Coach Tip Tuesday: The Body Only Knows Time and Effort
When you finish a workout, what is the first question you ask yourself afterwards? When a friend tells you about a workout they did, what is the first question you think to ask them? If you’re like a majority of people out there, you ask yourself or your friend some version of the following:
“How far did you go?” or “What was your pace?”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the things that matter most to people about workouts tend to revolve around things they can “see” - namely distance and speed. On one hand, this makes sense. In the world of endurance sports, distances are how most races are categorized and speed/pacing is what is used to determine results and rankings.
However, on another hand, this doesn’t make sense, namely because the body only knows time and effort. (And by “time,” I mean duration.) Like it or not, distances and pacing are constructs of the human mind. Your heart, lungs, and muscles know how long and how hard you were working; they don’t know if you covered a certain amount of mileage or how fast a particular distance was covered.
There are absolutely instances where pacing is an important basis for workouts. However, it isn’t the be-all, end-all, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. We like pacing because it can stroke our ego and because it gives us the illusion of having more control over a workout or race, but it truly isn’t necessary all of the time.
A lot of athletes use terms pertaining to Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and pacing interchangeably (i.e. an athlete will say that they ran “slowly” when they were advised to run “easy”), but as I’ve said many times over the years, RPE is different from pace. So “slowly” and “easy” are not the same thing, even if they may appear to be similar some days.
As she details in her recently released memoir Choosing to Run, American distance runner Des Linden finished the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:22:38. This time was (and still is) a personal best for her at the marathon distance, and was good enough for her to finish in second place in the race that day (by a mere (infuriating!) two seconds, but I digress). In 2018, Des Linden became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years, crossing the finish line on Boylston Street 2:39:55 after she started.
These two finish times are more than 17 minutes apart and represent an 11% variation in overall finish time. The same exact course, the same exact athlete, and most importantly: Extremely similar - if not the same - effort levels. However, that same effort resulted in dramatically different finish times (and results). Why? Because the conditions of the 2011 Boston Marathon and the 2018 Boston Marathon were dramatically different. In 2011, runners enjoyed moderate temperatures around 50ºF with partly sunny skies. In 2018, it was 38ºF with headwinds and driving rain.
The moral of the story? Even if the important variables are the same (the course, the athlete), different circumstances and conditions generate different results with similar efforts. Pacing is not an absolute. And pace is not everything. Even if a given workout or race isn’t your fastest pace, the body is still receiving stimulus and the effort is still there. A slower result on one day might turn out to be “better” than a faster result on a different day (as illustrated in Des Linden’s experience at the Boston Marathon in two different years).
One of the saddest things I encounter as a coach is when an athlete recognizes that circumstances are different between two workouts or races of similar effort where the metrics-based results differ. It happens all too often: the athlete says that they understand this, but then still beat themselves up for not having the same (or better!) times or quantifiable results. No one is the exception to this; different days with similar efforts will yield different results based on a variety of circumstances.
If a friend tells you about a race or workout, I encourage you to pause before you ask them anything about it. Rather than your first question being about their speed, distance, or where they finished rank-wise, I encourage you to consider asking them if they enjoyed the workout/race and how it made them feel. If you immediately ask about time, pace, or distance, you will send the message that numbers are the only thing that matters. And when you really think about it…do you care more about your friend’s numbers, or is how your friend feels most important to you?
Similarly, if you are reflecting back on a workout or race, I encourage you to do the same thing for yourself: Ask yourself how you feel about something before you look at numbers and let them influence how you feel about something. Do your best to understand that any/all numbers must be analyzed with the appropriate context. Don’t tell yourself something that you wouldn’t say to someone else who was in a similar situation. Maybe it was your first time doing a particular type of workout or race. Perhaps the conditions were such that pacing was impacted. Or, maybe it was just a day when a particular pace or distance wasn’t in you. (Remember, most days will be average.)
The body only knows time and effort. Know that going out there and giving your best effort to execute each session thoughtfully and as intended will add up over time. Consistency is everything, and consistency of effort will yield long-term results. Yes, your best effort may net out to different results on different days, and that’s very okay. Metrics are constructs of the human mind. Honor the fact that you’re making deposits in the form of time and effort, and your body will adapt over time. In my humble opinion, accepting this truth is the secret to unlocking a happier and more fulfilling relationship with endurance sports. Give yourself an opportunity to have a long, happy relationship with your sport of choice.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.