How Bad Should Speedwork Hurt?

Dear Dumb Runner,
How bad should speedwork hurt? And how do you know if it's hurting too much, or if you're just a wimp?—Eric, Minneapolis


Dear Eric,
This is a short question but not an easy one. Rather than try to answer it with a single, carefully composed and thoughtfully structured response, I'll do it in several short, quick bursts of mental effort. Repeats, if you will.

First, speedwork should indeed hurt. There’s a reason it’s called “work” and not “play.” We do speedwork to increase VO2 max and turnover and all that stuff, sure. But we also do speedwork to grow accustomed to running when it hurts.  (I’ve always thought of speedwork as “hurt practice.”)

2 minutes easy jogging

Related to the above, part I: If you want speed play, try a Fartlek run. That’s the very definition of Fartlek, a Swedish word—“speed play.”

2 minutes easy jogging

Wait, let me go back and amend that first thing—there’s hurt and there’s hurt. You know? Of course you know. This is the essence of your question.

2 minutes easy jogging

So how bad should speedwork hurt? It depends on the workout you’re doing. Shorter, faster repeats will hurt more (but for less time) than longer, slower ones, of course. The net amount of hurt will likely be more or less the same, all other things being equal. It’s the difference between quickly ripping 20 Band-Aids off your hairy chest vs. slowly peeling a single, enormous Band-Aid from your hairy back. Which hurts more? Who cares! Either way, holy shit, ouch!

2 minutes easy jogging

Here is Dumb Runner’s rule of thumb: If you’re hurting during a workout and you have the presence of mind to ask yourself, while you’re hurting, “Is this too much, or am I just a wimp?” then you are being a wimp. If you’re hurting during a workout and you bypass the “wimp” question to go straight to slowing down or stepping off the track or whatever, then the hurt is too much.

2 minutes easy jogging

Related to the above, part II: A shorter way of describing hurt that is “too much” is “pain.” If you feel actual, bona fide pain—not discomfort, pain—during a workout or any run or race, it’s time to throttle back. No workout, no run, no race is worth jeopardizing your health. Ever.

1-mile cooldown

Good luck. Be speedy. But be safe, brother.

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