The Hard/Easy System

by Patti & Warren Finke, Team Oregon
The "hard/easy" training system is usually attributed to University of Oregon Coaches Bill Bowerman and Bill Delinger. Bowerman and Delinger realized that their runners' training was more effective when they allowed ample rest between hard workouts. Thus the runners workouts varied from day to day in intensity and duration, typically with 2 or 3 hard days a week separated by easier recovery days.

Physiological Foundation

The physiological foundation for a "hard/easy" system seems sound. In physiology, the principle of overload tells us that we must provide training stress beyond what we are used to. This stress causes depletion of energy stores and microscopic damage to muscle, connective and other tissues which, as they heal, adapt by growing stronger. This not only takes place in the working muscles, but also in all the bodies parts associated with delivering energy to the muscles. Thus, over time, the muscles can do more work, and the ability to deliver energy to the muscles is enhanced to allow the work to be more intense and to continue for longer periods.

The trick is first, to provide enough but not too much stress, and second, to allow enough recovery to replenish energy stores, heal and adapt. For runners, this recovery period has been shown to be 48 hours or more. This has led many coaches and runners to adopt a hard day/easy day training regimen.

As implemented by specific coaches and runners, hard/easy programs do not strictly just alternate hard and easy days. They are probably better characterized as always balancing "overload", harder than average workouts, against "underload", easier than average workouts in a cycle that allows recovery. A typical marathoner may have 2 or 3 hard days a week, separated by 1 or 2 easy days.

    Typical base building workout week for a marathoner:
    
    hard easy easy hard easy hard easy
    20mi 6mi  6mi  12mi 6mi  12mi 6mi
    
On the other hand we have successfully coached ultradistance runners by using 2 hard days in a row, (very long runs), followed by 2 or 3 easy days, a hard day and 1 or 2 easy days.

    Base building workout for 100 mile trail run:
    
    hard hard easy easy easy hard easy
    30mi 20mi 7mi  7mi  7mi  20mi 7mi
    
In this case the object is to overload the endurance aspect of the training and still provide enough recovery. Since recovery does not take place fully in 24 hours the ultrarunner is able to get the benefit of a very long training run without as much injury risk by doing two long runs on consecutive days.

Psychological Foundation

The hard/easy system provides variety, relaxation and focus. Runners learn to focus their energy on the hard days and to look forward to and relax on their easy days. This ability to focus and control energy is one of the most valuable attributes runners have when they race. The variety inherent in the hard/easy system also keeps them from getting bored with their training.

Benefits

Runners who have transitioned from progams where their training was essentially the same each day report the following benefits of the hard/easy system:
  • At the same overall weekly mileage, their long run is nearly doubled with the resulting endurance and confidence benefits that enable them to compete in longer events.
  • They get more rest and feel fresher all the time.
  • They have fewer injuries.
  • Their mental approach to their running changes so that they look forward to and relax on their easy days and they focus on the challenge and accomplishment of the hard days.
  • They are able to do more training without fatigue, injury or mental burnout.
  • Their race times improve.

Some Common Questions About the Hard/Easy System

    Q: What is an easy day?
    A: Our rule of thumb is less than 10% of your weekly mileage at an easy pace.

    Q: What is a hard day?
    A: Generally more than 20% of your weekly mileage at an easy pace, or 10% of your weekly mileage in a speed workout. We do not recommend mixing speed and distance in the same workout. You don't have to, and it has high injury risk.

    Q: How much difference should there be between hard and easy days?
    A: We have had good experience using 2 or 3 to 1 ratios between hard and easy days. For easy paced runs this means going 2 or 3 times as far on the hard days as the easy days. If you are doing hard speedwork, you should assume every mile of speedwork is equivalent in stress to 2 or 3 miles of easy running. In other words, a hard day of speedwork shouldn't contain more mileage than what you are doing on your easy days.

    Q: How many easy days should I use between my hard days?
    A: At least 1, and 2 after any runs longer than 30% of your weekly mileage. Some individuals may require more recovery than this.

    Q: My easy days are so short, it doesn't seem worth doing them. Why bother?
    A: Recovery and the accompanying strengthening and training effect are aided by specific low intensity exercise which promotes circulation and stimulates the tissues to rebuild in a specific rather than random fashion. You will recover faster and get more training effect.

    Q: Why don't I just run harder on the hard days and forget about doing these long time consuming runs?
    A: Unfortunately, you cannot trade intensity for duration. When you train at high intensity, you do not use the same energy systems utilized in long slow runs. These are the energy systems you need to develop if you are training for endurance racing events. Interestingly, when you train long and slow, you are utilizing and training all the energy systems including those used for shorter events. Thus long slow training actually improves energy delivery capabilities for running all distances.

    Q: Can I increase my mileage by adding to the shorter days?
    A: NO! Increase your mileage by adding to the longest workout day first and to the easy workouts last so you always maintain a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio. Remember, the whole point of the hard/easy system is to assure you get ample recovery.

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