A common fallacy in running is that more is always better. Runners tend to think that more miles are better, even when too much mileage can lead to injury. They perceive faster splits as automatically better. However, faster workouts are not better workouts. Running too fast on your quality sessions can lead to injury, stagnation, and mental burn-out.
Workouts are not time trials. Yes, it can be a huge confidence boost to see a fast split on the track or in a tempo run. There is an appropriate place in training for workouts that challenge you and push you far outside of your comfort zone in terms of pace. However, in the majority of your training, faster is not always better.
Workouts should be purposeful. You want to train in deliberate zones and finish with some reserve. Sure, you could run your mile repeats at 3K pace, but that misses the point when they are a cruise interval workout meant to be run at 10K pace.
Running faster than you should will not make you faster. If anything, it may actually slow you down over time. Deliberate, purposeful efforts lead to adaptation. Constant all-out efforts lead to stagnation because you are unable to recover.
Most workouts should feel smooth and controlled, even if they are challenging. Think of quality sessions as gentle prods, not big pushes. Races and time trials are big pushes. Workouts are stepping stones building up to those.
How do you know if you are running your quality workouts too fast?
You Consistently Fade In Your Workouts
Ever start off a workout and hit an awesome split in your first rep, only to then hit the wall just a few repeats later? That fade indicates overzealous pacing.
Yes, you will likely have a bad workout now and then. However, if you consistently fall off pace in a tempo run or slow down in the second half of an interval workout, you are probably starting out too fast.
The good news? This common pacing error is easy to correct with some simple approaches to pacing your speedwork. It’s a small tweak that I’ve seen yield big rewards to athletes. When approaching a workout, aim to run the first interval or first mile of a tempo with a sense of control. If you feel good, you can push yourself in the final few minutes or reps. Most of all, remember that it is always more beneficial to run slightly slower in a workout than too fast.
Your Races/Time Trials are Consistently Slower than Your Workouts Indicate
Yes, weather, fueling, and mindset can tank an occasional race. However, if you experience months or years of sub-par racing, you may want to reassess how you approach your workouts.
If you frequently run your workouts too fast, you leave your race in your training. Almost everyone knows that runner who always crush it in their workouts, with astounding paces. Yet when race day arrives, they falter, crash, and burn, with a race that doesn’t “show their fitness”. Sure, everyone has off days; but not at every single race.
Race performances and recent runs, not by an arbitrary goal, dictate training paces. You have to earn your training paces. You can run faster in training when your races or time trials indicate you are ready.
Speedwork Consistently Injuries You
A small percentage of runners cannot handle fast running. However, in a majority of cases, if you get injured from hard runs, you are most likely pushing your body inappropriately hard.
Running too fast can cause injury for a couple of reasons. First, chronic muscle damage leads to injury, not improvement. If you treat a tempo run like a time trial and then continue normal training, you may not recover fully from that effort. Continue this pattern for weeks and your body will start to break down.
Second, many runners use poor form when they run at too high of an intensity for too long. If you are straining to maintain a pace and start overstriding, you are more likely to incur injury. Quality sessions should be done at an effort appropriate enough to maintain good form throughout the whole workout. If your form falls apart, you are going too fast.
(Still worried about injury? Here’s how to run speedwork without getting injured.)
You Do Not Recover During the Prescribed Recovery Interval
Workouts are designed with intention – including the recovery interval. There is a rationale behind why some workouts include float recoveries (recoveries at easy to moderate efforts), others recovery jogs, and others standing rest.
The intensity of the work intervals correlates to the intensity of the recovery interval. For example, 6 x 1 mile at marathon pace/1 mile at easy pace uses a float recovery, while 6 x 800m at critical velocity will use a jog recovery. If you cannot maintain the intensity of the recovery interval for a majority of the workout, you are likely running too fast in your work intervals.
If you have to pause your watch or add on more recovery time, you likely pushed too hard for the purpose of the workout. It is okay, however, to stand or walk during recovery intervals (unless specified as a float recovery). Slow-twitch dominant runners respond best to jogging recoveries. However, fast-twitch speed monsters often need standing or walking recoveries.
You Dread Quality Workouts
Workouts push you outside of your comfort zone, but they should not hurt. Yet if you are pushing yourself at a gut-busting effort every week, you will come to dread your workouts. Dreading workouts is counter-productive to training. If you are not careful, this could lead to a serious case of mental burnout as well.
If you already dread workouts, you can reset your mindset. Quality workouts can be an enjoyable part of your training. Spend a few weeks focused on easy runs to allow your body to recover, then introduce effort-based fartleks. Learn to enjoy running fast without racing every interval.
The Solution to Better Workouts
The solution if you are pacing your quality sessions too fast? Learn to gauge your effort appropriately. Run a time trial and plug your results into a pace calculator. Whenever you run a workout, aim to be able to finish feeling as if you could complete another rep or few more minutes of tempo running. Give yourself time to master the skill; it will be a learning process, but the process will be worth it.
Do you struggle with pacing on your hard workouts?