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Are We Too Soft?

Posted by on Jun 30, 2012 | 7 Comments

A few days ago I posted about my first tempo run in a few years. The response in the comments forum discussions was interesting. Quite a few people expressed surprise I was doing an hour-long tempo run. Several people recommended alternatives that involved either slower or shorter distances.

I thought the runs were rather modest. The first run averaged a 7:44 pace (7.76 miles) with an average heart rate of 164 (85% of max). My fast ultra friends run significantly faster (sub-six pace) and longer, which is painfully evident when I try training with them. In fact, every faster runner I know got that way by running at a fast pace over 6-15 miles on at least a twice-weekly basis. It’s not much of a secret- to race fast, you have to train fast.

What About Low Heart Rate Training?

Low heart rate training fascinates me. There’s little doubt it’s a great tool to build an endurance base, and building aerobic capacity (the ability to run faster at a lower heart rate) is very good. It will improve performance.

The question- will it improve performance more than dedicated speedwork?

Some believe it will, but I have yet to meet a faster ultrarunner (defined as anyone that routinely finishes in the top quarter) that got there using low heart rate training. I’m familiar with the few examples often touted… so and so ran some such time while maintaining a heart rate below the aerobic threshold.

But that’s a limited number of data points.

How many runners get to that top quarter with long, fast tempo runs? I do know quite a few people that either do low heart rate training or nothing but long, slow runs. They fall into two categories- either they don’t run ultras or they’re middle-to-back of the back runners. The long, slow runs are wonderful for building an endurance base. I’m already at that point, however. Now I want to get faster. In order to get faster, I have to do more rigorous speedwork beyond my mountain fartlek runs. It doesn’t take a statistician to do the math- long, fast runs are more successful at developing speed over distance.

Discomfort Aversion

Back to the original point. Why did so many people react negatively to my tempo run?

Could we be getting a little too soft? When we realized more pain does not equal better performance, did we go overboard and dismissed the effectiveness of pushing our boundaries? Have we unnecessarily vilified discomfort?

Don’t get me wrong- those that are running for recreation shouldn’t force themselves to do a workout they don’t enjoy. However, for those that are interested in maximizing performance, running longer tempo runs seems like a pretty good strategy. As long as we don’t cross the “overtraining” and injury line, there’s nothing wrong with faster, longer runs.

What do you think? Are we too quick to dismiss fast tempo runs? Why, especially when they seem to be so effective?

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7 Comments

  1. Patrick Sweeney
    July 9, 2012

    If you Run in Soft Sand you can can slow all day have a high heart rate and it will make you faster.

  2. chris
    July 2, 2012

    I like my easy “Maffetone” style running. I usually finish in the top 50% of all my ultras. I often crack the top 25%, but rarely above that (although I do get in the top 10% in Howl at the Moon 8-hour ultra when the conditions suck and people simply give up!).

    No doubt that speed work–tempo runs, intervals, hill repeats—will make you fitter and faster than just aerobic endurance running…as long as they don’t injure you.

    To each his or her own. If you are running happy, then you are running well.

  3. Brian
    June 30, 2012

    It’s not an either-or situation.

    Even the gurus of low-heart rate training (Maffetone, Lydiard) encourage you do speedwork once you have a base established.

  4. Who you calling soft?
    June 30, 2012

    I haven’t read the comments, but I’d be willing to bet that many of the people who were shocked at the idea of a 60 minute tempo run prescribe to Daniels definition of a tempo run, since it seems that that’s the definition that’s become the most widespread. That definition states that a tempo run is performed at the pace you could maintain for an hour-long race and is generally a 20 minute effort. A workout like that does wonders for your lactate threshold, which is why it’s so useful for 5K and 10K training. Of course, Daniels goes on to explain that you can extend the time while also slowing it down (and has a chart where he calculates how much you should slow down for the time added), which is obviously important to those racing longer distances. That’s how you end up with 12-16 mile MP workouts and such. Regardless, a lot of people tend to hear the words “tempo pace” and immediately think of that specific pace that you could sustain for a 60 minute race that is preceded by a taper and followed by recovery. Obviously not something you could just randomly throw in the middle of your training. I guess I’m not sure it’s people being soft so much as a misunderstanding.

    Along with long tempos, don’t discount cruise intervals, progression runs, and fast-finish long runs. Switching up the stimuli is good for your training.

  5. edh
    June 30, 2012

    Ugh you suck. A tempo run for me is 7-8mi max at an 8:20 pace. I cannot even fathom sub-8′s.

  6. Alex
    June 30, 2012

    If you’re racing anything above the half marathon, you’d be crazy to omit long tempos. Not only to they build relevant fitness, they callous you to extended discomfort. And let’s face it, in ultras, you’re going to hurt. You have to learn how to endure in more than one capacity.

  7. Bare Lee
    June 30, 2012

    long slow (which is short and really slow for you): great for getting into a zone and deep thought, especially when on a trail.
    Hills: great for the gluts. My wife appreciates this.
    Fartleks/intervals: great for getting a real workout–exhausting, gasping for breath, lactic soreness–like the kind you used to get in organized sports.
    I like all three.