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If we’ve been running long enough, we’ve all done it: we set out to do a workout, get 90% or more of the way through, and realize we should probably quit. But we don’t …and pay the consequence.
For me, the wake-up call was a day when I planned to run 10 x 300m at 1500m pace. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem. This time, at the end of the ninth rep, my calf was tight. But there was only one more to go. How tough could that be? More importantly, how big a wimp would I be if I pulled out with only one left?
So, I ran. And pulled the calf. A six-week setback, all because my ego told me to run that last repeat, when my body was saying “maybe not.”
Fast-forward a few years. Now I’m coaching an elite marathoner, just starting to come into her prime. She’s running a string of 400s, and looking good. Then, 100m into the final one, she pulls up. “Good enough,” she says.
I don’t remember exactly what it was that caused her to bail, though “hamstring” is most likely. What I do remember is being ecstatic, because she’d shown the discipline not to make the mistake I’d made in my 300s. That meant I could give her a tough workout — or better yet, specify a range based on how she was feeling—and trust her not to feel obliged to do the whole thing, no matter what.
Sometimes the Hardest Thing to Do Is Less
The discipline not to always do the max, I’ve come to realize, is one of the skills that can separate those who achieve long-term success from those whose careers are too often punctuated by injury.
The best often have the discipline to say, “Maybe not.” More importantly, they don’t feel like failures because they listen to their bodies. In fact, being willing to accept an “incomplete” workout as just the way it sometimes goes can actually give you the mental strength you need to tackle harder workouts in the future, because your entire ego won’t be on the line if you attempt something difficult enough that you might not get through the whole thing.
Conditioning yourself to do this, however, can be difficult.
Michael Caldwell, coach of ASICS Greenville Track Club-Elite, likes to approach it by setting workouts with a range of reps, “so the athlete has a choice, depending on how they are feeling.” For example, he says, he might assign 10 to 12 1,000m repeats on the track, or 6 to 8 more intense repeats on an 800-meter hill. Sometimes athletes struggle to make the minimum, he says, and sometimes they push on to complete the maximum.
What part of the range you fall into on any given day comes down to an array of factors. I coach an ICU nurse, for example, who works 12-hour shifts. During those, she’s mostly standing, generally on concrete. If she’s had a particularly rough shift, her legs are going to be trashed, and she’s going to feel it in her workouts, even the following day.
How to Train to Not Do the Max
One way to approach this is by fine tuning each workout before you start, based not just on your training goals but a realistic assessment of how you feel on that specific day. Doing this is hard, however, unless you have a coach to consult with at the start of every workout. “[It takes] constant communication,” says Ben Rosario, head coach of HOKA’s Northern Arizona Elite program and coach of Aliphine Tuliamuk, winner of the 2020 USATF Olympic Marathon Trials.
Supporting this approach, he adds, is the fact that races are at a set distance. “If you’re doing the 800m, you don’t get to stop at 700m and say, ‘I think I’m good for the day.’”
But he says, “It puts a lot on me, as coach, to get it right. Athletes don’t want to fail at a workout.”
A problem with setting a range, he adds, is that if the assignment is 8-10 repeats, “I think most athletes see it right away as 10.”
One such athlete is two-time Olympian Kim Conley. “My immediate reaction [is] that I’m wimping out [if I don’t do the max],” she says. But when she consulted her husband and coach Drew Wartenburg about this, he concluded that his most successful athletes were often those who wanted to do the max, but trusted him when he thought it better to hold back.
So how do you do this without a coach physically present to say “good enough; let’s call it a day”?
Paul Greer, coach of the San Diego Track Club, suggests taking each interval one at a time. If the assignment is to do 4-6 reps, he says, “I say that when they are on interval one, they are not thinking at all about intervals 5 or 6.”
He also urges runners to focus on maintaining quality and consistency. In that same case of 4-6 reps, he says, “if one of my athletes starts to fall off at interval 4 by more than 5 seconds, I pull them out of the workout myself.”
In other words, if you are slowing down (not just because you did your first rep ridiculously fast and needed to adjust) your body is telling you something. Call it a day, get a massage, take a day off—whatever you need.
But there’s another important point. You often hear elites talk about how they did well in a race because their workouts were tougher than the event itself. Don’t believe it. Their track workouts were undoubtedly tough. But a workout isn’t a race.
“My golden rule is that you never leave your race effort in a workout,” Greer says. “The mindset is that if I were to ask them to do one more, they would be able to attempt it.”
My own take on this is similar. At the end of a workout, I tell runners, you should never be so tired that if I held a gun to your head, you couldn’t do another rep at the same pace. But you should also be glad I’m not going to ask you to prove it.