I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, turning over a new leaf, or any of those “I’m going to become a new person”-type commitments that correspond with January 1. It doesn’t ring true to me. Instead, at the end of December, I go through and review the previous year, teasing out what went right and what went wrong. This seems to resonate more with the pragmatist in my nature, allowing me to judge the year in concrete terms. From there, I craft a letter to myself that boils the year down into a few lessons that I can take into the new year to encourage excellence. So I thought I would share one of this past year’s lessons in the hope that it might help you have an amazing 2012.
The Lesson: Easy Days Easy; Hard Days Hard
I am sure many of you have heard this mantra before. In fact, I feel like I am a broken record on the subject. But if you are reading this magazine, you are looking for some concrete training information that you can add to your current training repertoire, and so I’ll tell you again: easy days easy, hard days hard.
The Story: An Epic Personal Record
I was reminded this year of the importance of assimilating this lesson. In my role as Assistant Coach of The University of Texas’ Women’s Track and Cross Country teams, I get the opportunity to work with amazing athletes. One of these athletes, Sara Sutherland, was a freshman this 2011 track campaign. She had been an outstanding high school runner, winning the Texas High School Cross Country Championships her sophomore year. After that year, however, her race performances began slipping. She rarely performed poorly; she just wasn’t able to regain the championship form she’d had in her sophomore year. When she arrived on the UT campus, we learned from her training that she almost always ran hard. It was not necessarily all-out each time, but she was definitely not running easy on any of her workouts and she was always run-down.
I asked her to change her training by running her easy runs easier and slowing down on her long runs. While she ran well that cross-country season, Sara came into her own in the spring of 2011, when we began to really see the fruits of her diminished labor. At the Penn Relays, Sara ran a 16:09 in the prestigious 5,000m race, placing second; her previous best had been over 18 minutes. A two-minute personal record (PR) in a 5,000m is exceedingly rare. To illustrate the scope of her improvement, she came through the two-mile (3,200m) mark in her Penn Relays race a full minute faster than her previous best time for that mark, set just a year before.
The Takeway: A Training Imperative
When I asked Sara what she felt made the difference in her Penn Relays performance, she immediately said, “Running slower.” This was perhaps the strongest validation I have received as a coach concerning the imperative of recovering on your easy days. I know it may seem counterintuitive, but running easy and recovering from each hard effort is far more important than the next quality workout you squeeze into your busy schedule. In fact, I will frequently ask athletes to skip a particular workout in a given week if I feel that they are not adequately recovered from the previous effort or if their work/life stress has been affecting their ability to recover. While I can’t guarantee an improvement along the line of Sara’s, I can ensure that you will get much more out of every training session and be refreshed and ready to tackle the next hard session you have planned if you just take your easy days easy.
Steve Sisson is The University of Texas’ assistant coach for women’s track and field/cross country. As a collegiate student/athlete, Sisson represented the United States internationally in IAAF’s World Half-Marathon Championship and Ekiden Relay. Sisson is also a three-time Southwest Conference individual champion as well as three-time All-American, and his time of 13.50 (’93) set the Longhorn indoor 5,000m record for 10 years. In addition to coaching, Sisson is the owner of Rogue Training Systems here in Austin.