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.

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.

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:

Some Common Questions About the Hard/Easy System