In March 2011 I set my lifetime best 5000m time of 13:10.08 while working full-time, and then set my 10 000m PB (27:24) shortly after that. My 10 000m time qualified me for my first Olympics, so in an effort to get to the next level and cut those times down even further, I resigned from my job to go all-in with running. With all that extra time and energy, I would inevitably run a sub 13 min 5k and a sub 27 min 10k, right? Wrong. Despite now being a professional athlete, I began to get progressively slower, all while training harder and harder. I didn't have any significant illness or injury, however upon reflection and with the benefit of hindsight - I was giving my body more and more stress, without allowing it the rest and recovery needed for adaptation. I was in a cycle that many athletes of all levels fall into - frustration at running poorly (as a result of over-training), training harder to try to get out of the slump, getting even more fatigued and frustrated - with burn-out or injury often the end result. Sometimes less is more, and simply backing off may be what is needed. If I knew then what I know now, I would have dedicated much more of that new-found time to rest, sleep, recovery, rehab, prehab, massage etc.
The biggest mistake that I made, and one that I often see athletes that I coach with Run Crew starting to make - was trying to run everything harder and faster - particularly the general aerobic running, recovery runs, easy runs etc. We all want results in a hurry, and it can seem logical that if we run everything faster, we will become better at running fast. No pain, no gain etc etc. Unfortunately the body doesn't quite work like that. When I was working full-time I would do a lot of my general aerobic mileage while commuting to and from work, never pushing too hard as I needed to ration out my energy to get through work and save myself for killer sessions three days a week. At the time I felt that this was holding me back, limiting my progress. In fact it WAS holding me back, to a level that may have been exactly what my body needed to become the best that it could at running fast over 5k and 10k.
At the time I didn't know of the term 'Polarisation of Training' however out of necessity it was exactly what I was doing. My hard days were very hard, I rarely held back at all during my Tue/Thu/Sat sessions - and even many Sunday Long Runs were at a solid pace, however my Mon, Wed, Fri runs as well as any double runs that I was doing were super slow by comparison. I was getting very high intensity work done on my hard days, then I was getting through plenty of volume at a low intensity during my other runs. When we overreach on easier days, we become too fatigued to run hard enough on our hard days and end up spending too much time in the grey area of training. Our easy isn't easy enough and our fast isn't fast enough. We're not absorbing the work. It may look impressive on Strava, plenty of mileage at a solid pace, but when it really matters on session days and race day we're unable to get the best out of ourselves.
Am I saying that you shouldn't work hard? Absolutely not. Just that harder isn't always better, and that we need to recognise when we should be training smarter. Aim to be aware of how you are feeling on your recovery runs and easier days. Ditch the familiar 'beep' every km or mile on these days and just run by feel for the desired length of time. On days when you feel great and get rolling, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the end of your run. On days when you're grinding on tired legs, don't feel the need to push harder - instead accept that it's a sign your body has been worked to the limit and just get it done.