should spend most of our time on either extreme (where the weight would be on a barbell) and stay away from the middle. In deciding how challenging your workouts should be, the same principle applies.

Eighty per cent of our workouts should be on the low-risk, low-reward side

This area is where consistency comes in (I know, I know, we said we’d talk about hard workouts–bear with me here). Magness has outlined his take on easy vs. hard efforts repeatedly, and his explanation seems to work for most runners, whether you’re training for a 5K PB or an ultra.

You’ll be able to run your hard workouts hard if you keep your easy sessions easy–easy workouts are simple, and you are able to accomplish them regularly without risk of falling apart in the workout. This builds a base, fosters good habits, and the workouts are what Magness calls “safe, consistent, small behavioral changers.”

Avoid the middle area

The middle of the barbell, where you log medium effort and gain medium rewards, should be avoided for the most part. If you’re like most runners, the middle ground is where you’ll naturally try to run, and it takes practice to both run slowly on easy days and put in serious efforts on challenging days.

As a coach, I was taught that the middle ground gives you the least bang for your buck. Running slowly most of the time has a multitude of benefits, allows us to recover quickly and will leave room for us to really push in the hard workouts we do; we follow a hard workout by recovering appropriately (or running easily).

Twenty per cent should be harder; with a few workouts a year extremely hard

Magness explains that the remaining 20 per cent of your workouts, your harder workouts, are tough but doable. For many athletes following a training plan these will make up one to two workouts a week.

Paces and efforts may be described as moderate, medium-hard, or hard, and you should feel like you’re putting in work–for a short interval session, this might mean you’ll feel slightly out of breath.

For a long interval session, this may mean you’re working hard to maintain a slightly faster-than-is-comfortable pace over a 15–20 minute stretch. Getting to know your ‘hard’ efforts takes practice, and it can help to ask yourself (or your coach, if you have one) what the goal or intention behind each specific workout is.

A few times a year, Magness recommends going really hard. “What I’d call a perspective changer, or as my athletes refer to as ‘see god days,'” Magness explains. “During these workouts, we want to go as hard as we can, and if we fail that’s OK. It’s all about seeing where our limits are and pushing our perspective of what is hard.”

By mixing the two extremes, the smaller moderately stressful workouts allow us to cement some of the changes from the perspective-changing workouts. Hard is different for everyone and may be different for you on two separate workout days depending on a multitude of factors (the amount of rest you’ve had, mental stressors, the weather).

You’ll become familiar with how challenging your speedwork should be through practice, and once you’ve experienced a ‘go see God’ workout, you’ll never forget the feeling.

posted Tuesday November 22nd
by Keeley Milne