A running training program is just a plan

Any good running coach will tell you that successful achievement of big goals is all about strategy, planning and purpose. But an exceptional coach and smart athlete will also know that sticking to a program of work dogmatically, without consideration of changes in the environment or your response to the training stimulus is a recipe for disaster.

Trying to stay the course of a plan laid down weeks or months ago isn’t going to give you the necessary flexibility and agility to respond to the inevitable surprises and hurdles that come your way. Mindless adherence to a training program is one of the biggest mistakes many runners and even some running coaches make. The training program is just a plan; it’s not necessary or advisable to follow it to the letter.

The art of training without succumbing to injury and maximizing your performance on any given training load is largely dependent on how quickly you can recognize and respond to how your body is responding to the training strategy, program and stimulus.

Find a training plan built on a great philosophy – then don’t follow it!

Firstly, you need to decide if the training program you have elected to follow is based on the right philosophy and built on a sound structure that finds a good balance between training stimulus, recovery and maintenance work. So yes you follow the training philosophy and structure but not necessarily the detail of every planned training run.

Distance running training programs are traditionally based around general development of aerobic fitness combined with specific training to enhance your ability to run faster and with greater running economy. There are a number of techniques you can use to complement this foundation aerobic running: faster running, hills, strength work, tempo or threshold training. All of these require at least a six week period of base building easy aerobic running to build fitness and prepare your body for the rigors of this intense training and racing.

Any decent running program will usually have a long term focus, with the goal race being some 18 to 24 weeks into the future. You can see how the ability to vary the plan is critical with such a long time horizon. The reality of preparing for a running goal race of any substance is that these adjustments will be frequent and necessary to keep you on the road and injury free.

Too many balls in the air?

One of the problems that many runners and coaches face when developing or following a training program is trying to fit the development of different physiological attributes into too short a training cycle. Our society is built around weeks and months, but running doesn’t necessarily allow you to be quite so calendar oriented in your training approach. The reason is that you need your body to be able to recover from any given training. You must also be in an adaptive (recovered and healthy) state to be able to perform the prescribed training session and absorb its benefits.

Some training structures might demand three different but hard training sessions and one longer run per week. This allows little time for recovery and increases your chance of injury or just plain burn-out.

Fewer, better quality hard training efforts

My personal view is that two harder runs and one easy paced long run are about as much as most runners can handle. If you’re not taking the sport too seriously, then one tougher session, a light speed session (some strides or short hills) and a long run are probably all you really need to perform at a good level.

Alternatively, if you organize your training around a fortnight you can still vary the training stimulus and focus on different attributes of fitness. For example: four different styles of training over a two week cycle.

Adjusting the plan: what does this mean in practice?

So when might you change the plan? Poor or dangerous weather conditions, tiredness, soreness and definitely injury are all legitimate reasons to make a tactical change to what you had planned to do on any given day or week. And while you might have an attack of self loathing for missing or modifying a training session, the reality is that those with the smarts to back off the gas as required are the ones you’ll be chasing on race day as you nurse a battered and almost broken body to the start line.

The main and most simple reason is that your body doesn’t easily give up hard won gains, so easing off for a day, week or even a fortnight isn’t going to mean you lose much, if any fitness.

So swapping a planned 8 by 400m speed endurance session for a 40 minute easy jog to soothe aching legs is a smart call if that decision avoids an injury. So while you might not progress to the next level of fitness, you certainly won’t lose anything and you’ll stay fit rather than tipping your body over the edge into an overuse injury, consistency over weeks, months and years is what delivers the goods.

Another easy adjustment to make if you need to spend a week jogging to recovery from a niggle is to repeat the planned week of training that you have missed. Then you’ll be sure to have done the work and followed the progression of the training plan as closely as possible – especially good if your goal has a flexible time-frame.

Conclusion: it doesn’t rain much in Kenya

I read a great anecdote about a Kenyan runner who doesn’t go running when it rains, this might sound like a lack of commitment to training, but it probably doesn’t rain too often in Kenya. In recent years there’s been plenty of extreme weather; heavy rain, hail, high winds etc, all environments that can sometimes be dangerous but also just not conducive to enjoying your run. Sometimes forcing yourself on these days can be counterproductive and reduce your enjoyment of running, so if the need arises – take a Kenyan day off.

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9 Responses to A running training program is just a plan

  1. Matthew Thomas June 21, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    That is a very good article – well written & informative. Good work!

    • Brian June 21, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

      Thanks Matthew, appreciate the feedback. Brian

  2. Sue May 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    Hi Brian
    I have been feeling tired from runs lately and niggley pains in knees. Have changed shoes and running on harder surfacers and doing more ks. It sounds like I should back off. But I feel it will put me back in my training. Working up to 12ks. What do you suggest?

    • Brian May 19, 2012 at 4:40 am #

      Hi Sue, yes definitely sounds like a good time to have a “down-week”, really back off your volume and reduce intensity of runs. It’s only for one week and see if things settle and you feel more energy. You won’t lose much if any fitness by doing this, but could save yourself from getting injured.

  3. Paul Joyce May 1, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Brian, great article and very timely for me. I am preparing for my first marathon and have been studiously looking through many training plans but none really suit. However, some of the plans include components that I can draw from. As part of my reading I read a really good quote “Principles, not formulas, are the keys to successful training”. I think that is what you are saying here too. All the best, Paul

    • Brian May 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

      Thanks Paul, exactly that principles and the philosophy is the most important thing. Good luck with the marathon! Brian

  4. ProGait Gait Analysis May 1, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Excellent advice! Sometimes it is difficult to know where to start with training and it is always great to hear tired and tested methods that really do work. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Kris April 30, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Very good advice. For casual runners like myself its very easy to find a plan online and think you must follow it exactly since it was created by an expert. But they dont know your goals, strenghts, weaknesses, or your exact point in the running continuum. So its hard to find the right plan for your own needs. Good stuff!

    • Brian April 30, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks Kris, you’re spot on, it’s all about the individual knowing where they’re at. Brian