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Health & Fitness The surprising science behind why ‘easy days’ and ‘hard days’ make a difference in your workout

Stephen Seiler’s awakening occurred shortly after he moved to Norway in the late 1990s. The American-born exercise physiologist was out on a forested trail when he saw one of the country’s elite cross-country skiers run past – and then suddenly stop at the bottom of a hill and start walking up.

“And I said, well what the heck are you doing? No pain, no gain!” he later recalled. “But it turned out she had a very clear idea of what she was doing.”

Seiler’s observation led him to devote 15 years to studying how world-beating endurance athletes train, revealing that they push harder on their hard days but go easier on their easy days than lesser athletes. But, as research that will be presented this week at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) conference in Minnesota reveals, most us haven’t incorporated these findings into our exercise programs – which means we’re not training as effectively as we should.

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When Seiler began analyzing the training of elite athletes in sports such as cross-country skiing and rowing, he found a consistent pattern. They spent about 80 per cent of their training time going relatively easy, even to the point of walking up hills to avoid pushing too hard. And most of the other 20 per cent was gut-churningly hard, with very little time spent at medium-effort levels.

This approach is often referred to as “polarized” training, since it emphasizes the extremes of very easy and very hard efforts. The pattern has now been observed in top athletes across almost all endurance sports, including cycling, running and triathlon. It was popularized in endurance coach Matt Fitzgerald’s 2014 book 80/20 Running. But it’s still not necessarily what athletes, especially less experienced ones, actually do.

In the new study being presented at the ACSM conference, a team led by Ball State University kinesiology researcher Lawrence Judge followed a group of collegiate distance runners through a 14-week season. The coaches were asked to assign an intended difficulty rating, on a scale of one to 10, for each day’s workout. Using the same scale, the athletes were then asked to rate how hard they actually found the workouts.

The results were telling. On easy days, when the coaches wanted an effort level of 1.5, the athletes instead ran at an effort level of 3.4 on average. On hard days, conversely, the coaches asked for an effort of 8.2 but the athletes only delivered 6.2. Instead of polarized training, as the coaches intended, the athletes were letting most of the sessions drift into the middle.

The new findings echo a similar 2001 study by Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who is among the pioneers of using subjective perception of effort to guide training. The problem, he says, is that athletes have the misguided sense that the easy days are too easy – and as a result, on hard days, they’re simply too tired to push hard enough to get the biggest fitness gains.

To Seiler, who in addition to holding an academic post is a research consultant with the Norwegian Olympic Federation, the willingness to keep the easy days easy – “intensity discipline,” he calls it – is one of the traits that distinguishes successful and unsuccessful athletes.

Of course, the same principles apply even if you don’t have a coach. If you try to hammer every workout, you’ll never be fresh enough to really push your limits; if you jog every run, you’re not challenging yourself enough to maximize your fitness.

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Figuring out the appropriate intensity doesn’t have to be complicated, Foster adds. According to his “Talk Test,” if you can speak comfortably in complete sentences, you’re going at an appropriate pace for easy days. If you can barely gasp out a word at a time, you’re in the hard zone. If you can speak, with effort, in broken sentences, you’re in the middle zone.

The hard part isn’t identifying the training zones – it’s having the discipline to adhere to them. Most of us, Foster believes, have internalized some vestigial remnant of the puritan work ethic, conflating hard work with virtue. But to truly push your limits, you sometimes need to take it easy.

Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience) is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

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