Safe Margin – Fastest Way to Get Faster

Ever have a long run where it felt like you were putting out lots of effort, and you were feeling sort of maybe semi-good, but you were actually going fairly slowly?

Those runs, where we’re working hard and hardly moving, are a waste. They’re wrong. Why? Because we’re using all our energy to go at a sub-optimal pace. And that’s something we should rarely, if ever, do.

Less than optimal training very often happens when we burn the candle at both ends. We run harder than our body actually “wants” to run. Or we don’t spend enough time recovering.

I know this is kindergarten stuff – it’s Running 101. But it never hurts to review the basics.

There always has to be a safe margin. The gathered wisdom of running sages says that we should always run just a little slower than we could.

Our bodies use that margin of energy to adapt and improve. If we use all our energy in running, the body can’t improve as efficiently and quickly as it can when we keep a margin of energy in reserve.

The result is slow progress, no progress, or even backwards progress. And the solution is mindlessly simple: Back off. The body can use energy to recover or to run – not both.

How can we know what’s exactly the right pace? It feels right. On a recent long run, I felt pretty good, and I was strongly tempted to go all-out for long stretches. But, being an old guy who’s made a boatload of painful mistakes and paid the bitter price, I first consulted the intuitive feeling of my heart, and it said, “Leave a margin…always leave a margin.”

I held a pace 5% or 10% under what I could have done. I was able to do solid training that my body could absorb.

Wise coaches have long known the wisdom of the safe margin. Arthur Lydiard preached it constantly. He famously said that we should finish every run feeling as if we could do more. “Pleasantly tired” is how he described the best way to finish a run – with the emphasis on “pleasantly.”

Scott Douglas wrote a wonderful article that appeared recently in Running Times, “Bill Squires, the Boston Marathon and the Zoopy-Zoopy.” Squires is one of the country’s most successful distance coaches – his protégés include Bill Rodgers, Dick Beardsley, and Greg Meyer.

The article quotes Bob Hodge, a 2:12 marathoner who improved his PR from 2:28 under Squires:

“The workouts were really nothing special…. We’d do things like mile repeats in 4:50 with a brisk 400 jog between, maybe 6:00 pace.” Moderation was key. “If anybody raced a workout Squires immediately jumped on them”….

“It’s things you can handle,” Squires says. “A workout is an effort where you can control your speed. That means you can control your form. They always have more in their gun when they leave. I’m not into these practice runners, the Cinderfellas, who want a Purple Heart for their workout. I always say, ‘Let’s see what we do on Saturday [in the race].’”

The principle of the safe margin applies in all sports. Strength and conditioning coach Jason Ferruggia:

Over the years I have noticed in my training of hundreds of athletes that you will progress a lot faster on your chin ups if you do not come anywhere near failure when doing your sets. So if your max is eight reps, you should stop at six on each set. Keep that in mind from now on when doing your chins. [Italics mind.]

Good training is expansive. That is, it gives the body the work – and rest – it needs to get better. Years ago, I asked the coach of one of the country’s largest running clubs for his advice. I told him I was taking the day off after my (very) hard speed workouts. He said, “No – you won’t be tired enough.”

I reject that reasoning. Some tiredness is good, naturally. But as a matter of policy, I’d rather let recovery decide my training. If I’m too tired at the start of a workout, then I know I haven’t fully recovered. And what’s the point of continually digging into my body’s supply of recovery energy?

I trained for years that way, with little success. I slogged along at 40 miles per week, doing too many long runs, too often, without improving my speed and endurance in marathons and ultras. The problem was, I was never fully recovered – I was in fact always a little bit overtrained.

It was only when I began focusing on recovery, making sure I was completely rested, that I was able to have regular full-forward, exuberant, enjoyable, hard-working runs, while improving.

If we never truly recover, we end up having lots of “half-hard” runs. But we never have those deeply enjoyable runs that truly expand our fitness – where we’re able to go hard, while running well within the safe margin.

2 thoughts on “Safe Margin – Fastest Way to Get Faster”

  1. When running or cycling, I rarely max. It just feels like the right thing to do, to save that little extra for when it really counts. At the gym, however, my belief has been that the further to my limit I can go, the better. I always heard people say that it’s those last few hard reps that really count, that the more you break down your muscles, the more they will strengthen.

    Maybe it’s time to try a gentler strategy.

  2. David, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I have a friend who has strength trained for 40 years. He’s a former Marine and martial-arts instructor. He told me he rarely works to failure. Clarence Bass ( and Paavel Tsatsouline also teach the “safe margin.” Now that I’m older, it’s easier to understand why.

    When I go to failure, whether running or doing bench presses or deadlifts, it seems to lengthen the time it takes to recover much more than when I leave a margin.

    Keith Livingstone, author of that great Lydiard book (Healthy Intelligent Training), and sprint coach Barry Ross ( both believe that lifting no less than 85% of 1-rep max, in sets no longer than 10 seconds, with a 5-minute rest, produces the best gains in type IIB trainable fast-twitch fibers. These are the fibers that carry a major part of the load in determining a runner’s speed. That’s very hard work, but it doesn’t produce the level of soreness that requires longer recovery.

    I’m a believer not only because the “safe margin” yields good gains and recovery, but, like you, because it feels right. It produces that glow, whereas always working to failure can be dispiriting. Clarence Bass is big on the psychological benefits of doing a bit less; he feels it helps motivation stay high.

    Hope you’re starting to see some sun there in Sweden – and that the banana crop will be a big one. 🙂 Your diet is inspiring.

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