Any good project manager will tell you that successful achievement of big goals is all about the strategy and planning. But an exceptional deliverer will also know that sticking to a program of work dogmatically, without consideration of changes in the working environment or the performance of individuals, 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. And so it is with running, where 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 maximising your performance on any given training load is largely dependent on how quickly you can recognise and respond to how your body is responding to the training strategy, program and stimulus. Just like a quick review of daily priorities, or a weekly project status meeting, the constant adjustment of training tactics and your plan is definitely something that can help you achieve your running goals.
Get the strategy right and choose a good plan
Firstly, you need to decide if the training program you have elected to follow is based on the right philosophy and build on a sound structure that finds a good balance between training stimulus, recovery and maintenance work.
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 rigours 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.
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 stimulus. 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. 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 organise 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 eight by 400m speed endurance session for a 45-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.
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.