Are You Willing to Hurt?


"Are you willing to hurt when you’re supposed to during a training session? And are you willing to hurt your ego when you’re supposed to go easy?” 

There is a lot of talk about avoiding training in the “gray” zone. What exactly is the “gray” zone?  It is typically known as the zone below or above where you should be training that day. If you are planning to do an aerobic zone 2 training session and you end up in zone 3 you are training in the gray zone. If you are planning on a threshold or Vo2 max session and you can’t hit those zones because you are too fatigued from another session then you may end up training in the gray zone. 

In triathlon (especially long course racing), the goal is to be as aerobically efficient as possible so that we can continue to utilize our unlimited fuel sources….fat! When we leave the aerobic zone we begin to switch our fueling demands to a quicker processing source, which is carbohydrates. The further we get away from our aerobic zones, the more reliant we become on carbohydrates and the less we can utilize our energy packed fats. As intensity continues to increase we move into the anaerobic zone and completely different fuel sources, meant to sustain really high levels of activity for short durations. There are fitness benefits to exposing your body to different levels of stimulus/intensity in order to improve performance.  Often times the gray zone is defined as this area right between the aerobic and anaerobic threshold where we are utilizing different fuel sources.  Tempo workouts would be a reason for training between the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.  There are benefits to tempo work on the swim, bike, and run where your tempo pace is just under threshold.  However, you should never hit your threshold pace when the goal is a tempo training session.  

At BAM, we often hear coach Wes promote one of his favorite quotes, “Train like you are #2, race like you are #1”. That means that during training you need to drop your ego. Be willing to be the last one back to the car after a group run or ride off the back of a group. You need to stick to training intensities that are appropriate for YOU, most especially on easy days. If we get caught trying to stay with a faster group, we actually get caught in the gray zone. So while you might have kept up during that 90 min run or 3 hour ride, you trained in a zone that was of little physiologic benefit to improving your fitness. As the time crunched athletes we are, all of our training must serve a specific purpose in preparing us for our event/race, and training in gray zones defeat that purpose.

In an article from Jesse Thomas he goes over his Half-Ironman race paces and his easy training day paces.  

Swim- Race pace: 1:15-1:20 / 100m,   Easy day: 1:40-2:00 / 100m

Bike- Race pace: 320-340 watts,  Easy day:  100-180 watts

Run- Race pace 5:15-5:30 / mile,  Easy day: 7:30-8:30 / mile

He said he will often times sit on his trainer at 100 watts and just ride.(a)   This is a perfect example of making sure your easy training sessions are in fact easy. Check your ego at the door and do what is right for you and YOUR training/racing goals. 

Athletes often say, “I only have one speed.”  Well let’s fix that!  You need to train at different speeds to have different speeds.  Let’s all strive to widen the distance between our speeds.  Jesse Thomas demonstrates just how big of a difference we can have between our two paces. Make our fast FASTER by making our easy SLOWER and don’t get caught in that gray zone.

How can you accomplish this in your own training?  

Drop your ego.  It takes a confident athlete to not get caught up in being #1 on easy training days. You have nothing to prove during an easy session as your fitness will show on race day.  That is when we should finish #1!  

Take walk breaks in your run training. Make your recovery runs easy and slow. A recovery day with running involved needs to include walk breaks. Walk as much as needed to keep the heart rate in zone 1.  For example, we have several elite athletes who take a 4:1 run/walk ratio where these are ran at a very easy pace with a fast walk every 4 minutes. Understand that easy days are to maintain frequency and consistency not too push the pace and see how fast our easy days can be.  Our goal is to go into the next session as fresh as possible.

Stick with a friend that is a little bit slower. This ensures that you are keeping your easy day easy.  Resist the urge to be at the front of the group.

Understand the goal of each workout.  All training sessions serve their individual purposes.  Know when you are supposed to take things easy and when workouts are supposed to hurt. Easy workouts aren’t for building speed. Save that for your key workouts of the week.  The goal is to go into your key workouts rested so you can pushand train to your potential.   You run the risk of never being able to hit goal marks if you are always training in a gray zone.  

Don’t compare yourself to others.  Everyone has their own scale and feel for what is easy.  Trust yourself and your training.

Run by feel.  Some days your easy pace may be slower or faster than another day depending on what you did the day before or that morning, how much you slept, nutrition, stress, or environmental factors.  Don’t dictate your easy with a prescribed pace. It can vary day to day.  Be true and honest with yourself. Not glued to a number. 

Train with heart rate.  Stick within your heart rate zones for swim, bike, and run; but be aware that heart rate can be impacted and vary by similar factors as listed above.

Avoid “Insta-racing.”  Don’t get caught up in training for Instagram, Strava, or other social media forms.  When this happens we make our easy days way harder than they should be just so we can post about it.  Resist the urge to go harder than you should for “likes” or followers.

Give your best effort when the workouts really count and then relax and don’t get caught up in the numbers on easy days. 

Jen Johnson (USAT-Level I coach for Balanced Art Multisport) and Danny Foerster (USAT Level-I coach and Physical Therapist at Mountain Land Rehab).