I was first introduced to the concept of “hard/easy” at the first clinic I attended in January 1968 by Bill Bowerman, the coach at University of Oregon. The hard/easy concept was a cornerstone of his program. It essentially consisted of a hard training day followed by an easy training day. He was very strict in its application. It made sense so when I started coaching the next year, I began to apply the concept. However, I quickly found out that some athletes needed a hard day, followed by a medium day and then easy and others needed two easy days after a hard day. Regardless the concept was applicable, and it is something I try to observe to this day regardless of the level of athlete and the sport.
What I have seen over the years and especially of late is that too many people make the hard day too hard and depend on external means of recovery to get them “recovered.” Thinking they can cheat the body’s natural adaptive response. Conversely the other pitfall that I see is that the easy days are not easy enough.
So how do you define hard and easy? I think of it as a 10-point scale of perceived exertion with a 10 being very hard, essentially a competitive effort and a 1 being a complete rest sitting on the couch watching TV. The range of hard workouts should fall in the 7, 8, 9 range and easy should be in the range of 2, 3, and 4. So essentially there needs to be a real contrast between the hard session and the easy session to allow the body to recover. Occasionally it is necessary to go two hard days in a row to simulate competition.
The biggest pitfall is to get caught in the middle on easy days by doing work in the 5 and 6 range that does not allow for recovery and negligible training effect beyond making you tired. I call this the messy middle, it is where not much good happens. So, the message is to make the hard days hard and the easy days easy and don’t stuck in the messy middle.