Okay, full disclosure: 'manufactured adversity' is a term I came up with to describe something very specific: deliberately structuring your training so that you encounter more adverse conditions than you otherwise would.
For example, running at noon during the heat of summer, even though you could have run in the morning. Running after a full meal. Running fasted. Running in the evening and then doing a speed workout the following morning. Hyper-focusing on nothing but vert. Running with a weight vest, or while pulling a tire, or after a strength session... the list goes on, and I'm sure you get the idea. Even altitude training, widely regarded as a positive thing, falls under this list. (More on that later).
Can It Be Helpful?
Now let's get this out of the way - almost all of the examples above can have benefits. There's no doubt about that. Heat or altitude acclimatization, training your gut, running faster on tired legs, building strength, etc. That's in addition to the aerobic benefits you would always get from training at that effort, so all of these all have their place from time to time in a holistic training plan.
However, I have seen some athletes focus on tailoring their training so that nearly every session has some sort of adversity they need to work through. Perhaps the thinking is that they get 'more bang for their buck' within a given time constraint. Sadly as you'll see, that's probably not often the case.
Here's the thing – in the context of most human lives, a runner will encounter many of these situations naturally. Everyone has had that sudden schedule change that throws your schedule out of whack and you have to start squeezing things after dinner, or other times when you would otherwise avoid. Many of us are in areas that can see sudden heat waves with 'RealFeels' over 100ºF, and never falling below 80ºF even at midnight. For most of us you don't need to manufacture it – it will find you!
Can It Be Detrimental?
Yes it sure can. Here's the thing – while we know that focusing on pace isn't good for your training, you also don't want to continuously put your body in a position where it associates a certain effort with a slower pace. While many of the stimuli from that training may be the same because they are based on physiological processes, you will likely see your running economy decrease.
In extremely simplified terms, you are teaching your body that running is hard, and that a given effort should be associated with a slower pace. Your neuromuscular system learns to do less, move slower and use more energy to move at a given pace.
That happens naturally here and there throughout training – that's part of the point of training by effort, as races won't always (or ever?) be in perfect conditions. But if you do it consistently, you will see a running economy decrease.
If instead you teach your body that running faster is easier, you'll see a running economy increase and get faster over time. (Again, heavily simplified, and only referring to running economy, not other physiological processes).
This is why the general concept of altitude training is 'train low, sleep high.' You are getting the physiological effects of altitude without the detrimental effects of training slowly at altitude.
I've worked with many athletes who also do hiking trips and backpacking trips. They are likely getting more aerobic fitness benefits as well as muscular strength by hiking all day for several days. But after just a few days of hiking with a pack, their running economy has decreased when they return to running. Luckily, it's a short-term decrease, and despite their initial worries, they feel normal again in about a week.
But if you do that all the time throughout your training, assuming that since the effort is right, you're getting the benefits... well that's just not the case.
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When to Let Adversity Come to You
In general, throughout most of your year of training, I recommend simply letting adversity find you. It does that enough - you don't have to add more! You don't need to specifically avoid it – the point is to plan your training times around other factors in your life and schedule, not to try to make it as miserable as possible.
When to Manufacture Adversity
Despite all that, there are times when it can be helpful to put your body in adverse conditions more frequently.
First, if you have an upcoming race (within 4-6 weeks) that will involve similar conditions. Extreme heat, high altitude, a multi-day event such as TransAlpine or TransRockies, an extremely technical race where you will be doing more hiking than running, etc, an adventure or multi-sport race, etc.
Second, for a short and well-defined period of time such as a heat-training block or an altitude training block, that otherwise fits well within your long-term training plan. (You DO have a 12-24 month outline of your training, right?)
The effects of each of these 'adverse conditions' are different, and the adaptations occur differently in each case, so the frequency, type of training and overall length of time that is recommended varies. You should either enlist the help of a professional running coach, or be very diligent with your research in professional exercise science journals.
As a very general rule, I only recommend this type of training for 3-6 weeks at a time, and only manufacturing adversity for about half of your weekly runs.
So remember above all – ENJOY your training, and you should be making fast feel easy, not making slow feel hard.
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