How to Run Hard

what is running hardHeart rate, pace, mileage, cadence — we runners are data junkies! But with our (over?) reliance on gadgets to measure all these things, are we losing our internal navigation systems? When we’re staring at our watch with all its bells and whistles and thinking about what it’s going to post on Strava, can we ever run mindfully? Are we capable of feeling easy pace, tempo effort, strides, or even race pace?

We’ve talked a lot about easy pace. And by now we probably all know to use that age-old mindfulness trick called the talk test: can I carry on a conversation without major huffing and puffing? If so, then the pace is easy. But what about running hard? How are you supposed to know when we’re pushing ourselves hard enough, but not too hard? What does it even mean to run hard?

What is Running Hard

It’s Tuesday night at the track. You start your first interval.

Are your legs supposed to feel like jello?

Are your lungs supposed to be burning?

Are you supposed to feel dizzy after finishing a repeat?

-OR-

Are you supposed to feel like a beast?

Are you supposed to feel relaxed and strong?

Are you supposed to feel like you’re working yet in control?

I used to think that running hard was this thing everyone around me could do easily, but for some reason I just couldn’t do it right. Every expert or fast person I met seemed to effortlessly fly and seemed to know exactly what running hard was supposed to feel like. Meanwhile, running hard hurt, stressed me out, and the discomfort scared me. Those other people did not look how I felt!

So I started to hunt for advice or instructions on how to run hard. Nothing I found sounded right, but then I read advice from the famed coach John Kellogg, who succinctly put it: “relaxed is fast.” That sounded good to me! So, after I read that years ago, I swore by it. But nothing changed. Looking back, I can see how dumb it was to think that was the magic I was missing. I’m not sure I understood what it really meant! I mean, how could be I be relaxed if my legs were feeling like jello, my lungs were burning, and I was dizzy? And how does one just relax while trying to run hard anyway? Thanks for nothing, John Kellogg.

During my first marathon. I’m sure I was trying to relax.

The truth is — despite how easy others made it look or how simple the experts make it sound — running hard is supposed to feel hard. The lungs are supposed to burn and it’s normal to get a little dizzy. Heck, even a little puke every once in a while won’t kill you. You’re testing your body’s limits. You’re pushing yourself in an effort to build up strength and endurance to reach new heights.

But often, the challenge of running hard, isn’t how to run hard, it’s how to view the discomfort of running hard. To run hard effectively, we must change our relationship with the sensations. We must keep running hard so that the sensations that once seemed almost unbearably uncomfortable become more normal. Eventually, we can run more relaxed at harder efforts if we realize that all the stuff we thought was pain or discomfort is not actually pain or discomfort, but simply the sensation of running hard.

Great, but How Do I Figure Out How Running Hard Is Supposed to Feel?

Just like young me with John Kellogg’s advice, you might be struggling right now with how to actually run hard. Well, if you’ve read anything else I’ve written these last few years, you might have guessed it: mindfulness. But just as “relaxed is fast” is vague and meaningless without the proper context, so is “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is a natural way of being, ingrained in all of us, some more than others. It’s more helpful to present it in terms of examples and practical, real life examples. Here is how you can use mindfulness to tap into the proper hard efforts, be they tempo runs, intervals, or races!

Define It

You don’t have to ditch the fancy watch. In fact, I want you to use it for this one. But the catch is, you can’t know your pace until after the run. First, try to see if you can run an easy day. Run your run at what feels like easy and then see what the pace actually is. Were you right? Way off? Do it a few more times. See if you see a pattern.

Next, try it for a tempo or other pace run. I know! It’s hard not to micromanage the pace, but this is in the name of science! You can do it. If you have three miles at tempo on tap, run the three miles at tempo effort. No peeking. Check the pace. How close were you? The more times you do it, the more data you’ll get and the more you’ll learn about how that effort feels.

Accept Yourself and Take Smaller Bites

Just because some runner on Instagram that you follow can bust out five six-minute mile repeats with ease, doesn’t mean you need to do that too. How many runners get injured forcing themselves to do a workout they shouldn’t be doing or to running a pace they shouldn’t be running. It’s often the process of accepting where we are and who we are as a runner today that is the challenge in running hard. If you want to be somewhere you are not yet, slow down the process with smaller doses of hard.

Tuning in

When you are running hard, play a little game with yourself. See where you are feeling discomfort in your body. Identify where it is, label it, and then see if you can find a place in your body that feels relaxed. If so, tune into that area. Naturally, the area of discomfort will try to overwhelm you. Simply recognize when it has returned, label it again, and then try to find another area in your body that feels relaxed or can be relaxed. A good place to find or create relaxation is in your jaw, shoulders, or hands. This exercise helps to not only build up pain tolerance levels but it also helps you learn to run fast yet relaxed.

With practice, you can train your body to run hard and your mind to remain calm. The two can work together, but it just takes some time since we are so used to having negative relationships to pain. Use these tips as guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to some running breakthroughs.

Do you struggle to run hard? Do you have any tricks that help you find the right effort?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

Leave a Reply

2 comments

  1. Great article. I try a trick of focusing on my breath- 2 short, 1 deeper. And of course the mantra. Those kind of fall into mindfulness. I’ve referenced it before, but the Radiolab podcast on why Kenyans have a higher rate of world class runnerss is fascinating (hint: their minds can tolerate ridiculous pain): http://www.radiolab.org/story/runners/