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Why Training Plans Don't Work (Well) – and How to Fix Them


Here's the bad news: Training plans... just don't work very well. Even really good training plans you paid for. Probably even customized training plans created specifically for you. In fact, in my experience they are one of the biggest drivers of injury among runners.


I've been asked hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, why I don't sell training plans on my site, in addition to coaching. The truth is, even the best training plan is nowhere near as effective as coaching, and I don't believe in them. I will only offer something I believe has the power to change an athletes life. Based on everything I have seen - and plenty of science - individualized coaching is far more powerful.

However you should note that just because something is called 'coaching'... doesn't mean it is. It requires six core components, and there are a lot of programs out there that aren't really coaching.


But don't worry, I have good news too! There are ways to make training plans work at least a bit better for you. It'll take a little work and knowledge, but it can be done!



Why Don't They Work Well?

There are four main reasons: they're designed backward, they are usually fairly linear, they aren't adaptive, they aren't specific to you as a person and athlete, and they don't take into account fitness growth over time.



Backwards Design Isn't Effective Training

First, training plans primarily work backward from your target race. It makes intuitive sense, doesn't it?

If you want to be running x:xx marathon pace by a certain date, then you should be able to run x:xx pace for workouts on a certain date a few months out from the race. Or, if you want to finish a 50 miler on a certain date, you should be able to run XX miles a few months before.


Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way.

Effective training is based on where you are today, not where you want to be.

Training is about giving your body specific physiological stressors to promote adaptations. If you are basing training solely upon a percentage of your goal, you may be getting fewer benefits, because you're not aligning with your internal physiological variables. You also risk injury or overtraining, and this is one of several reasons why those using training plans tend to have more injuries.


Imagine if I decided I wanted to break the marathon world record and started training that way. I'd implode on day 2. (At least, I tell myself I'd make it until day 2...) That's an extreme example, but it holds true regardless of the gap we're talking about.


In order to achieve safe forward progress, you need to be aligning your training with where you are today. Not where you want to be! That doesn't mean you ignore your goals or upcoming race entirely, but the specifics of training are always determined by your physiology and fitness so that you make actual progress.


Now this concept also works in reverse. Prospective clients often ask me: "How many weeks do I need to train for a 50k?" My answer is invariably "However many weeks you have!"


Why would you delay working on improving your fitness? Or why would you expect to start a training plan doing less training than you were doing before? The more time you have the better!


Training is a process of improving your fitness, not of preparing for a specific race. If that race gets cancelled, or it's a 120ºF day and there's no way you can finish, or you catch Covid the week of the race... does your hard-earned fitness go away? Of course not! So don't train with that mindset either! The old adage 'don't put all your eggs in one basket' holds very true physiologically, but athletes sometimes have trouble with the mental side of that.


It's important to note, I'm not saying specific training isn't helpful or important for a given race. But it's not the most important part of achieving success for the vast majority of athletes, and it still benefits you even if the race doesn't happen. And even the specific training needs to be based on your current physiology.



Training and Progressions are Non-Linear

Both training and your progress and growth are non-linear. You can't simply draw a line between where you are and where you want to be because that's not how your body adapts. A true training progression is not only curved, but also needs to have ups and downs.


Most people know this as having down weeks, sometimes called cutback weeks. These are certainly important to ensure adequate recovery to allow for adaptations.


What some people don't realize is that the adaptations to a specific stimuli (workout, long run, etc) take multiple weeks to manifest. So when you see a bump in fitness, you're seeing the results of the training you did approximately a month ago! Each type of workout takes a different amount of time to adapt to, and it can also vary between individuals. There are some short-term boosts too, particularly to running economy, but the majority of benefits take time.


Further, your body can only adapt to one type of stimulus for so long, generally 4-6 weeks. If you keep doing more of the same exact thing, you likely won't get many additional benefits from it. So one block you might have a lot of higher-volume easy running, and another block you might have less volume, but more intense and demanding workouts and long runs. If you're simply scaling things based on where you are and where you want to be, it's not effective training.


