Don’t Exercise. Train.
I meet a lot of runners. And by that I mean folks that enjoy running for exercise. They might register for and run some races, but when you get down to brass tacks they are just exercising. They don’t train. And there is a big difference between exercising and training. The good news is that training is exercise, even if not all exercise is training.
Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with exercising. It’s great! More people should do it, and most of us could probably do with more. But exercising isn’t necessarily the same thing as training. Training implies that there is a specific performance related goal that we are striving towards. It means that each day’s workout has a specific purpose, a specific physiological stimulus we’re trying to induce so that we get fitter.
Exercise is going for a run that feels good, but doesn’t actually challenge the body sufficiently to spark any adaptations. These are the “Junk” miles that we hear a lot about. That isn’t to say these aren’t fun, or aren’t good to do every now and again. After all, maintaining our mental sanity when we’re deep in a training block is important. They aren’t easy enough to be a recovery run, but not hard enough to stress our bodies. They are too short to stress our aerobic endurance, but long enough that it puts some wear on our body. These runs frequently often look like easy runs on paper, but often beat us up just enough to put us in the hole for the next workout. In short, they don’t really do anything for us other than burn some calories.
Training gives our workouts purpose. We’re intentionally stressing our body’s ability to do one or more things hard enough to get it to adapt, or get better at that task. Training means our week, month, or year is structured to make us as fitter. Sometimes we’re training for a specific race or date or we’re trying to get better at a specific aspect of racing like our speed, or endurance. But the point is that our workouts all have purpose, and are planned in a sequence that promotes development.
Good training balances the need to stress our physiological capacity to do something (i.e. how fast we can run, how much oxygen we can deliver to our muscles, etc.) with how long it will take to recover from the workout. If a workout is so hard that it takes a week to recover from it, we’re probably going to get hurt or lose any benefit we gained from the amount of downtime we had. Good training pushes us hard enough to get our body to adapt while limiting the amount of actual damage we’re doing to it. That’s the real difference between training and exercising. Exercising can beat you up enough that you have to recover from the workout, but won’t push you hard enough to get better. The discipline that comes with training does. It gets us to focus on the process of getting better. It tells us we need to slow down on easy days, and push harder on hard days. It tells us that today needs to be a rest day instead of a “workout” (i.e. junk miles) because we didn’t recover from the last one as fast as we thought we were going to.
If there isn’t a purpose beyond burning calories, you’re probably just exercising. And that’s great if that’s your goal (although there are probably more time efficient ways to burn the same number of calories). As endurance athletes we normally want to get to the finish line faster, go further than we have before, and do it without getting hurt. We may have “races” where the goal is just to have a good time, but most folks I know have a better time if they’re performing well and not getting hurt. If you’re going to work hard, you might as well get more fit while you’re doing it, right? So let’s train.