One of the things I love about working with runners is their innate and very high levels of motivation and commitment. You generally don't have to ask runners to do more or train harder; they're more than capable of finding the inner reserves to do whatever it takes to reach their goals.
These are admirable qualities that seem to transcend the working and athletic lives of runners at every ability level. But just like work, always pushing harder and being hungry for results can get you into strife. The concept of leaving something in the tank for next time is not one that is often discussed. Here are a few tips to help you adjust your training and decide when you've done enough.
Interval or repetition training is a very popular and effective training method, but knowing how to structure these sessions and when to walk away isn't immediately apparent. A popular training session for many runners is 1,000-metre repetitions done at roughly 5km goal pace with some level of recovery in between efforts.
In this type of training you want to be able to run each repetition with as much control as possible. This means breathing patterns, stride rate and your mechanics should be smooth and consistent each time. If you find yourself straining each and every piece of sinew and muscle in your body to hold the pace, or if you can find a big sprinting gear over the last 200 metres, it's a sign you're going too fast or that the length of repetition is too long for your current level of fitness. If this is you, try backing off the pace by five or 10 seconds or shortening the interval to 800m.
Hardcore distance runners might do anything up to eight to 10 of these repetitions with maybe 60-90 seconds of recovery between. You can make things a little more forgiving by lengthening the recovery –say to two minutes, or doing a few fewer repetitions. For most recreational runners a set of four or five 1,000m intervals is a very demanding training session that you should only take on if you're feeling pretty fit.
Often you'll find you need to adjust your expectations of how many repetitions you are going to do on any given day. This doesn't mean quitting after two efforts because you felt uncomfortable, but it does mean keeping an eye out for signs that you're done for the day. The aforementioned loss of breathing control is something to watch but you also shouldn't ignore pain or muscle fatigue.
If you find yourself hurting from muscular pain you should consider how much worse it's going to feel in the following days once you've cooled down. Equally, muscles that just don't want to work anymore, or a loss of co-ordination, are signs that you're done. To be safe, always quit when you think you can do one more. This way you'll save something for next time and keep yourself from doing too much damage.