Running Training Plans

In order to make systematic progress towards our goals in running, jogging, or walking, we need a training plan. We all have times when we suffer from a lack of motivation or burn-out, and a training plan will help us through those difficult periods. In addition, a good plan will help us avoid over-training and injury that may follow. There are, basically, two types of training plans.

Static Plans

There are books and web sites that have training plans for beginner runners or walkers, plans for intermediates, and so on. If the plans are authored by experienced athletes, they will probably contain good suggestions and schedules for your training. I call these plans static plans because they are frozen in print and we take them as-is. Many runners and walkers get into trouble following static training plans, especially if they are new to running or walking. They believe they should follow the plans as they are written because the plans were written by world-class athletes or other well-trained persons. For example, suppose you find a plan for beginners, and you decide to follow that plan. You may do OK, and you may not. That plan was written for a particular stereotype of a beginner, and you may not fit that stereotype.

Dynamic Plans

There is a type of training plan that I call a dynamic plan. The word dynamic implies that the plan can be changed as you implement it. For example, suppose your plan has you running this many miles in week 1, that many miles in week 2, and a different number of miles in week 3. And, suppose you discover at the end of week 2 that you're tired and don't feel like running at all during the next week, much less increasing your mileage. If you're following a static plan, you may ignore your tiredness and force yourself to advance to week 3. But, if you're following a dynamic plan, you'll modify the plan to fit your body condition, perhaps having week 3 be a repeat of week 2, or having week 3 be a rest week with a reduction in mileage. One person may consider a plan as static while another person may consider the same plan as dynamic. Thus, the difference in the two types of plans is the attitude of the person. Dynamic plans are modified on a day by day basis according to your body condition. Some of these plans encourage you to modify your plan, while other plans don't encourage you, but I think that authors of all plans assume you will modify your plan as needed.

Modifying Your Plan

OK, how do you modify your plan? By listening to your body! Your body will let you know when it can't handle the stress you're giving it via your running. Your body will let you know when it needs more rest. These changes to your plan may be temporary -- you take an extra rest day and then continue with your plan, or the changes may be permanent, you reduce your distance by half and then continue your plan with the new distance.

Here are some of the signals that tell you that you need to modify your plan a bit to reduce stress.
  • Feeling overly tired, sluggish, or fatigued at the end of a run or walk.
  • Certain muscles are experiencing pain.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep.
  • Losing motivation and excitement for your running or walking.
  • Doing dumb things while driving.
  • Suffering an injury
How do you modify your plan? By giving your body more rest. Keep in mind that running or walking destroys body cells, and it is during rest that your body reacts to that stress and becomes stronger.
  • Reduce your distance.
  • Reduce your pace.
  • Following the 10% rule (or less) in increasing your distance and/or pace.
  • Alternating heavy stress and light stress days. Light days can be reduced running, cross training such as light cycling or swimming or no exercise activity. Your body needs 48 hours or more to recover from a heavy stress run or walk, and following the heavy day with a light day gives your body that extra time it needs.
  • Take a rest week every month with reduced running.
  • Go to bed earlier and/or take naps.
One day while working in Massachusetts, I came in from a noon-hour run and the security guard called me over to talk with him. He told me he had recently started running and felt very tired at the end of his runs. That tiredness stayed with him throughout the day. I suggested that he reduce his distance by half and then make small weekly increases of 10% or less. He told me later that he had made those changes and now felt great during and after his runs.


Getting a Dynamic Plan

Where can you get a dynamic plan? A good source is from a book or web site or a training center that publishes training plans. Another good source is to create your own plan, following counsel from other runners, books, and web sites. That is, you get a good static plan that looks like it might work for you, and then you modify it as you use it. This approach works well as long as you have the emotional strength to actually modify the plan and not become a slave to it. A third source is from a person whom you admire and trust. This person could be another runner, a coach, or a professional trainer. Be aware, however, that unless the person is skillful in working with runners or walkers, they may give you a plan that would work for them but not for you. This occurs when that person is unable to come down to your level of needs. The person may author a plan based on their needs, and since that person is probably more experienced than you, they'll give you a plan that requires that you do more than your body can handle. Coaches especially have this problem, because they have a fixed competition schedule and don't have time to treat each runner individually. If you use a plan from another person, be sure that that person encourages you to modify the plan according to the needs of your body. By listening to your body and using signals from your body as indicators that your plan needs to be modified a bit, you will have enlisted the best trainer of all, your body, and you will reduce the stress on your body. Here is my page on stress that will give you further suggestions for handling stress.


Published Training Plans

There are a lot of training plans given in books, magazines, web sites, and training centers. It is common for new runners (and experienced runners, too) to try to follow those plans, and often we discover that those plans "aren't for us". Let's look at this situation.

It takes a lot of faith to follow a plan given by someone we've never met, someone who doesn't know the current condition of our bodies, someone who is giving recommendations based on his/her experience with other runners but not with us. If we try to blindly follow such plans, we're putting our running career into the hands of a stranger who doesn't know us and who doesn't know the capabilities of our bodies to handle stress. If we do this, we'll likely be heading towards pushing ourselves too much in our training, and that can lead to injury. Symptoms that we are over training include heavy breathing during and after a run, cramps or stitches, sore throats, fatigue, excess soreness, feelings that we should give up running, difficulty sleeping at night, doing dumb things while driving (sorry, officer, I didn't see that light). Does this mean that we should ignore plans from the books, magazines, and web sites that we read? No. It means that we should operate less on blind faith and more on actual evidence from our bodies.


The Foundation of our Training

There are three principles that are so basic that they should form the foundation of our training, and everything we do in our training should be based on these principles.
  1. Running subjects our bodies to stress. If we put too much stress on our bodies, injury will occur. Our bodies can handle small increases of stress better than they can handle large increases. This principle is the basis for the 10% rule that is described in running literature.
  2. Stress destroys body cells. Thus running is destructive and does not build strength. The strength that we develop as runners comes from rest, the rest we have between our runs. This principle is the basis for the heavy/light method of training.
  3. Our bodies know when we're pushing ourselves too much in our training, and they send us signals to back off and give them more rest. They also send us signals that we're OK in our training and to keep it up. The signals to back off were given above as symptoms of over-training. The symptoms that we're "on track" with our training are the opposite of the signals of over-training, including the so-called runners high. Keep in mind that these signals can change with every run.
    Principle 3 means we should listen to our bodies and vary our training accordingly. By doing this, we can learn to run without pain and without injury, and our running will be a joyous and positive experience. Principle 3 is also the basis for our having actual evidence for how we train rather than having blind faith in recommendations from strangers who don't know the limits of our bodies

    Some people are adept at listening to their bodies, and these fortunate folks are capable of establishing their own training plans, or of modifying plans from others to fit their bodies. Other folks have a hard time listening to their bodies, often due to strong drives to get fast improvement or to compete with everyone they encounter. These folks need to be especially careful in their training since they often "drive blind" in deciding how much to push themselves in their training. It would be wise for these runners to get training advice from someone who knows them and knows the capacity of their bodies to handle stress.

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