Going to the well

Running coaches face a continual challenge to program enough hard training to stimulate improvement in their athletes and ensure that these sessions aren’t done too frequently or intensely. Runners with innate very high levels of motivation and commitment can manufacture too many hard efforts, and the coach needs to keep this in mind to prevent overreaching.

Pushing hard and being hungry for results can empty your well of reserves. The concept of leaving something in the well for next time is not often discussed. Here are a few tips to help you adjust your harder training sessions and decide when you’ve done enough.


Image credit: TV Manoj via Wikimedia Commons

Long intervals can empty the well

Interval or repetition training done at a relatively high intensity and heart rate is a very popular and effective training method. The problem is knowing when to schedule and how to structure these sessions; and then, hardest of all, when to walk away on any given day.

To this day sometimes this line isn’t immediately apparent to me and I have to strike the balance between the bargain to train hard enough versus doing too much. It’s a fine line to walk as an individual and one that a running coach can help with.

A popular training session for many runners is 1,000-metre repetitions done at roughly 3 to 5km goal race pace with some level of recovery in between efforts.

In this type of training you want to be able to run each repetition with as much control as possible while putting in a very high effort level. This means breathing patterns, stride rate and your mechanics should be relatively consistent each time, but not far from the brink of blowing up. This means breathing will be hard but hopefully remain controlled.

If you find yourself straining each and every piece of sinew and muscle in your body to hold the target pace, or if you find a big sprinting gear over the last 200 metres on every repetition, this is a sign you’re going too fast and/or that the length of repetition is too long for your current level of fitness.

Women's 1500m Melbourne IAAF Challenge 2013

This is the essence of going to the well. Something that I’d argue that most times is best left for important races and very sparingly applied training sessions. To avoid this level of effort every time you do this style of training you can try:

  • giving yourself a bit of extra recovery between intervals
  • backing off the pace by five or ten seconds per kilometre
  • shorten the interval to 800m (or more) and continue the session at the targeted pace
  • train for time e.g. do a three to four minute effort instead of 1,000m or 800m
  • run fartlek intervals early in the season to build fitness and develop effort/pace judgement

Elite versus normal human training

Hardcore distance runners do anything up to eight or ten of these repetitions with 60-90 seconds of recovery between. However, recovery can be as much as three minutes or more as needed; depending on fitness levels and purpose of the session.

For most other runners a set of four or five 1,000m intervals with 2-3mins recovery is ideal. This is still a very demanding training session that you should only take-on if you’re feeling fit and have had a few months of solid consistency in your running.

How do you know when you’re done?

This is a tough call, before I made some progress on improving strength and technique it was easy to know when to quit – basically stop when the pain in my shins or other parts of my body became too unbearable to do another effort. This is bad pain and you definitely shouldn’t try and run through this no matter how much your ego drives you to.

Once you’re moving a bit better you have multiple discomfort and pain signals to listen to – hopefully it’s not bad pain that stops your training session. General fatigue, muscle fatigue and aerobic distress are the things you need to work through on race day so this type of training is the perfect time to practice what this feels like and increase your confidence levels that you can handle it.

Many times you’ll feel like quitting after three repetitions, especially if you went a bit hard in the first two. If you find yourself gagging early take a little extra time to recover and reload for the fourth and fifth. The biggest session of 1,000m intervals I ever managed was six.

Melb Track Classic 2

Often you’ll find you need to adjust your expectations of how many repetitions you are going to do on any given day. This doesn’t mean quitting after two efforts because you felt uncomfortable, but it does mean keeping an eye out for signs that you’re done for the day. The aforementioned loss of breathing control is something to watch but you also shouldn’t ignore pain or severe muscle fatigue.

If you find yourself hurting from muscular pain you should consider how much worse it’s going to feel in the following days once you’ve cooled down. Equally, muscles that just don’t want to work anymore, or a loss of coordination, are signs that you’re done.

As a guide quit when you think you can possibly do one more. This way you’ll save something for next time and keep yourself from doing too much damage. There will be many other sessions when you’re feeling good that you can really go to the well!

But isn’t it always best to work hard and give 110%

One of the more insidious pieces of advice that is dished out is the concept of giving 110 percent. Why? This is figuratively inspiring but practically impossible to attain and can lead runners into drinking their “well” of special resources dry on the training track. It has been argued that even the greatest race day performances are sub-maximal, so what benefit is there in maxing out too frequently in training?

Working harder at the elite level

It’s pretty easy for a relatively slow runner such as myself to wax lyrical about not training too hard, but not so easy when you’re striving for high performance to make state or national championships and even seeking international selection. So how do you balance the need to go hard and not go to the well so often that you run yourself dry?

I asked Coach Mark Gorksi for some thoughts on the subject drawn from his elite running and coaching experience.

Generally runners tend to be an impatient bunch so self controlling their effort during an interval session can sometimes be hard. Whether I’m coaching elite athletes or social runners just trying to run a personal best, the message for interval sessions is the same:

Stick to your target times as they were designed for your purpose and fitness level and don’t go to the well every time you do a session. Smashing yourself during every interval session will almost certainly lead to poor performance and worse, getting injured.

In order to improve your running you do need to apply stimulus to the body. There’s nothing wrong with a well planned session where you can really go to the well and have a good crack. This comes with some important provisos:

  1. that your running has been consistent and steadily building over months;
  2. the training is scheduled so that you get maximum benefit from it, i.e. you must feel fresh going into the session;
  3. the session is not too close to any major races, but it is a great way of preparing yourself and helping peak for an important race, e.g. ten days – two weeks out depending on the race distance being covered; and
  4. plenty of recovery is given after going to the well type training to allow your body to absorb it.


As with all facets of running training it’s a fine line between being a genius and spectacular failure. Overall it’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to scheduling or completing too many really difficult training efforts. My personal experience is that big leaps forward are generally made racing at a level higher than I was training at. On the flip-side I’ve run worse in races off faster or harder training.

What’s your experience as a runner or coach? Do you like to “go to the well” in training or racing? How often and when do you schedule these big training efforts?

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2 Responses to Going to the well

  1. Greg Strosaker July 5, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Hi Brian, great post and a topic and series of thoughts that can’t be brought up often enough, the idea of “leaving a little in the tank” (as I say) after a hard workout. I think experienced runners do learn that the season is about the A-race, not a couple of great workouts. I tell my athletes that they are going to have one or two big workouts in which they exceed expectations, and the rest are going to feel mediocre. But that’s perfectly appropriate, as the season is about the body of work you put in through its course, not how well you nail each individual workout.

    • Brian July 5, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      Thanks Greg. Someone once told me not to run my car near empty as the fuel just isn’t as good. Same applies to running it seems!