What is Running Hard?

Does hard running look like this? Image via dailyhaha.com.

I’ve been running by feel for over five weeks now. In that time, I’ve run two PRs and had some of my best track workouts ever. But I’ve also had one of my worst workouts ever. You see, I’m having a hard time figuring out what running hard is supposed to feel like.

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?


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 but in control?

I’ve been told by numerous people on numerous occasions that I’m not pushing myself hard enough if I want to get faster. My lifelong struggle with anxiety is probably one reason for the apprehension on my end. But I’ve also done my research on running fast. One approach that has stuck with me is from Letsrun.com co-creator Weldon Johnson and his coach, John Kellogg. Inspired by the training methods of Arthur Lydiard, Weldon says that the key to running fast is to relax. When I started using the running for time approach, I used this as my mantra. I took it to the track every Tuesday, although part of me believed that not every run was going to feel relaxed and that I would certainly have a day where things wouldn’t work so easily.

They make it look so easy. Maybe it really is? Or is it a case of faking it before you make it? Image via steve-haywood.com.

Take last Tuesday. The prescribed workout seemed like a giant to me: a glorified mile repeat workout with 1 x 1600, 4 x 400, 1 x 1600, and 8 x 200. Coach suggested paces that seemed out of reach for me. But wait, he believed in me. Would it be enough? This is where I’m too smart for my own damn good. Salty has told me on numerous occasions that I know too much about running. I didn’t understand what she meant by that until this workout. Knowing that I never hit a mile repeat workout at 7:00/mile pace or faster already put a mental limitation on my mind. Thus, the prescribed workout and paces seemed out of reach.

Ok, this must be hard running, right? Image via quickmeme.com.

But wait! I just ran a 6:03 1600 the week before. And an easy feeling 6:21 the week prior to that one. Even looking at the McMillian Calculator I can see that hitting those prescribed paces shouldn’t be difficult. Too bad I didn’t have this knowledge prior to the workout. I ended up bombing the thing, running all over the place. And scratching the 200s. My workout featured a 6:50, 6:21 (4 x 400 with 30 seconds rest), and 7:25 mile. I started to feel lactic on the first mile. The second mile was faster but felt close to all out. That 7:25? Well, the good news is that a 7:25 never felt so slow!

The mindset of going all out in practice is such a turn off to me. It takes me back to my high school days where only the genetically blessed survived off of a low mileage program. But I do know that I’m not going to get faster if I just take things easy all the time, especially in practice. In an effort to research “What is Hard”, I took to the Letsrun boards. Just to show that Letsrun is not full of trolls, I thought I’d share two of my favorite responses to the question:

If you don’t have much experience with competitive sport, then I suggest that your problem may be as much with the mental aspect as the physical aspect. Those who had their competitive fire honed as youngsters in high school know how to compete and take advantage of their fitness.

You may be behind the curve a bit on this, simply because you didn’t go through the same experiences they did as young people. It sounds to me like what you need is to learn how to race. To put it on the line.

It’s kinda cheesy to talk about the mental aspects, and since many of the folks on these boards came out of competitive high school and college programs they will downplay the mental side of the sport.

But don’t let this fool you. Ours is a tough sport; those who excel in it have a capacity for concentration and brutal suffering that seems normal and natural to them because they have practiced it from a young age.

Ok, now this is hard running, yes? Image via epicski.com.

I don’t know if there are any tricks here, but it sounds like you started off slowly and did things right–you didn’t push too hard so you’ve been able to stay healthy. Good work. But now it’s time to push. It’s time to concentrate. It’s time to approach the sport as a chance to prove to yourself how much guts you really have. Can you sustain the effort? Can you relax when you are deep in the hurt? Can you drive into the pain? Can you draw up the sludge from the bottom of the well?

These are the questions that separate us out, and really, they are the questions that keep us competing.

Good luck.

