Magness Speaks — The Training Grind: Why It’s Sometimes Better to Feel Bad Than Back Off
There is one piece of advice that I give to aspiring runners that makes no sense. There’s little logic in the saying, and it appears contradictory and wholly unsatisfactory. Yet it works, almost every time.
When the words come out of my mouth, I’m usually met with an inquisitive look that says “Is he serious?” This scenario has occurred so often, that my reply “Just trust me. Get back to me in a few weeks,” comes out before they’ve even raised the question.
When athletes make the unenviable jump to "the grind” is when the questions start popping up. The grind is the mileage jump. That point when you are increasing your training to never before experienced levels in the dead of Houston summer. Along with the grind comes the dreaded feeling of sluggish runs accompanied by legs filled with lead. All of the sudden 7 minute miles feel awful. In other words, you feel like death.
The calls and texts come in, “Coach, I feel horrible. What do I do? Should I lower my mileage, take an ice bath, cut my legs off?” They’re pleading for answers on how to fix the problem.
My reply is almost always the same, “Just keep running. I don’t care if you have to run incredibly slow, just get the mileage in…” You can hear the frustration over the phone as they come to the sinking realization that you are offering no magical cure. But then you get to the fun part, “If you keep grinding through, you’re going to feel like absolute crap, but then wake up the one morning with your legs magically feeling great. It just happens.”
This is when the phone call goes silent, their brains are trying to process how they can go from feeling the worst they have in their life to feeling great. After an awkward pause in which they have figured out you actually said what they thought you did, they protest, and I give my “Just wait…” talk.
Inevitably, a few weeks go by and they understand. It just happens. It’s almost as if your body protests as much as it can, then realizes you aren’t going to let up, so it says “shit, he’s just going to keep doing this to us, we might as well adapt,” and you go back to how running is supposed to feel.
Unlike most things, I have no logical scientific explanation for this phenomenon. I’m sure I could throw some big words together and make a plausible sounding explanation, but the key is that it works. I stumbled upon this phenomenon during a youth spent running 100+mpw in the horrid humidity of Houston, Texas. It happened every summer. I’d go from my mini-break of zero miles to over 100mpw in 2-3 weeks, feel like I was going to die for another 10-20 days, then magically feel good again. What I learned was that if I gave in, took some time off, lowered the mileage, skipped a double, it just prolonged the suffering. It took me longer to get to the point where I felt good.
The whole key was to keep trudging away, get the mileage in, don’t sacrifice, just keep grinding. For me, it was 9mi in the morning and 7 miles in the evening 5 days a week with 17 on saturday and 10 on sunday. That was the grind during those days and it didn’t vary until I got through to the point of feeling good.
Upon reading Stephen King’s memoir On Writing recently, I came across a passage where he suggests the same concept. In writing, there’s the concept of the muse, which is supposed to magically come from thin air and allow you to produce beautiful prose.
King’s thesis was that all aspiring writers need to grind away, set a target of words to get to, whether it’s 1,000 a day or 2,000, and don’t stop until you get there. It doesn’t matter if it takes you an hour or four, get the volume in. His point was that writers need to go through this sometimes uncomfortable period. If you went through it enough, the muse would find you, and as you got more and more adjusted to it, the musewould show up more frequently.
King, put it much more eloquently than I can in stating:
“But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative flutering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”
The takeaway is in this paragraph. Read it, re-read it, and think about how it applies to your own training (or anything else you do in life). It’s about putting yourself in the position for the muse to find you. It’s not about hoping for it, it’s that if you grind through the grunt work long enough, you’re putting your body and mind in a position to adapt and thrive. It’s setting up everything around you so that you’re afforded the opportunity to grow, whenever that time comes.
* Very Important Note: This applies to sluggishness experienced during the base or intentional heavy volume phases of intelligent, sound training programs, not to times of injury-related concerns or issues.
*note: a previous version of his post was originally published by Steve Magness on The Science of Running on Sept. 21, 2015. It has since been revised and updated.