Copy of blog post 15

There Is Only One Kind of Run

How many different kinds of run are there? Well, it depends on how you define “kind.” If by “kinds of run” we mean run formats, the answer is that there are infinite kinds. The 80/20 Endurance workout library features more than two dozen distinct formats (each with multiple variations). These include recovery runs, foundation runs, fast-finish runs, progression runs, various type of fartlek runs, hill repetition runs, time-based endurance runs, distance-based long runs, tempo runs, steady-state runs, race-pace runs, relaxed time trials, anaerobic interval runs, cruise interval runs, and the list goes on.

The mathematicians in the room will be quick to point out that two dozen falls well short of infinity, to which I respond that it’s possible to create an unlimited variety of runs that don’t yet exist. I do it all the time. In fact, I did it last night when I should have been sleeping. I call it the parachute run, and it goes like this: Warm up, then run for 1 minute a vVO2max followed immediately (no recovery) by 2 minutes at 15-minute pace (i.e., the fastest pace you could hold for 15 minutes), 4 minutes at critical velocity, 8 minutes at functional threshold pace, and 16 minutes at steady-state pace. The name I chose for this session, you might have guessed, is a nod to the fact that the runner is decelerating incrementally as they make their way through the workout, which I can’t wait to test out on one or more of the athletes I coach. I see it as a great way to challenge the body’s ability to recover/metabolically stabilize while still running briskly and as an equally great pacing challenge.

So that’s one way to categorize runs. But there are others. If we interpret “kinds of runs” as referring to the evaluative ratings we give to individual runs after completion, the number drops from infinity to three: good runs, average runs, and bad runs. Sure, we could slice the ratings somewhat thinner—great, solid, decent, poor, terrible—but great and solid are just degrees of good, and poor and terrible degrees of bad. If on completing any given run I asked you to categorize your experience and performance therein as either good, average, or bad, you could do so quite easily (unless there’s something wrong with you).

A third way to interpret “kinds of runs” is more philosophical or spiritual in nature. Stoics and Zen Buddhists in particular aren’t interested in rating their runs. For them, all runs—and indeed all experiences—are fundamentally the same, definable simply as what happened. There’s really nothing more to be said, because what happened can’t be changed. It can, however, be useful; all it requires is that you look back on what happened and ask, “What does this experience tell me?”

At the deepest level, then, there is only one kind of run, and that’s the kind that tells you where you are today. Good, bad, or indifferent, tempo, interval, or long, each run tells us something specific and useful about our current state (fitness, fatigue, motivation, aches and pains)—provided we listen. Picture a runner who devotes far more attention to these active, rational evaluations of their runs than to reactive, emotional ratings of performance and experience. We know this mindset is not the norm—but is it better than the norm?

Speaking both as a coach and as a runner, my answer to this question is an unqualified yes. When runners all-too-predictably feel great about their running after one great run and terrible about their running after a single terrible run, they miss opportunities to extract actionable information from their runs. Their toddler-like circumstantial mood swings distract them from the rational learning potential that exists latently in all of their runs. Over time, the reflexive, unreflective decisions that issue from this mindset lead to slower progress than is achieved by the athlete who takes a more clinical approach to hearing what every run wants to tell them.

But does this latter type of runner really exist? Of course she does! Indeed, a majority of the elite runners I’ve known over the years have been impressively Zen in how they reflect on their completed runs. That’s a big part of how they became elite! It’s not that they aren’t disappointed by bad runs and pleased with good ones. They just aren’t disappointed or pleased very long, their attention quickly pivoting to rational assessment.

Emulating this elite secret to success is not as easy as simply recognizing its value and choosing to treat every run as a value-neutral source of information about where you are today. The tendency to overreact emotionally to runs is rooted in personality traits that are resistant to change. I’ve seen this time and again in my coaching. If an athlete is struggling to shift their perspective on completed runs after a month of my nudging them toward stoicism, they are all but certain to be struggling still after a year.

If you’re self-coached, I recommend you use your training journal to habituate yourself to categorizing your runs by what they tell you rather than by how well they went. Specifically, use the notes space to say a few words about what the run says you about where you are today. Focus on aspects of the experience that are actionable or perhaps even teach you something. For example, if you felt flat in a tempo run performed two days after a set of hill repetitions, you might see confirmation of prior evidence that you need a couple of easy days between such workouts rather than one.

Or you could just label the tempo run “bad” and feel bad about it.