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Start Hard, Finish Easy

Research suggests you may enjoy runs more if you get the tough parts out of the way early.

Progression runs that end fast. Races where you cross the line with a kick. Long kilometres that toughen as they pile on. Many running experiences involve easing in – and finishing hard.

But a new study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology supports flipping that format. Participants who ramped down as a workout progressed instead of building up rated the experience more pleasant, says study author Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., of Iowa State University. Those good vibes probably increase the odds they’ll exercise again, he says.

Still, many runners enjoy difficult efforts, but even they can benefit from an occasional easy-finish run. Here’s how to put ramping down into practice.

EVERYDAY RUNS

A new or recently rebooted running routine nearly always feels tough. Muscles and joints ache until your body adapts to the regular pounding of feet against ground. And your heart struggles to shuttle oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, leaving you huffing and puffing, says coach and exercise physiologist Greg McMillan.

Starting with run-walk intervals decreases physical and mental strain, says Mary Jung, Ph.D., an exercise psychology researcher at the University of British Columbia. A ramp-down plan may trigger a surge of feel-good hormones earlier so you feel better during and after your workout, Ekkekakis says.

TRY IT Walk for 10 minutes to warm up. Then, run for five minutes (or as long as you can without stopping) and walk for one minute. Decrease the running interval by one minute each time – so if you start at five minutes, you’re running for four, three, two, and then one minute, with one-minute walk breaks in between. End with a five- to 10-minute walk to cool down.

 

INTERVAL WORKOUTS

What once felt like a lung-searing struggle gradually transforms into an easy jog as you run consistently. That’s why experienced runners use interval workouts – periods of harder, faster running interspersed with jogging or walking breaks – to continue improving their speed and stamina.

Many interval sessions involve repetitions of equal length. But ‘pyramid’ workouts, which shift from short to long reps and then back down, add benefits by posing varied challenges to your body and mind, says Nikki Reiter, a biomechanist and coach for The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project. For instance, you may train your fast-twitch muscle fibres, hone your ability to focus at race pace, and work on your finishing kick, all in one session.

If you’re new to speedwork or coming back to it after a break, try a ‘one-sided pyramid’, in which you decrease the distance while maintaining the same intensity, Reiter says: you can fit in a hard workout without feeling as beat up. Over time, advanced runners can speed up as they decrease the length of their reps to reap more benefits.

Warm up with 10 minutes of jogging, then run the following repeats with one-minute jogging recoveries: 1600 metres, 1200 metres, 1000 metres, 800 metres, 400 metres. Cool down for five to 10 minutes. If you haven’t done speedwork lately, keep all reps at about 10K pace (where you could speak a few words, but not full sentences); if you’re more advanced, start there and gradually speed up, ending closer to your 1600m, or mile, race pace.

 

TEMPO RUNS

Holding a comfortably challenging pace trains your body to better cope with the metabolic by-products of faster running, so you can maintain harder efforts with less strain, McMillan says. These so-called tempo runs feel more difficult as you fatigue. That’s useful if you’re training for a fast race – you need to prepare to push hard when it counts.

However, a tempo run that eases up as you go can give you a confidence boost as your goal event nears (or anytime you’re particularly down on your running ability). “Good mental vibes going into a race are very important,” McMillan says. In the last two to three weeks beforehand – when most of the hard training is done – he might prescribe slightly shorter tempo runs that use gravity to make the final minutes feel easier.

After a 10-minute warmup, run at a tempo pace – one you could sustain for only about an hour – for three to six kilometres (or a distance slightly shorter than the longest you’ve run that pace earlier in training). Finish the last part of the hard effort on a slight downhill so maintaining the pace seems less difficult.

 

LONG RUNS

The goal of most long runs is to boost your heart’s ability to pump blood and increase the number of mitochondria in your muscles, adaptations that occur at relatively easy speeds, McMillan says. Whether yours lasts five kilometres or 21, maintaining a steady pace feels more difficult as you tire. But slowing too much due to fatigue can cause you to run with poor form, increasing injury risk, Reiter says. Instead of altering the workout, tack on a cooldown to help you recall the experience as less punishing.

After your longest run of the week, walk for five to 10 minutes. If you’re with a group, this relaxed time can seal your bond. On your own, try focusing on gratitude, McMillan says: feeling thankful that your schedule and your body allowed you to log the kilometres can stoke satisfaction that will carry through to your next run.

 

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