This is an oversimplification, but hopefully you get the picture. Training doesn't happen in a straight line – the overall volume, stress on your body, relative intensity, how your body adapts... all these things happen in cycles, and need to happen in cycles for training to be effective.


Training days interact with each other to form weeks, or microcycles, which interact with other to form mesocycles, which interact to form the macrocycle of a larger training block. Note I didn't just say 'build on,' but rather interact. Although that's true in a simple sense of accumulated fatigue, it's more complex too!



Training Plans Aren't Adaptive

A pre-determined training plan implies that you know how a training block will go prior to it beginning. That's simply impossible, and research shows that pre-determined training isn't as effective as adaptive training. Not only is it less-effective training, it also leads to a far higher risk of injury.


The fact is...

The specifics of your training plan shouldn't be determined more than a week or so in advance.

A WEEK?! Yeah. A week. In order to be effective, your training needs to align to your body. Not just your fitness but your life stress, health and schedule as well. Sure, we can make predictions a little further out, but it will likely need to adapt. In fact, in the study above, training was modified multiple times per week.


Effective training adjusts for not only your fitness level and overall recovery level, but also other stressors in your life and new knowledge about your strengths and weaknesses. It doesn't view life as a barrier to good training, rather it adjusts to best make use of those changes in your life.


What does adaptive training mean?


In the simplest sense, it means adjusting training weekly, or even more frequently, to accommodate your level of recovery, life and work stress, sleep and HRV, and even things like scheduled vacations. After all, if you're heading for an epic skiing holiday in Colorado, you probably aren't going to sustain normal training. Why not use that as part of your training rather than view it as an interruption?


Or perhaps your most stressful period at work happens to coincide with when you "should" be running one of your peak training weeks prior to your race. Should you still do that? Almost never. It's almost always better to adjust so that not only does training fit with your life better, it is better training.


The key here is that whenever possible, you should be proactive not reactive. You're not waiting until you 'can't' do the training, and then trying to modify the training plan. Rather the training is constantly adapting to you so that it is always what's going to be most effective at a given time. (At least, that's the goal!)


When I'm coaching an athlete, subjective feedback is vital. I want to know how their day went, if their kid is sick, if they slept poorly, if their legs felt heavy. This information is far more important than whether or not they completed the workout, and certainly more important than how fast they ran it.


It's this info that I use to adapt training. Is it time to build a bit? Take a down week? Increase intensity and decrease volume? Emphasize mid-week workouts due to weekend stress? All of these training decisions happen over very short time-scales, generally a week at a time, but it's certainly common to need to adjust mid-week as well.


This kind of adaptive training is the key to achieving maximum benefits out of your training, limiting injury risk and achieving maximum enjoyment of the process!

In my experience, it's adaptive training that is the number one factor in avoiding injury. Yep, more important than your strength training, mobility, recovery, and nearly everything else. Training adaptively can overcome shortcomings in these other areas, especially over shorter time-scales. Of course that usually means you will have to train less and make more frequent adjustments but at least you've avoided injury. For best results, obviously you should be training adaptively and also be working on strength and mobility, particularly when correcting imbalances, and following best practices for recovery (especially sleep). But all the special sauce in the world won't save your meal if you aren't even starting with the right ingredients.



Training Plans Aren't Specific to YOU

First of all, physiologically speaking, your body doesn't care about pace or distance.

Effective training isn't based on distance or pace, but rather time and effort. Now that's not to say your plan can't have distances written down – just that whoever is designing training should be thinking about the time that run is taking you rather than the distance.


It also shouldn't be based on pace – you can read why here.


Some training plans are good about this, providing suggested runs based on minutes and hours rather than miles. That's great! Until I see the workouts. A lot of the workouts are still based on distance, like 6x1000m, or 10x800m.


