When I was younger I would spend most of runs imagining myself accomplishing the dreams I rarely even had the courage to say out loud: winning a state championship in high school, winning an NCAA national title when I was in college, passing everyone in the home straight to win the Olympic Trials – those types of dreams. As I’ve grown older and my competitive days fade in the rearview mirror I still have those visions every once in a while – you know, the one where the aging athlete makes a miraculous return and over comes all odds to make the Olympic team. However, more often than not I now find my mind visualizing the athletes I coach having those breakthrough races that put them in the places I always dreamed of being as an athlete. I suppose it’s the natural progression of my subconscious? I found it happening recently for the first time in a long time as I was trotting down a winding clay trail in the tall pines of Tallahassee. There is something about running through the woods that allows my mind to relax and wander in a way it doesn’t anywhere else.
Every year we bring our ZAP-Reebok elite athletes down to Tallahassee to get out of the ice and snow in Blowing Rock, and while the training environment is one of the best on the east coast, perhaps the greatest benefit is the energy our athletes take away from being in a new environment. Lack of variety is something that gets most people in a huge rut with their running, both emotionally and physically. A lot of people go out the door and do the same loop at the same pace every run. Not only can this take the joy out of running, it can have adverse consequences for your race performances. One of the things we stress with our athletes is to touch every surface and every speed every week. The variation in stimulus is what allows for continued development as a runner.
My parents both became runners later in life, not starting until they were in their 50’s, although they would probably scoff at being labeled “a runner” (that’s okay, they live outside the Running Journal region). They stick to a few miles a week to stay in shape, and despite the lack of performance goals my mother tends to develop problems with her back if she runs on pavement too much. I encouraged her to run on some softer surfaces, and lo and behold the problem went away.
From a health standpoint we should spend all of our time on soft running surfaces – grass, dirt, gravel – as they greatly reduce the impact forces absorbed by our bodies. The softer surface also demands more from our stabilizing muscles throughout our lower body and core. The uneven terrain improves strength and keeps us healthy. Pavement can be a good variation, especially if you compete on the roads as most of us do. Training for a marathon you should spend more than half your time, and most of your long runs, on the pavement. The variation of pavement can be good, but you should try to spend most of your time running on softer surfaces to keep your legs healthy and feeling fresh.
Touching every speed each week can mean a variety of things depending on where you are in your training. For someone just starting out building a base, the faster running should simply be done through strides a couple of times a week after easy runs. Even 6 x 20 second strides a couple of times a week will keep your body in touch with running faster and improve your economy even when you aren’t doing hard workouts. As you progress through your training the faster running should build to include tempo runs, fartlek runs, hill repeats, and more.
And to be clear I’m not saying do all those different workouts every week – one is plenty. If you’re reading this and thinking, “I have one speed and that’s as fast as I can run,” slowing down might be the speed you need to get in touch with. Easy runs are a critical part of a proper program, and if you find yourself running at near race effort every time out the door you will stifle your improvement just the same as someone who runs very easily every day. Variance is the key. If you are doing the same thing over and over every day and expecting a different result… well, let’s just say that’s not the path to running success.
In addition to the numerous physical benefits to adding some hills to your flat routine, strides to your easy days, easy days to your days, or some loops around the local soccer fields; the variety will engage you mentally in a way that will enhance your running experience. It’s the big reason CrossFit is so popular. It’s the reason most people don’t make dinner once a week and then eat off it for the next 8 meals (guilty!). And it’s certainly part of the reason we’ve done a winter training camp with our athletes every year for more than a decade. Whatever that change of pace is for you, it may rekindle something that has been dormant for a while like it did for me when I decided to take a trail through the woods and get lost in my thoughts for a while.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the March 2015 Issue of Running Journal