Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stick to the plan? Pshaw!

Bay to Breakers
I don't mean to imply that training plans should be thrown out. On the contrary, training plans are the runner's best guide in preparing for a race, particularly for those with a performance goal, but flexibility in their use is important.

Unlike some folks, I don't insist on religious adherence to training plans. If forced to deviate, some people feel so guilty they will go through a lot of trouble to squeeze in a make-up workout to make sure they hit their weekly mileage or get that speed work or tempo run in. Personally, I think that can be a mistake. I once read that Arthur Lydiard, one of the great running coaches of the 20th Century, recommended not making up missed workouts. He was also a fan of running a little more if you felt good, and running a little less if you were having real difficulties during workouts.

The idea was that if you don't feel right, there's a reason for it. That's your body saying, "I'm not quite ready to work at this intensity.... Raincheck?" When it happens, it's better to scale back. Turn a high intensity workout into a lower intensity workout. Turn a long run into a shorter run. If you're really not feeling right, don't run at all. If you force yourself to run when your body hasn't fully recovered from a previous workout or some other activity you've done between workouts, it's better not to push things, because forcing a tough workout under those conditions is more likely to cause an injury. In other words, better to sacrifice a little intensity or an entire workout right now, than to risk an injury that will disrupt your entire training schedule for days, weeks, or possibly months.

Likewise, if you're feeling fresh and strong, and you're having a good day, don't waste it. Add a little to your workout. Keep the intensity what it should be for the workout perhaps, but add an extra interval or two, or tack on an extra ten minutes of running at the end. Maybe turn a 20 minute tempo run into a 25 minute tempo run...  IF you're feeling strong/good, that is, like your body is saying, "Thank you sir/ma'am. May I have another?"

So, by all means use a training plan as your guide, but if you feel like crap, skip a workout or scale it back to something you think you can manage. Don't scale back or skip out of simple dread of putting forth the effort. Do scale back or skip if you are sick, have pains or soreness still from a previous workout or another activity that indicate you may have or be on the verge of a strain or worse injury, etc... Listen to your body, not your mind. If you listen to it, your body is your friend. If you listen to your mind, you sit on the couch in front of the TV and eat bon bons all day. Jon, a friend on dailymile also pointed out that in Marathon training, long runs and speed work are very important, so instead of writing them off and moving along, the wise runner might consider adjusting their schedule for the week. It seems reasonable to consider dropping another run from the schedule and shifting the week around a bit so that the revised schedule still alternates between easy and hard from day to day.

If you do skip a workout or scale back, don't worry about making it up. If you insist on making up what you've missed, and squeeze a tough workout in where it doesn't belong, you may not be ready for the next workout on the schedule, and you can quickly begin to dig a hole as your muscles may not have adequate time between workouts to recovery adequately. If you skip a workout because you're very sore or not adequately recovered from the previous one, you may get more from allowing the recovery to proceed another day without further stress (do an easier workout or skip it entirely) than you would by tearing your body down further with another hard workout. With that said, I'd suggest you don't take skipping workouts lightly. Training should be tiring and difficult. It should just not be injurious.

Recovery from a hard workout feels relatively complete after a day or two of rest or easy effort, as most of us know, but the reality is that a full recovery from a difficult effort actually takes 7-10 days. That's why a few days off after a period of hard training or a race sometimes seems to do us so much good perhaps. We've been working and tearing down those muscles, and during the time off, all of the fitness gains we've earned can fully accrue.

There are no hard and fast rules to this. No discrete cutoff for making the hard decision to scrap a workout and move on. Experienced runners, who have built more strength in their bones and soft tissues by training consistently over a long period fo time, will probably (and should), have a higher threshold for deviating from their training plan. Their bodies may already be accustomed to run 5-7 days/week, with regular intervals, hills, tempo runs, and lots of mileage. Novice runners who are more prone to overuse injuries and syndromes will (and should) be a little more conservative. Many will not have built up the strength and stamina needed to train reliably more than 4 days/week, and their bodies may not yet be ready for the challenge of back-to-back hard workouts.

The phrase "listen to your body" is a bit of a fitness cliche, but it's cliche for a reason. There's something to it.

Happy Running.


  1. Good post, I think this is why it's important for runners to understand the purpose of their training plan and each element of it instead of just looking at the specific workouts listed - this let's you be flexible and know where the best tradeoffs can be made should the need arise.

  2. Thanks Greg. I tend to post these based on my own experiences, and often I learn a lot from the discussions that follow that lead me to refine and adjust my opinions based on a broader range of experiences from runners with more and/or less experience than me. I feel like blogging like this can foster discussions that educate both the reader and the blogger. It's great that the running community is so willing to share ideas and join in discussions about their training experiences.

  3. Great info, and I completely agree with Greg. I would beat myself up for not feeling good during a workout, pushing through and still feeling like crap afterward. Not every run can be great! I circle two workouts - three, at most - each week that MUST be good, usually the long run and a speed workout. If I'm not feeling it, I rearrange the schedule. "Just getting through it" isn't worth ruining my day!

    That said, paying attention to my body and keeping an intense food, sleep, caffeine, running, etc. diary for six weeks really opened my eyes to the things that make me feel bad and those that are surefire tricks for a great run. Now I have more control, skip fewer workouts and just feel better!


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