While I enjoy those relaxing runs that feel fantastic from the first step, I’ve come to realize that if not for hard workouts, I probably would not love running so much.
Don’t mistake me: running at any effort is a gift, a joy. But there’s something fulfilling about those runs that make you feel the scorching sensation of hard effort your lungs and your legs. Part of what brings me joy in running are the workouts and races the produce discomfort.
The temptation always exists to avoid suffering. In many ways, avoiding suffering is vital to our survival. But in many areas of life, avoiding mental and physical discomfort stunts growth. Suffering itself may not be good, but it certainly produces goods of character, fitness, achievement, livelihood, and more in our lives.
This truth is particularly salient in the world of running, training, and racing. You will not see many improvements if you remain within the tight circle of your comfort zone.
Hard workouts – long runs, speed intervals, hill repeats, tempo runs – force the mind and body out of the comfort zone. There’s nothing pleasant about the labored breathing, burning muscles, and mental focus that these workouts demand.
Yet for all the suffering, for all the discomfort and ache, hard workouts offer great rewards.
These workouts teach you to embrace that burning, unsettling discomfort that sets into your muscles. They teach you how to overcome the part of your mind that begs you to slow down or stop.
I can tell you all about the physiological benefits of doing speed work, even in marathon training. But those benefits only scratch the surface of what you will gain in terms of character and mental strength when you embrace hard runs in all their sweaty and uncomfortable fullness.
Over one year had passed since I last ran 5K-paced mile repeats. I had done 10K paced mile repeats in half marathon training, but there’s quite a difference between 5 x 1 mile at 10K pace and 3 x 1 mile at 5K pace. As a distance runner, 5K pace is naturally a bit terrifying. That’s really unpleasantly fast for someone who prefers to run long and steady.
Not only is it fast, but we can all attest that a mile can be quite a far distance when pushing the pace.
The last time I did a 3 x 1 mile workout was during Hansons marathon training. I did that workout on the treadmill because I was worried about hitting the paces. In fact, during that training cycle I did all of my VO2max workouts/5K pace workouts on the treadmill. I was worried about not hitting paces and wanted an easy way to quit if the workout went poorly.
As of recently, I’ve been focusing more on tuning into my effort and doing hard workouts on the roads for an accurate reflection on my fitness.
Since you set the pace on the treadmill, you can either set it too hard and force your way through the intervals, or set it too low because you doubt your ability. And, honestly, it often is biomechanically more difficult to run fast on the treadmill. The belt length alters your stride rate and length and the hamster wheel effect takes a mental toll.
That doesn’t mean that speed intervals are any easier on the road. But they’re not supposed to be easy – they are supposed to burn your lungs and your legs and make you force yourself to keep pushing hard when the alternative of slowing down sounds much more appealing.
Mile repeats are even more arduous when the wind pushes you back, adding resistance to each step. Speed work outdoors means speed work in the elements. In the places I’ve lived and run (northwest Indiana, Saint Louis, and now the Seattle area), these elements include humidity, wind, and rain. Humidity, wind, and rain all slow you down, all make the challenge of a speed workout even more physically demanding and mentally taxing.
These mile repeats were not easy; if they had been, I would have been running them wrong. The wind fought against me and I fought to sustain that hard effort for just less than 7 minutes, only to run hard again and again once my breathing calmed.
But at the end of the run, as always, I was grateful that I had done the challenging workout, that I had endured and embraced the discomfort of mile repeats.
And if you’re been avoiding hard runs, I encourage you to embrace their discomfort.
It’s an often repeated cliche, but it’s appropriate: running serves as a teacher of life’s lessons for many of us.
Physical discomfort can be a good in our lives: it teaches us grit, patience, perseverance, resilience, and even compassion. We learn to get mentally comfortable with being physically uncomfortable. We learn that hard work bears rewards. And we learn how to better relate to others, because those hard workouts are a common runner experience, whether you have been running for one month or fifty years.
Linking up with Thinking Out Loud!
What types of runs intimidate you the most?
How do you cope with discomfort during a run?