After roughly a quarter century of running and a decade of coaching, I have accumulated a lot of experience with putting one foot in front of the other. Not all of that experience has been pleasant. While we all strive for success, it is the failures that teach us valuable lessons and give us perspective. In this article I hope to share a little running wisdom, so that you might gain from my losses.
Training And Masochism Are Not The Same
We all know how hard you work and how much pain you’re willing to endure play huge roles in how successful we are at this sport. However, many of us over-simplify and even romanticize this concept. Pain does not necessarily equal glory. You are training to produce a great race performance, not to see how much you can suffer. Train smarter not harder or you will be watching your “lazy” friend’s butt disappear into the horizon on race day.
Have A Plan, Have A Coach
Just winging it will never produce consistent long-term gains. Only a well thought out, progressive plan that follows the basic principles of training will do that. Sometimes even those with knowledge have a very difficult time coaching themselves. I’ve known many high quality coaches over the years that struggled with their own training because they can’t separate the coach and athlete within themselves. The guys that have more success will at the very least discuss their training with another quality coach.
Training Plans Are Not Set In Stone
My personality dictates that any plans I make will be followed through. Sometimes this is not rational or productive. As a coach I understand that training plans must be flexible. Things change, sometimes without a moment’s notice. If you want to get the best out of yourself you must use all of the information at your disposal, not all of the information you had when the training plan was produced. I call this the GPS approach. Your GPS will plan a route for you as soon as you’re in the car. Sometimes this is the best route and you have an easy drive. However, sometimes you have to make an unplanned stop, detour to avoid construction, or you even change your destination. In these cases you have to change your GPS setting (training plan) to find the new best route. Anytime you write a workout plan, remind yourself that the “conditions on the ground” might force you to change plans.
Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
You will run slower and need to adjust your nutrition and hydration if you are running in 85 degree weather when you are used to 50 degree weather. Weather is out of your control. Don’t get bent out of shape about it, make the proper adjustments and move on. Minor inconveniences and circumstances that are out of your control are nothing to lose your cool over. A hardy runner will adjust and overcome, even if that means doing something you don’t want to do, like running slower.
These Things Are Not Small Stuff
Hydration, nutrition, sleep, and stretching are not little things although we often refer to them that way. Your body will not function properly much less optimally without ample water and electrolytes. You are quite literally what you eat. Half of training is the work or stress you put on your body. The other half is recovering to allow adaptations. Sleep is a huge part of the recovery half. Stretching, rolling, and massaging are not only for flexibility and mobility, but help keep your body properly aligned. None of this stuff is small. Neglect them at your peril.
Relax Ahead Of Races
Very few people in the United States are racing to make a living. Most of us race because we think it’s fun or derive some sort of pleasure from it. So relax ahead of your races and allow yourself to have fun with it. Being uptight expends a lot of energy and I’ve found in the vast majority of my great races I was pretty jovial. In the vast majority of my bad races I thought of them as life and death. Yet I’m still alive to write this article. Take a clue from the great Usain Bolt, or contemporary Noah Lyles, relax and have fun.
Relax In Races
While we’re on the topic of relaxation, I call it the one trick to athletic performance. It is not easy to relax while putting forth a great effort through a lot of pain. Those than can pull this off are more efficient and just perform better. I can recall laughing, joking and waving in the early stages of many of my best races. You get good at relaxing just like you would any other skill, by practice. Laugh and chat on your easy runs, breathe deep, keep your shoulders and cheeks loose and your hands loose enough that you could hold a potato chip without breaking it.
Don’t Be Cheap
I don’t want you to spend recklessly because I actually find that to be ridiculous, but being cheap will not help you improve as a runner. Wear good shoes that are not worn out. Eat good, nutritious food. Get your logistics worked out for race day. Don’t drive 3 hours before your 7am race or stay in a roach motel an hour from the start line, take an unfamiliar bus route and expect to arrive at the proper place and time.
Listen To Your Body
This is something I always heard and never quite understood as a young runner. I thought it was an excuse to be soft. Now that I understand the meaning it is a powerful tool. Your body will give you subtle and not so subtle clues that it is breaking down or about to crash. If you are having a lot of aches and pains, one particular pain is getting worse, or you feel bad on every run, those are all clues you need to pay attention to. It might mean you need to rest or back off training. It could be you need to change shoes or clean up your form. It could also mean you need to treat that nagging injury instead of ignoring it.