That is going to be a completely different workout for different people. I hear a lot of people call workouts like this "speedwork." For high-level athletes, who might be running those 1000m repeats in 3 minutes, it is! For a 4-hour marathoner who's running them in nearly 5 minutes, it's absolutely not speedwork.


You can't simply take a plan designed for a specific person, apply an equation to reduce the volume, and then expect it to work appropriately.

 

I highly recommend reading more about this in my article "Is Your Speedwork Really Helping Your Speed?"







 

The solution of course is time-based intervals, and some training plans do use these! After all, 10x2min fast/90sec easy is going to be the same workout whether you're covering half a mile or a quarter-mile in each repeat. A more experienced, high-volume athlete may be able to handle more of them, but the workout is functionally the same, and incurs the same benefits.


Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that those workouts are the best choice for a given individual. A training plan doesn't take into account your athletic history and your strengths and weaknesses. Remember, training is about specific physiological stimuli, not just 'practicing a pace' to get ready for a race. Even when calibrated to you and your fitness, it still may not be the right choice at that time.


Adapting training for specific individuals and their strengths and weaknesses is far beyond the scope of an internet article, so I highly recommend reaching out to a coach!



Training Plans Don't Plan for True Fitness Growth

True fitness improvements are made over years, not a single training block. This means regardless of what race you have next on the schedule, you can and should always be working on improving your fitness via science-based training. Running is running, and while specificity is absolutely helpful and necessary for many races, if you choose specificity over actual fitness gains every time, you will end up not realizing your potential as an athlete.

If you're constantly moving from training plan to training plan, you may be missing out on a lot of potential fitness growth.

Remember the concept of micro, meso and macrocycles I referred to in the Non-Linear Progression section? Well your macrocycles ALSO interact with each other over the course of your year, multiple years, and yes, even your entire running career. If you look at a professional marathon runner, in almost all cases, they didn't start out running marathons nor do they exclusively run marathons. Most started out as talented track or cross-country runners, then perhaps ran shorter distances professionally before turning to the marathon. Many will take specific seasons to focus on shorter distances periodically during their career, with the goal of improving their marathon running.


There are too many reasons for this to get into here, but we can take cues from it regardless! If you keep doing the same thing, time after time, you'll eventually reach the limit of your body's adaptability to that stress. And adding more and more isn't a sustainable answer! Instead, if you vary your training in an effective and science-based way, you can realize much more of your genetic potential – probably far beyond what you dreamed!


 

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How to (Maybe) Improve Them

Now that I've thoroughly badmouthed training plans, let me give you some tips on how to either move beyond them, or at least adapt them to be better suited to your life. I'll order these in descending order of effectiveness.



Scrap the Training Plan, and Get a Coach

I know, I know, you think I'm biased, and I can't deny it.


However my own coach completely changed my life (not just my training), and I've seen that happen to thousands of others, including hundreds of athletes I've worked with personally. I simply haven't seen that with people using training plans. Generally they cause more stress than they alleviate, because you are constantly wondering if you're doing the right thing for yourself in that situation.


In particular, I see far higher rates of injury among athletes using training plans, especially long-term injuries lasting more than a month.


Having a coach makes you less stressed about your running because you never have to worry about whether you're doing too much or too little, nor about how to adjust and adapt your training around your body and your life. That's your coach's problem now!


This is the reason most coaches have their own coaches – external eyes and someone else to be a bit more objective and tell you when to back off, when to push harder, and when perhaps you're about to make a really bad decision.


Note that coaching solves all four of the problems I outlined in the first section.



Scrap the Training Plan, and Explore Self - Coaching

If you're someone who likes to dive into learning new things, enjoys reading about science, you might try self-coaching.


There's an obvious limitation of not having 'external eyes' both for keeping you from doing anything dumb, and for helping with motivation and guiding your knowledge. But perhaps you have a good friend or partner who can expose your nonsense!


But aside from that, with the right amount of knowledge there's the potential for you to self-coach nearly as well as having a coach.


