Embracing Intensity

Sometimes I am afraid of running.

It feels weird to type out those words. After all, I really do love running. I have been running at a competitive level for over 20 years now, but even after all of that time I still find myself feeling nervous about certain runs. I am always up for a nice, easy trail run or even a long run, but I am less enthused about speedwork. Back in my high-school and college days when I was training with a team, I would look forward to our high-intensity workout days. Those were the days when we would push each other and I could see the results of my hard work. As I made the switch to training mostly alone, I found myself skipping speed workouts or dropping out of them, feeling defeated. It was a cycle of negativity that made me dread the workouts even though I knew they were beneficial.

Although I believe that overall training volume and race-specific long runs are crucial aspects of successful trail racing and ultramarathon training, harder workouts are an important but often neglected piece of the puzzle. Coach Ian Torrence, who previously wrote the iRunFar’s coaching column, provided some great evidence for the benefits of higher intensity workouts in his articles about speed-based workouts and stamina-based workouts. To put it simply, running faster in workouts makes you a better all-around runner. Even if your goal is a 100-mile trail race, high-intensity workouts can improve your lactate threshold, VO2 max, and running economy. All of these factors can help make your ultramarathon pace much easier to sustain. As the Pikes Peak Marathon and Leadville Trail 100 Mile course-record holder, Matt Carpenter, once told me: “If you can run fast, running slow is easy.”

If the benefits of higher-intensity running are so widely known, why do I and others like me avoid incorporating them into a training plan? The biggest mental hurdle for me is the feeling of comparison. When I run a structured workout, I tend to compare my results to previous workouts. If I don’t run the same time I did in the past, I feel like I have failed. I also avoid them because I know they are going to be hard! Going out on an easy run is always going to be more pleasant than grinding away during a 20-minute threshold-effort run. While both of these things can lead to feelings of anxiety when I think about running a high-intensity workout, I have found several ways to help me overcoming these feelings.

Get the First One Out of the Way

The longer time I have between hard workouts, the more nervous I feel about getting back into them. As time goes by, I come up with more and more reasons why I don’t need to do anything harder. The workout becomes scarier the longer I put it off. However, as soon as I just get through a single workout I find it much easier to motivate myself to do the next one. I realize the effort was less painful than I had expected and I almost always feel a sense of accomplishment that motivates me for the next time.

Photo courtesy of Alex Nichols.

Fartlek Runs

Fartlek running is a simple and fun way to add some intensity into your running routine. Fartlek runs are a mix of fast and easy running. Fartleks don’t require any structure at all, which can take away that pressure to compare it to other workouts. Just run fast when you feel like it, and run easy for as long as you need to recover. I like to do these runs on a route I know well enough to pick out upcoming landmarks. I run hard to that landmark, recover, and then pick a new landmark. I enjoy the mix of shorter, faster segments along with longer steady-state efforts.

Time-Based Workouts

If I am getting back into harder workouts after some time away, I find it especially important to avoid workouts that are based on set distances. For example, instead of running mile repeats, I will ease back into something like sets of 3 minutes hard followed by 2 minutes easy. I will also intentionally avoid checking my pace during the workout. I try to only focus on my effort so that I can’t compare the workout to the paces I think I need to be running.

Mix Up the Route

To avoid feeling like I have to compare one workout to another, I will often try similar workouts on different terrain. A flat threshold run has its place, but a similar workout on more rolling or uphill terrain can be a nice way to add extra trail-specific stimulus to the run. 

Find a Running Buddy

Having another person to do a workout with you can help you stay accountable. I find it a lot harder to drop out of a workout when there is someone suffering away with me. A training partner can also push you to run harder and faster than you would alone.

Speed workouts don’t have to be scary. At the very core, they are all about stressing your body more than an easy run. That stress can come in a variety of different forms. It is going to be different for each person, and even different depending on the day. It is easy to get caught up in the pacing details of a workout, but those numbers are less important than the overall effort. Try to embrace the fact that you are accomplishing your goals by pushing yourself, not by comparing yourself to previous speed sessions. If you can learn to attach less importance to the workout results and focus more on the effort of the workout, then there is no need to fear comparison. The workout can then become an accomplishment in itself.

Call for Comments

  • Do you ever have trouble getting after it in a hard workout? If so, how to you get it done?
  • Do you have additional suggestions on how to make doing a challenging run tolerable or even enjoyable?
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He's a graduate student pursuing his master's in Sport Coaching at the University of Denver. On the trails, Alex has won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile; he holds the supported Nolan’s 14 record; and he's fallen on his face roughly a million times. He's supported by SCOTT Running and Honey Stinger.

There are 7 comments

  1. Brian

    Thanks for sharing Alex! I love to use speedwork as a way to check in on my running form and keep high energy in my training block.

  2. John

    I wish I could blame the lockdown, but I had been avoiding speedwork and group runs for most of the year. What ended up working for me was one of those running apps with pre-recorded workouts (I use Aaptiv but there are a lot out there). I don’t have to plan the workout (or pick the music) and that usually lowers the barrier enough I can get out the door and moving.

  3. Alex Nichols

    Me too John! I had been blaming the lockdown and realized that I hadn’t done a real workout in 6+ months. The running app idea is a great one. Whatever it takes to get you out of the door and working hard again. Then suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad to do it again.

  4. AT

    I’ve tapped back into 4-5 x 1/2 mile repeats, that’s my real bread and butter if I have a race I am really trying to dial in for. If I am a month or few weeks out, the flow I have in those sets lets me see realistically where my relative fitness is at. I swear by strides too, 10-30 seconds, after most runs unless I did a hilly tempo or some intervals during my run.

  5. Cary Stephens

    For max or near max efforts, I tend to fear the pain I am about to engage in right before I set off. I wonder whether I will be able to push through it. How much it will hurt. Preparing to begin is like standing on the edge of a high cliff about to jump to a lake far below. I know I just need to push off and take flight. Like Alex, that anxiety lessons when I have been doing hard efforts regularly, but I still get this “oh boy, here it goes” feeling in my gut just before I take off. That said, when race day comes, I am far better able to manage the similar anxiety.

  6. Mark

    Appreciate the article, Alex. To be fair (to you and others), the current situation really is unique… there is literally nothing to train for. Yes, hard running has benefits as you described, but it also has risks. Right now (and most of the time before COVID), I run as a lifestyle rather than for “training.” The risk of having running taken away from me by injury far offsets any theoretical benefit to workouts. So, as the risk-benefit ratio approaches infinity, I really don’t see a problem with running easy nearly all the time. Just my two cents.

  7. Kevin

    Great article, I wholly identify with the negative emotions and apprehension before undertaking a hard run or session.
    I have been running for over 40 years and still haven’t completely mastered the mental side of the hard run. I have have found it easier to get my head around fartlek runs and only using a heart rate monitor to gauge the required effort (especially on tempo runs). On challenging routes and sessions I frequently resort to my own personal mental scale of perceived effort – the lower end of the spectrum being general moans/groans (why am I doing this?), building up in intensity to general cussing, swear words and expletives to match my pain and effort. This is all conducted under my breath of course so as not to alarm or offend fellow runners or passers-by! I find this more useful than the general RPE scales of 1 – 10. I try not to be a slave to my bullying stopwatch, although I have noticed it records the passing seconds and minutes not so efficiently as in the past, I have to subtract minutes at the end of each session to reflect the accurate passage of time, a bit like those age adjusted performance calculators.

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