Keep a training log and track your heart rate across runs of the same intensity and your resting heart rate when you wake in the morning. When those numbers go up chronically you might need to change as it can be a sign of fatigue and stress. You should also monitor your effort across different paces. When formerly easy pace now feels moderate, moderate feels hard, and hard feels impossible, your body is trying to tell you something, so pay attention.
You Must Allow For Recovery
Hard workouts and races test your will and take a lot out of you physically. You must recover from the efforts, mentally, physically and emotionally if you want to keep progressing. Sometimes the period right after a great run is the hardest period to pull back and it is not unusual to see injuries in that period for that reason. Fatigue can even slowly accumulate over long periods of time and sneak up on you. It can be difficult to know when to pull back – experience and a good coach can help. Most people think of coaches as pushing them, but often a coach’s number one job is holding the reins on a motivated athlete. Another way to combat over-training is to keep a training log, that includes as much information about each run as you can tolerate recording.
Identify Don’t Deny Injuries
Injuries don’t just happen. Over-use injuries are just that: over-use. Acute injuries of course can be freak accidents but we are certainly more susceptible to them in a fatigued state or under prepared state. When injury strikes, identify it, don’t deny it. Do your best to understand the injury so you can prevent the recurrence. You are allowed to mourn the loss of your season for a short time but you need to move on quickly to recovery and rehabilitation.
Training through serious injuries will eventually take a massive toll away from your race performance and suck all the fun out of the sport. It also usually leads to a cycle of injuries as you over-compensate for one injury causing another and another and another. Break the cycle the first time by properly treating and recovering.
Cross-training Isn’t Running But Sometimes It Is Better
To be good at running, you should run. However there are times that cross-training can be extremely beneficial. You can maintain a very high level of base fitness while injured if you take cross-training seriously. You can also build initial fitness after a layoff very quickly by using cross-training. Running is hard on a body but the pool, bike and elliptical trainers will allow you build a lot of cardiovascular and muscular endurance with minimal wear and tear. Remember that cross-training can be over-done as well, but if you build it up responsibly and back it off once your running increases it is a safe way to boost fitness quickly.
If soft surfaces are an option take advantage of it. I have personally found that 70 miles per week on grass and dirt feels the same or even a little better than 45 miles per week on asphalt and concrete.
When being chased by dogs kicking your heels up high as if you are trying to kick your own rear end can provide a small measure of safety. Prepare yourself for contact and when the dog gets too close or tries to nip or attack you he will be repelled by a quick kick in the chin. This shouldn’t cause any serious harm to the pooch but it will most likely give up the chase. This is far better than the alternative of getting tangled up, tackled or bitten.
Live In The Present
Don’t agonize and over-analyze the past or the future. I have lost sleep and beaten myself up too much over what I should have done. Woulda, shoulda, coulda simply don’t matter. Be proud of what you have accomplished and remember the lessons you learned along the way, otherwise the past is gone.
Be intentional, realistic and honest with your future goals. Once you know what you want, get after it. Worrying and second-guessing are not productive. Enjoy the present and the process. You have to put in the work to get the success you desire, so focus on the task at hand or life will pass you by.
Be Careful With Direct Comparisons To The Past
This is especially true for older runners but applies to everyone. We are always changing along with our environments and matching workouts from the past won’t necessarily yield the same result. In many cases attempting to match the past is not a good idea to begin with. Be the best you can be now which probably doesn’t mean the same thing it did 20 years ago and might not even be the same as 1 year ago. Don’t read this as you are old and slow and give up on PRs, I’m simply saying it’s 2020 and your current path to success is very likely different than the path you took previous years. Think GPS approach.
Love Running Don’t Be Defined By It
This doesn’t mean you have to love running to be successful, because that simply isn’t true. I do think it is necessary to love some aspect of running for long-term success, but the focus here is those who do love the sport. When you love anything it can distort your perception and tie into your identity. So, love your running but you have to come to terms with failures and disappointments. You have to understand that a poor race result or injury doesn’t reduce your worth as a person. We should be judged by others based on our character and our deeds. We should judge ourselves the same way.
Jamie Ness is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Jamie, check out his coaching page.