However, it takes a lot of work. You'll need to read a lot, and depending on your level, you may want to keep up with current research in scientific journals. Even the reasonably-priced coaching certifications courses don't really provide you with the knowledge and experience to provide meaningful training for yourself or others. They're a great basic grounding in core knowledge, but it's just that - Training 101.


There is a reason there are so many different training methodologies and approaches out there: Canova, Lydiard, Daniels the newly-publicized 'Norwegian approach,' and many more! A lot of different things work, for different reasons, at different times, for different people.


Whether you decide to buy some books (I'd urge you to avoid most internet articles at the start - you want a solid grounding, not bite-size pieces), or take a training course, be ready to follow up with more reading!


Are you ready to do all that? Great! This could work well for you, and even if it doesn't work as well as you'd like, it'll at least help ground you in the knowledge to modify one of the plans below.


Note that self-coaching solves all four of the problems I outlined in the first section. You're really only limited by a lack of objectivity from not having an external set of eyes. However I really can't overstate just how much work and learning will be required!



Get a Custom Training Plan, Ideally with Modifications

Some training-plan-writers offer custom training plans with a certain number of modifications. While this doesn't approach the adaptability of coaching, (and the cost often does), it can be a step in the right direction. You'll know that if you get sick, or have a stressful event, that the plan will be re-written to accommodate that.


If you decide to do this, it's vital that the training plan is customized after a pretty in-depth chat with you, and the training should be written from the ground up. If they are taking a stock plan they've created and just adjusting it to fit your approximate pace range and volume range... that's not helpful, and absolutely not worth paying for!


The training plan should also really include modifications and adjustments, at least every few weeks. Otherwise, you'll need to combine this with modifying and adapting on your own.


Depending on who writes your training plan, this can solve from one to three of the problems I outlined in the first section.


Learn to Modify and Adapt on Your Own

An alternative to the above, is to learn to modify and adapt the training plan on your own. This doesn't take quite as much knowledge as true self-coaching, since you're taking a training plan as a starting point, but is still a long-term investment in your time and knowledge.


You need to be prepared to invest some time at the beginning of training to analyze and modify the plan to best suit you and you need to keep a detailed training log (not just Strava activities). Note how you felt, how you slept, other life stresses, the conditions, any aches and pains... the more info the better! This is far more important than how fast you ran.


First, before you start training, go through the key points of the training plan. Look for interval workouts, structure of long runs, and overall weekly volume including how frequent the down weeks are. Is it clear that it's not a linear build right through to the taper? (If it is, run away).


Does the overall structure make sense and seem like it'll work for you? Do you understand the rationale behind each run, each week and each mesocycle? Are the mesocycles and specific workouts right for you based on your athletic history, fitness and goals? Adjust these now, at least to get a starting point.


Then, once a week, (more often if you feel suspiciously good or scarily bad), take a look back at your detailed training log. How are you recovering? Are you ready for that build week coming up? Do you need a down week? Do you have any upcoming plans/vacations/stressors that you need to take into account?


Remember, it's better to make more frequent adjustments rather than force yourself to stick to a plan until you implode.


Note too, that this option only fixes one of the four problems I outlined in the first section.



Just Use the Training Plan

If you are just getting started with running or have trouble running consistently, a very light training plan might work well. I don't mean a 'Couch to Marathon' plan, but learning to run consistently with a very slow-building stock training plan may work for you.


However once you're past worried solely about consistently and are working on building volume, improving fitness, or preparing for a race, I'd urge you away from a stock training plan and into one of the options above!




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Do you have big goals for your running? Did you know that coaching with individualized and evolving training has been proven to be more effective than training plans?


Miles and Mountains Coaching is empathetic, person-centered coaching blended with effective, science-based training. I've helped hundreds of athletes of all levels balance short-term progress with long-term athletic development to smash their goals!


See how much 100% customized, unlimited and supportive personal coaching can help you step outside the training plan and balance truly effective training with adventure, enjoyment and life!


Click here for more details, or reach out anytime to chat!


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