-unknown poster

Read more: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=4453627#ixzz255WkeKs0


And this one:

People are born with varying abilities to respond to training. Some get better faster, others more slowly. Some break down with injury with certain training stresses, others do not. These differences are wide among people.
Running more, or faster, helps get you in progressively better shape, barring injury that causes a break in training, so in that sense, the one who runs the most runs the best, but given the varying traits we have, today’s race is likely won by a very talented person, who had less improvement to make from where they started to where they are today.

This looks pretty hard. Image via patdivillyfitness.com.

Distance running training and striving for progressive improvement has many real life analogs for success in life that will come more quickly and more obviously to you because you learned how to fight for progress slowly and doggedly. Much of success in life is like taking 5 seconds off of your mile time. Very little of life is like winning a race with 10,000 people in it. Much of life is continuing to do a task you can already do, but now you have to do it a little better.

– A Philosophical Perspective

Read more: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=4759304&page=1#ixzz255XdsRJY


Salty readers, on my quest to become a faster runner I want to know what hard running is supposed to feel like.  Can you tell me?

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 to Rosemary Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Another great post! This is a really tough thing to figure out. I struggled with this when I was in high school too. I never ever ran to my potential in a race back then, at least not in a 5k. What I’ve noticed is that when I am running the right pace it starts to feel a little scary somewhere in the middle – I get this “WHOA! I can’t do this for x more miles!” feeling, but when I can brush that off and keep on going, that’s when I run well.

    And maybe this will help. It’s ok when lactic fills your legs. It’s ok to have pushed too hard too soon. It’s ok if you puke in the finishing chute. It’s ok if you’re sore the next day. None of that is bad. It’s ok to “fail” or make a mistake or look stupid or ugly or not meet a goal. Don’t be afraid of failure or to hurt. You will survive, you’ll learn and you’ll get stronger.

    And lastly, use yourself as the barometer for what’s “normal” when running hard. My legs would be trashed even after short races early in my adult athletic “career.” Now not so much. James is a totally different animal from you (and me!) and NOT a good guide for you in this department. He makes it look easy, but ask him. It’s not. Looks are deceiving here. Even the best runners are hurting during a race, but they’re used to is, welcome the pain and the pain is part of their normal life.

    You’ll get there. Like anything it takes practice and experience. As Glenn says, “just run.” Just keep running and you’ll figure this all out!

    1. Thanks for this Salty! Such a helpful response. A lot of what you mentioned has been popping in my mind as of yet. I’ve realized that I really haven’t ever “pushed” pushed myself with running. After surviving Glenn’s first week, I’m now a little less scared to do so.

  2. My teammate Paige describes the 5k as feeling like your running really risky the last mile. She says you will feel like you might not make it!

    I think for me, there are different types of hard running. There are definitely comfortably hard paces and uncomfortably hard paces. I find that I sometimes get stuck in that “comfortably hard” range, which usually results in a 5k or 10k that is only marginally faster than marathon pace! It takes a lot of mental energy and positive preperation for me to run uncomfortably hard. It is just so intimidating! Maybe this is why I love the marathon.

    For me, anything under 5k pace is pretty much an all-out effort!! The more races and workouts of different distances that you run, the more you realize what different levels of “hard” feel like

    1. Thank you Rosemary for such great advice! The 5k and under seems to feel all out for me as well. Now I just have to learn how to fear that pain a little less every week of grinding it out.

  3. I agree that the definition of running hard is dependent on type of the workout/training you are doing. You don’t have to be running all out on the track to be running hard. For example, tempo workouts are done at a slower pace than track intervals, but they are longer so they are still hard (if not harder). Throw in a bunch of marathon pace miles during peak training and that is running hard in my book too. I think the key is determining the right workouts you should be running to optimize your training based on the distance you working towards. Then use a race calculator, training formula (like Daniels or Pfitzinger) or a coach to help you figure out what pace range you should be shooting for.

  4. Thanks for the tips, Mint! Having a coach do the numbers work for you definitely helps and takes off some of the stress! Now, if I could just start hitting the paces a little easier!