During a recent run with one of the Pure Endurance Athletes, I found myself reminding them to back off the intensity on the rest portion of a set of hard intervals. Whether it was because of running with another individual (coach), or just a natural tendency of a competitive person, the rest interval in this case was being done at a pace that did not allow for much recovery. This problem is one that I see so often as a coach and experience as an athlete myself. For some reason we get it stuck in our heads that in order to improve, the work must be very strenuous all the time. While the example here is about individual intervals within a single session it can also apply to a week, or entire block, of training.
For the example above, the athlete was supposed to be completing builds from a solid Z3 pace up to a very strong effort. Since this effort was only four minutes in duration, with the fastest pace only being held for the last 30-60 seconds, we would have expected to see a finishing pace eclipsing their recent best one mile interval by a fair amount. However this was not the case. While there are many variables that could have played into that day's individual performance, but the practice of going too hard when a plan calls for easy is pretty universal. I strongly believe that this one habit is a limiting factor for many athletes striving to improve. I myself have been guilty of this more times than I care to admit.
During a short exchange with the athlete, they were able to understand what I was getting across by bringing up an example and phrase that a coach from "back in the day" had told them. The example was in regard to running hills, and the advice was to break the hill into thirds. The first third was to be done at a pace that felt "guilt-producing easy." I loved this so much! It is a great descriptor of a level that too often as athletes we don't allow ourselves to work in. The problem is that if we cannot embrace the "guilt-producing easy" intervals, we will never be able to hit the very high intensities when they are called for because our bodies will already be taxed. This means the session will not have the same impact for performance gains in the future.